Yes, the UK will need a spaceport

May 23rd, 2012

Last week I was humbled by the scale of the media response to a report I authored for the Institute of Directors – Space: Britain’s New Infrastructure Frontier – where I work part-time as a Policy Adviser. The media went big on the spaceport angle, some journalists even telling me that this was new and they were bored of being told by the industry of how good we are at small satellites !

So being quoted in The Sun and the Financial Times (paywall) on the same day and right across radio, TV and local newspapers as well is certainly a first for me.  A special thanks then to the many people I have spoken to and my excellent colleagues at the IoD for all the work they have put in to drawing this together – unless you’ve done it, you wouldn’t believe the volume of time and effort required in producing a paper.

Secondly, taking note of the feedback I’ve since had, I thought it would be helpful to develop some of the points made in the report and address some of the comments that have since emerged which I’ve put in below, roughly, in quotes.  So here goes;

Spaceports 1:You can only have a spaceport close to the equator“.  No, this is only true if you are trying to launch a massive rocket like Ariane 5 and reach geostationary orbit – 22,000 miles up. At no point did the report suggest this was an option from the UK. Instead, we focussed on the fairly immediate opportunities for sub-orbital flight (40  – 100 miles up – Xcor Lynx and Virgin Galactic  launching in 2013 and others following in close succession) and in the not too far-off future, maybe just over 10 years time, orbital flight using craft like Skylon or more likely, the next generation of air-launched Virgin Galactic vehicles or a number of other players which will mostly take off from a runway.

Spaceports 2: “We don’t need experimental hybrid space/airports, we already have Farnborough etc.“. Yes, but they don’t have easy access to space.

The future of Satellites: “Satellites are only any good if you launch them from a big heavy rocket near the equator“. So why is so much work going on by big companies like Boeing into air-launch which could be ready by 2020 and could conceivably launch from the UK let alone the growth of miniature CubeSats that are for low-earth orbit?

Space Tourism: “This is not real space exploration or business“. Quite the most otiose comments were made along these lines – since when did the UK turn down opportunities to sell tourism or business?

The point about Space Tourism is that it is very like the Barnstorming or Joyrides in biplanes of 1920s America which sowed the seeds of civil aviation. Almost 100 years later, suborbital flight will also be carrying joyriders or tourists – but the more technical term would be voluntary citizen underwriters who are going to make the science cheaper. These are flight-funded operations and so every successful flight gives them more investment capital and knowledge to extend the range and capabilities of the craft and bringing down the price for the rest of us.

Sub-orbital flight – 1: “Sub-orbital flight is still only tourism – not hardcore spaceflight or research“. No, this is just not true. There is huge excitement in the scientific world about the low cost research opportunities that will be opened up by VG and XCOR. The Southwest Research Institute has already purchased 6 seats for its researchers to conduct experiments on VG and another six on XCOR along with scientific payloads. Citizens in Space has bought 10 suborbital spaceflights from Xcor. The costs of doing small experiments in space will be dramatically lower and the queue – a high factor lower. And that’s just for the Americans. A spaceport for suborbital craft in the UK opens up quick, cheap and easy access to research for British-based researchers that wasn’t there before. Telescope time above the atmosphere is going to cost $50,000 rather than $10 million for example. Here is an image of a payload that can be loaded up to Xcor Lynx;

Runway length: You only want a long runway for Skylon – if it ever gets built“. Actually, Spaceport America is currently being lengthened for Virgin Galactic’s existing craft by 2,000 feet from 10,560 feet to 12,560 – not far short of what Skylon would need. I agree that the funding hurdle is high for Skylon and said that in the report although Reaction Engines have delivered on everything they said they would thus far. In any event, sooner or later we will need big runways near all major urban areas to accommodate transcontinental hypersonic transports – the noise will be great, so no way will they be allowed into Heathrow !

Regulation: “If we don’t have strict safety regulation from the start, a fatal accident could kill off the industry before it gets going“. I doubt that – did we stop trying to cross the Atlantic after the Titanic sank?

Still, if we want any space flight from the UK, getting this sorted comes first. The UK currently has no regulations governing flight, safety or the environment for trips out of atmosphere and into space or for that matter, to govern a spaceport. This is currently a matter of great debate in the UK Space Community. Should we more or less wholesale adopt the American system which has already helped foster a burgeoning sub-orbital industry or should we pursue our own path of certified aviation?

Whatever you think would be best, the clear answer is that with no regulation in place, investors will not come. My instinct is to go with the former as there is a real risk that if we choose to embrace the latter – investors won’t come at all.

