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MP: “UK toxic for satellite launches”

March 2, 2023

By Chris Forrester

A UK all-party parliamentary Science and Technology Select Committee, headed by Greg Clark MP, heard witnesses describe the British approach to satellite launches as being “toxic” and a “disaster” with regards to future space launches.

The committee heard from senior figures at Wales-based Space Forge which lost one of its small satellites on the recent Virgin Orbit launch from Spaceport Cornwall and which failed to successfully launch their satellite.

Patrick McCall, a non-executive director at Space Forge, complained to the committee that the UK’s aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) needed a “seismic change” in its approach to future launches. He said the CAA had imposed “lengthy delays” in approving the Virgin Orbit flight, and which had placed Space Forge six months behind its competition.

“The CAA is taking a different approach to risk, and a bit to process and timing as well. But I think unless there is, without wanting to be too dramatic, a seismic change in that approach, the UK is not going to be competitive from a launch perspective,” said McCall. “I think the conclusion I’ve reached is right now it’s not a good use of money, because our regulatory framework is not competitive.”

Joshua Western, the company’s CEO, described the portal for CAA applications and email correspondence taking up to six weeks, suggesting there was a lack of engagement with UK authorities. He compared this with Portugal, where he said someone from the government or from the regulator was in contact on more or less a weekly basis.

“Quite frankly it costs us more to license our satellite for launch than it did to launch it,” Western told the UK committee.

Clark, the chair of the parliamentary committee, said it was a “disaster” that an attempt to show what the UK was capable of had turned “toxic for a privately funded launch. We had the first attempted launch but the result is that you as an investor in space are saying there is no chance of investors supporting another launch from the UK with the current regulator conditions.”

Clark added that the UK was “throwing away” its advantage in space launches.

Dan Hart, the CEO of Virgin Orbit, told the committee he had expected the CAA to work more similarly to the Federal Aviation Authority in the US but he had found the UK regulator more conservative.

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