Dan Lewis is Infrastructure Policy Adviser at the Institute of Directors.
Several years from now, no one will be talking about the reshuffle as the most significant event of last week. It will be remembered as the moment when the UK took a momentous step into the new Space Race and ultimately for the long-term, unlimited economic expansion beyond the earth.
The Government’s review of commercial spaceplane certification and operations, published last Tuesday, represents a landmark occasion. From 2018, the UK should have an enabling regulatory regime for spaceflight and one or more spaceports to operate spaceplanes and maybe satellite carrying rockets from.
Britain already has a very successful space sector – now worth some £11 billion and having grown at around 8 per cent per annum throughout the last decade. The review addressed three principle threats to the growth of this sector; the lack of a suitable launch site(s), the emergence of vehicles that would require it and could otherwise go elsewhere and the absence of regulation to cover spaceflight from the UK, without which no insurance or launch would be possible.
As author of the May 2012 Institute of Directors report that argued for spaceports and an ennabling regulatory regime – Space: Britain’s New Infrastructure Frontier – it is rewarding to see these key recommendations fleshed out and become policy. Much credit however, must be given to the outgoing Minister, David Willetts, for launching and driving forward the review in August 2012.
What is not commonly understood is that the shortlist of eight candidate sites for spaceports – Stornoway, Lossiemouth, Kinloss, Leuchars, Campbelltown, and Glasgow Prestwick in Scotland, Llanbedr in Wales, and Newquay in Cornwall – are really for serving two separate markets.These two markets are horizontal take off and landing suborbital vehicles like Virgin Galactic, Xcor and Swiss Space Systems and vertically launched rockets, possibly for small satellite launch into a Polar orbit. There really isn’t much point in putting them together. Suborbital spaceplanes could launch four times a day from a long runway but satellite launch – out of a global market of less than 100 launches a year – might happen 8 times a year.
The latter augurs for the North Coast of Scotland while the former, which is helped by good weather as space tourists don’t want to look down at cloud (although scientists and on-board experiments wouldn’t care), favours the Southern half of Britain. In both cases, with the UK being one of the busiest air traffic zones in the world, access to emptyish airspace over water is key to constructing a safe flight profile.
In space today, the good news is that as prices fall, new markets are emerging – suborbital flight gives you space tourism, remote observation from 100 km up and scientific research in the most extreme environment. Small satellite launch from rockets has become possible as the cost and size of satellites have shrunk while the queue for a launch from a foreign location remains long and prohibitive.
In future, however, the next government needs to be clear that it will not all be plain sailing.
A Yes vote from Scotland would immediately set back by years any immediate prospects for spaceports there until the dust had settled over a new regulatory setup. As George Galloway said in a recent Spectator debate on the future of the union, “I have been divorced, more than once and it is never amicable”.
Conversely, a BREXIT or at least some repatriation of powers in 2017 from Europe, might set in chain a diminution of UK funding to the European Space Agency and a rebalancing towards the US-led increasingly private space industry rather than the French-led European satellite one. So some space infrastructure of our own would not go amiss.
The worst thing, though, would be to license a spaceport that nobody uses and to enable a new industry that doesn’t appear. Preventing that requires the following; continuing negotiation with the US to open up the range of space-related technologies currently under export restrictions, exploring hybrid options with future spaceports with existing aviation and potentially drone companies, lowering corporation tax on space-based activities to compete with the Isle of Man where it is zero, ensuring competition between spaceports by licensing more than one and developing a space cluster affect with an early commitment to the scientific research and remote sensing capabilities of suborbital flight by universities.
Britain now has great potential to do spaceflight at minimal cost to the taxpayer and create new engines for private sector growth and public benefit.