Sub-orbital flight 2: “Who needs to go up in suborbital craft when you can high up enough in a baloon or experience zero-g in an aircraft on a parabolic dive?” There are major qualitative differences with both the timespan and conditions of microgravity and exoatmospheric position. Aircraft parabolic flight gives you maximum 30 seconds of microgravity – not enough time for many experiments to unfold. Suborbital flight could give you 5 minutes. The International Space Station is a very expensive alternative with a lot of other stuff going on and a long queue. There’s lots you can do with a suborbital craft that you can’t do with a baloon. The next Xcor Lynx for example could launch two CubeSats which would lower substantially their already low costs into orbit – $52,000 for one educational cubesat according to this estimate ;

Paying for the Spaceport: “What do taxpayers want to pay for this for?” This is always the right question to ask. The good news is that;

a) For a sub-orbital spaceport to launch XCOR Lynx or VG White Knight, we are talking figures in the mere tens of millions of pounds and possibly much less. What’s that compared to High Speed 2?

b) We are now in an age where the taxpayer doesn’t have to pay for the infrastructure – there are any number of deals that can be done here. But first we have to accept the idea that having a spaceport in the UK is possible.

BSkyB and the UK Space Industry: “Sky TV is not the UK Space Industry“. Well all the official figures as compiled by the government and industry certainly do include it. It’s a bit like all the Commonwealth advocates who quote big figures for the size of the Commonwealth as a unit, when the biggest part is obviously India ! The report however did explicitly make clear that Sky was a big part of the UK Space Sector. Sky has driven the demand for High Definition, On Demand and 3D Television which because we are a nation of Telly addicts, has given us core niches in satellite technology.

Ok, so there you have it. Some of us – like me – don’t watch Downton Abbey because we dare to believe that our best days are not behind but ahead of us. And I for one, can see the UK Space Sector playing an important part in that, if we have the imagination to accept that it is possible. 

A special thanks finally to our excellent Space Fellow, Jim Bennett, for his help and advice over the last 2 years. Apart from having 30 years background in the commercial space industry and being an experienced space entrepreneur, he is an acknowledged expert on Spaceport location criteria. So please email him on if you are interested in exploring the great opportunity that a spaceport presents.





The UK Space economy: the present and exciting future

February 3rd, 2012

Read the full pdf here.  A special thanks to our brilliant Space Fellow, Jim Bennett – as well as many others – on helping me with this wide-ranging feature article in the latest quarterly publiction of the Institute of Directors. Truth to tell, if you want a positive story about the UK Economy, this is almost the only one going.

It’s fascinating as well to realise that some of the best places for Spaceports in the UK are in Scotland – which now comes with a new kind risk for investors should it become independent. It seems we are a long way from really fully understanding the costs and benefits of Scottish independence. But with my energy hat on, I for one wouldn’t bet on renewable energy subsidies and oil prices remaining high and stable into the future – which together form a big part of  the Scots Nationalists’ calculations.  Permanence, after all, is the illusion of every age.

Read the full pdf here – The UK Spaece economy: the present and exciting future.

EPC Space Fellow Jim Bennett on Yuri Gagarin’s anniversary and the New Space Race

April 18th, 2011

James C. Bennett writes:

April 12th, was the 50th anniversary of the first human flight into space, that of the Russian Yuri Gagarin.  At the time, it was viewed entirely through the lens of the Cold War and its politics — as a propaganda tool by the Soviet regime, on their side — a proof of the glory of the Communist regime.  In the west, it was viewed as a symbol of Nikita Krushchev’s recent threat — “We will bury you.”   Today, the symbols of the Soviet era are found only in museums, and the same Soyuz launch vehicles now carry the double-headed eagle of the Russian Federation.  Gagarin himself is long dead, a victim of a mundane accident.  A new space race, driven not by politics but by the urge for exploration and industry pits not nation against nation, but multinational teams from across the globe in peaceful commercial competition.  In the long run Gagarin will be remembered not as the cog in the Soviet state machine that he was during his lifetime, but as the precursor of the expansion of humanity off the planet of our birth.

Meanwhile, the emergence of a new suborbital provider intending to operate from the Netherlands demonstrates that the new space race is heating up Europe as well as America.  Recently the prestigious Southwest Research Institute, one of America’s premier space research organizations, startled the research world by reserving suborbital flights on both the American form XCOR Aerospace and the Anglo-American firm Virgin Galactic for scientific research, demonstrating that the term “space tourism” may become an inadequate description of human commercial suborbital flight.  Meanwhile, suborbital operators continue to await further clarification of the regulatory environment from authorities at both the national and European Union levels, which may determine the viability of EU member states as operational locations.  These new developments demonstrate that the stakes — jobs and stimulation of business and research —  in this matter are increasing as time goes by.

Back to earth with housing . . .

