The first orbital rocket launch from British soil will explode on Monday as the start of Britain’s space race.
The goal is to make the country a global player in space, from satellite production to rocket building to building new spaceports. But can the UK hold its own in an increasingly crowded market – and why should it try to reach the stars?
“We’re guinea pigs,” says Melissa Thorpe.
“It’s the first time any of us are doing this, so it’s been quite a learning experience.”
Melissa is in charge of Spaceport Cornwall, which is about to make her space debut.
He gives me a tour of their base at Newquay Airport.
There’s all the usual buzz of activity: arriving passengers, luggage being loaded, planes being refueled.
But there is something more surprising on the asphalt: a 21m long rocket.
A team is busy preparing the satellites for the first launch from UK soil, which will put them in orbit around the Earth.
But this is a blast with a difference.
There will be no vertical launch from the ground. Instead, the rocket was fixed under the wing of a modified jumbo jet. While the plane is in the air, the rocket will be released and ignite its engines to go into space.
Building the UK’s first spaceport took years and a lot of hard work, as well as an entirely new regulatory framework to ensure these launches are safe.
By bringing in new companies and creating new jobs, it is hoped it will make a difference in the local area, one of the poorest in the UK.
“I think this is the next chapter for Cornwall,” Melissa says.
“We were at the center of the Industrial Revolution. We are not new to pioneering technologies.”
But there is also a wider ambition. If successful, this will help position the UK as a leading destination for space.
But this is not the first attempt to create a British launch industry.
Nicknamed “Lipstick”, a white and red rocket was supposed to be the start of something big for the UK.
It exploded in 1971, sending a satellite into space.
The program was called Black Arrow, and it was the first British-made rocket to orbit a British-made satellite despite taking off from Australia.
However, the costs were deemed too high by the government, so the first launch was the last.
The UK’s launch industry took a long hiatus after that, but another direction has risen in Britain – satellite building.
And this has helped drive a thriving space sector, which according to a recent government report is worth £16.5 billion a year to the UK economy and employs around 50,000 people.
“We definitely keep it out of the park when it comes to small satellite production,” says Dr Alice Bunn, CEO of UKSpace, a trade association for British space companies.
He says that until now, satellites built in the UK had to be sent abroad to go into space, but this first launch will change that.
And it comes at a time when satellites have become an integral part of our lives – although Alice says most people don’t realize how dependent we are on this technology.
“Think of all the telecommunications capabilities we can provide from space, think satellite navigation systems, environmental monitoring, emergency response. It’s really a thread that runs through our lives,” he says.
And some companies have big plans for this technology.
Cardiff-based company Space Forge thinks a number of new materials could be made in orbit.
In a cleanroom, one of its tiny moons is carefully preparing for its voyage. One of nine people sent into space by the Cornwall launch.
Space Forge describes its shoebox-sized moons as mini-factories.
“In gravitational space, you can mix any different materials you want,” says Andrew Bacon, Chief Technology Officer.
“So if you take the whole periodic table and start putting things together like lead, aluminum, rubidium, einsteinium, there are billions of new alloys that you can do now that you couldn’t on Earth.”
He explains that the new materials could be used in electric vehicles, green technology or computing.
And he thinks there are some big advantages to launching these satellites close to their base in Wales.
“The fact that we can travel for a few hours on the road to get to our spaceport is a huge hit,” says Andrew.
But this isn’t just Cornwall’s race to space.
Between the bleakly beautiful rugged hills and cliffs of Unst in Shetland, there’s a buzz as excavators and dump trucks come and go.
The team here celebrates because an important milestone has been reached. Concrete is settling on the first launch pad, one of three planned launch pads at the construction site.
The SaxaVord Spaceport is being built on a peninsula stretching out into the sea at the northernmost tip of the UK.
“I think the first response from the locals was that it might be an April Fools’ Day or something,” says Debbie Strang, SaxaVord’s operations manager.
“And then, as we saw progress and development, there was real excitement about what we were doing.”
There’s good reason why they chose such a remote place where sheep and Shetland ponies outnumber humans.
“It’s a security element for us,” Debbie says.
“What we’re doing needs to be as far away from population centers as possible so that when the rocket takes off, there’s no real danger to people nearby.”
SaxaVord is aiming for the UK’s first vertical rocket launch to orbit satellites, with up to 30 launches per year while fully operational.
It’s not the only spaceport located in Scotland. Others are planned at Sutherland in the Highlands and Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides.
The hope is that all of this can stimulate local economies, and this is particularly important to Unst.
“This island has suffered a lot from depopulation over the last 20 or 30 years,” explains Scott Hammond, SaxaVord’s vice president.
“There was a small airspace here and it used to be the third busiest heliport in England. Then there was an RAF station here as well.
“When he was gone, the island’s population was cut in half, and it clearly had a huge economic impact.”
He hopes the spaceport will give impetus to the island.
“We’re going to have more and more service jobs when refueling rockets, such as putting liquid oxygen on rockets. And these will of course be high paying, highly skilled jobs.”
But if you’re building a launch pad, you also need rockets – and SaxaVord is working with several companies that want to use Unst for launches.
One of them is Skyrora, located in Cumbernauld just outside Glasgow.
Inside their large slings, the team is busy working on different rocket parts, from nose cones to engines and propellant containers.
The company is making smaller prototypes before eventually making the Skyrora XL, a larger rocket they plan to launch from the Shetland Islands.
“You make a complete design on paper and then you start building it. You make prototypes, you do tests, you go back to the drawing board and see what needs to be fixed,” says Ahsan Zaman.
He has just graduated from aeronautics and space training and says the new move into space in the UK is creating opportunities for science and engineering graduates. He is proud to work on the project.
“If we succeed, we will forever be known as the first people in the UK to do so. So yes, it’s an honor as it is exciting.”
While the launch industry is just starting to come together in the UK, it is much better established in other parts of the world.
And one company in particular dominates the market right now: Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
The company has drastically reduced the price of sending satellites into space with its reusable rockets.
Can a raft of small startup rocket companies compete?
Volodymyr Levykin, CEO of Skyrora, says he wants his rockets to offer a more bespoke service.
“We want to be like the satellite taxi service,” he explains.
“Ensuring that we launch whenever the customer requests it and deliver them to the exact location they need to be in orbit.”
He thinks the market for launching them will grow as more and more small satellites are built – but not every company will be able to make it.
“Some of us will of course fail,” he says.
“But there are those who believe in this emerging market. And we decided to invest sooner rather than later to be ready when the market really started to explode.”
The UK government says it wants to push the space sector and invests in research and development.
But UKSpace’s Alice Bunn says support should be long-term.
“You cannot become a global space player by investing in research and development alone. There must be some kind of government commitment to continued operational capacity.”
He says this could mean, for example, the government signing up as customers for launches.
“We have to think a little bit creatively, industry and government working together to get us here from scratch.”
All eyes are now on Cornwall, waiting for the first UK launch to explode.
This will be just the beginning for the new industry and there will be many challenges ahead.
But as the well-known mantra says, space is hard – and anyone who works in this industry knows that.
The hope is that with this high risk comes a very high probability of reward.
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Producer, Senior Journalist Alison Francis, Climate and Science