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UK spaceport? Not a joke!

May 7, 2014

It seems the UK government wants Britain to have its own spaceport. The idea – had it emerged on April 1st – might have been worth a smile, but the concept of an Easterly-facing major launch facility in the overcrowded British Isles “that is also on the coast” might been seen as a foolish dream too far for the UK space industry.

But the UK’s minister for science, David Willets, who normally goes by the name of ‘two brains’ such is his perceived intelligence, might need reclassifying as ‘No brains Willets’ if this scheme goes ahead. Willetts announced April 30th that a group of space, defence, business and transport experts has been formed to find a suitable base for the launch site.  He spoke of Virgin Galactic being based at the venue, and that the new base could be launching rockets as early as 2019.

Of course, there are (relatively) sparsely populated parts of Scotland (provided it doesn’t vote for independence from the UK this coming September) and Wales, where facilities could be developed, and some could be based on the coastal regions. But quite what this would do for the pollution sensitive nearby residents, let alone for the risks to those living within the downrange launch regions, might be a worry.

“We want an area where there is not much civil airspace, where it is not very busy,” said Willetts. “It might be smaller airports, it might be underused or disused RAF airfields. We’re starting to look at relatively remote parts of the country. We’re rediscovering our great tradition of developing space vehicles and having a spaceport where we can launch will be part of that long term plan.”

Britain, of course, did have its own spaceport once upon a time, at the Woomera Test Range in South Australia, operated in conjunction with the Royal Australian Air Force, a massive 270,000 sq km site which at the time was the largest land-based test range in the Western World.

The UK tested its Sea Wolf, Rapier, Sea Dart and Bloodhound surface-to-air missiles at the site in the early 1950s as well as the Black Knight and Blue Steel rocket/missiles in the late-1950s. The official Joint Project ran until 1980. Woomera is still very active and has tested various missiles through the years, and is visited by about 65,000 tourists a year.

On April 30th a cross-party National Space Flight Coordination Group was set up to gather investment and find a suitable site. It will report its initial findings in July.  The government made the announcements in response to an industry report published last year called Space Innovations and Growth Strategy Action Plan.

It also backed plans for a four-fold expansion of the UK space industry to £40 billion by 2030. There will also be a simplification of regulations and greater coherence to spur the growth of new space firms.

Willetts said that the space sector could “propel” UK growth.

“Space industries already support 95,000 full time jobs and generate £9.1bn for the economy each year, and our response to the Growth Action Plan shows our commitment to secure its future growth and realise ambitions to develop a viable UK space port for commercial space flight,” he added.

Dr David Parker, chief executive at the UK Space Agency said that government is working “shoulder-to-shoulder with industry to exploit the full potential of the space sector to grow the economy, deliver more efficient public services and inspire the next generation”.  “At the UK Space Agency, we are particularly focusing on helping the rest of government make best use of the huge increase in real-time data from the Galileo and Sentinel satellites, looking at exciting opportunities such as a UK spaceport, and leading an export drive for UK space products and services.  “Our vision is to make the UK the most attractive location for space businesses to set up and prosper – and I’m convinced we are on our way.”


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