February 22nd, 2011

As the first UK-based think tank with a space programme, last week’s event we organised on the UK Space Economy created quite a buzz, more than a few tweets and some very interesting follow-on content about the Isle of Man’s burgeoning space services sector.  Thanks again to Jim Bennett for a superb talk.

So if you can forgive the pun, please watch this space for more to come.

In the meantime, housing – i.e. the price of it – is firmly back in the news again. House prices are a national obsession and so news that asking prices for homes in England and Wales jumped 3.1% over the past month made a big splash. Over the last few years, forecasts have been even more out of line with reality for housing than the big macro indicators – inflation, growth and unemployment. So what’s going to happen?

The paradox of the housing market is that almost unlike any other commodity, when prices start to fall, supply contracts as sellers take their properties off the market and start to rent them out instead.

The essential thing is to keep your eye on the big picture – here’s a chart that runs from 1985-2009

According to Rightmove, today there are 1.3 million homes for sale, but just 530,000 mortgages were approved last year. I really don’t see that improving over the next couple of years. I fear we still have a long way to go until the banks return to full financial health. And we’ll almost certainly never experience a 10 year doubling of prices ever again.

The emerging synergies of the New Space Economy

February 16th, 2011

News just published by Aviation Week that Astrium is teaming up with Singapore to build a suborbital demonstrator and hopes to ultimately have a fleet of spaceplanes stationed there speaks volumes about not just the audacity inherent in New Space, ambulance but the radical internationalisation and increasingly dynamic role of the private sector.

As the innovation accelerates and the costs fall, one can expect to see a lot more synergies involving – wealthy semi-microstates, billionaires, cash-poor state owned space agencies and dynamic private space entrepreneurs from all over the globe.

SPACE: Britain’s New Frontier – a new paper from the EPC

September 27th, 2010

SPACE: Britain’s New Frontier

Download here.

Britain faces an historic opportunity to be a major player in space and the government must rise to the challenge.

The EPC is the first British think tank to take a hard look at UK Space Policy and has found it wanting. Author, Jim Bennett, a space expert with over 30 years of experience at the highest practical and policy levels calls for radical redirection and a step change in political vision so that the UK can take a commanding position in the New Space Race.
Unlike the previous Space Race, dominated by state-owned entities, a new private sector is emerging which may be dominated by suborbital flight, led by Virgin Galactic who have yet to commit to a spaceport in the UK.
Whilst explaining the trajectory of the UK’s underperformance in Space which started with the implementation of the 1875 Explosives Act which prevented crucial rocket experimentation in the 1930s, the paper explains the genesis of the UK’s still significant niches (like satellite insurance and design) in the global space industry and  makes the following policy recommendations;

Policy Recommendations:

1. The UK should broaden its cooperative perspective beyond Europe – 75% of funds are currently allocated to the European Space Agency.

2. The new UKSA must seek to take advantage of NASA’s international cooperative programmes which the UK has failed to do in the past

3. The Commonwealth States – Australia, Canada and India – all have areas of space expertise which the UK could successfully cooperate on.

4. Therefore the UK should aim to cooperate with Canada which has expertise in radar imaging satellites

5. And with Australia which has extensive launch ranges

6. As well as with India which has across the board capabilities including launch vehicles, satellites and now interplanetary probes

7. The UKSA should send key personnel to Ottawa for an extended stay at the Canadian Space Agency to study what a small-to-medium scale agency can accomplish

8. The UK should explore collaboration with Canada and Australia on dual-use (civil and military) space technologies and systems like communications and earth observations satellites to leverage UK defence investments in space and the high level of trust of the USA on technology-export issues

9. The UK should seek to learn and copy from the Isle of Man’s favourable operating environment for space commerce

10. The UK should seek to develop a civil regulatory framework for spaceflight and space activity that attracts capital from all round the world

11. The UK should seek to actively earn from the USA’s deep experience of licensing launch sites and spaceports with a view to the future licensing of sites like Lossiemouth in Scotland

Says author, Jim Bennett;
Britain faces an historic opportunity to be a major player in space and the government must rise to the challenge

You don’t need Astronauts to have a successful space programme. The New Space environment now offers British entrepreneurs, financiers and scientists to take a seat at the main table on their own terms”.Bennett also says that the UK is failing to exploit its connections with the USA and the Commonwealth to advance its own space programme;

“Britain has networks of close ties, experiences, and mutual trust not just in one direction, but in three: Europe, the USA, and the Commonwealth. It should seek to maintain its existing productive ties with Europe, exploit the ease of business between the US and Britain to develop New Space entrepreneurship, and enhance its cooperation with the often-underestimated capabilities of Canada, Australia, and India”.