UK Plans Spaceport – just another bandwagon?

News breaking on Sunday 13 July reported our illustrious Business Secretary Vince Cable said: “Our world-leading and ambitious space sector is thriving. This week we will announce the next steps for this country’s space race, outlining how we will take one giant leap towards establishing the first British spaceport by 2018 – making the UK the place for space.”

Anyone with a long memory will remember that the cancellation of the Blue Streak programme in the ’60s heralded the death of the UK’s space launch vehicle ambitions. Although, as per most of the other rocket vehicle designs at the time, their primary function was to power ICBMs.

Since then we have kept in the game by focusing on satellite design and build. However, the development and the operation of space planes and spaceports is an expensive business.

Just ask the New Mexico State Governor. Originally they budgeted some $212M for construction of the Spaceport near the White Sands Missile base, to be the primary launch base for Virgin Galactic. This has been scaled back to $7M as Virgin are still a long way off getting their commercial space flight license and thus being able to take passengers and pay any spaceport take-off and landing fees. I won’t scare everybody by mentioning that their original rocket motor was based on burning solid propellant and rubber.

Space X run by Elon Musk, the Paypal entrepreneur, after a successful launch, orbit and recovery of the Dragon space vehicle was allegedly negotiating with NASA for a $1.6Bn launch contract for servicing the international space station.

In short, these things will only get off the ground (no pun intended) with huge Government funding and/or tax breaks. Last time around we had the paranoia of the Cold War to drive funding for these sorts of projects. Hopefully, we won’t see a repeat this time around (of the Cold War that is).

As a one-time rocket scientist, nothing would make me happier than having an operational and thriving spaceport in the UK. However, the technology is still far from proven and as the normally optimistic Mr Branson recently mentioned, while NASA can accept that 3% of its astronauts never came back that is not a measure that would be acceptable to Virgin Atlantic customers never mind Galactic.

So Mr Salmond while Neil Armstrong did have a Scottish heritage I wouldn’t plan on factoring in increased duty-free sales on space-bound Whisky just yet.

Having said all that, we would be interested in hearing from any entrepreneurs developing safe fuels and systems for this embryonic industry.

[14 July 2014]