Today, rocket launches are no longer government-exclusive as more and more private aerospace companies join the new commercialized space race. After decades of silence, the UK is getting ready to pick up where it started back in the 1970s. Right now, the UK is one of the leading satellite manufacturers worldwide. Its ambitious goals of building its spaceports could make the UK the first space-faring nation in Europe.
While spaceport construction approvals are in full swing, many experts are concerned about the UK’s investment in foreign companies like Orbex Space. Especially when there are domestic aerospace firms to support. So, can the UK fulfill its ambitious space plans if it is supporting foreigners like Orbex and the like?
On the one hand, rocket launches call for some international collaboration, so partnering up with launch providers is perfectly justified. Besides, the UK has strong potential when it comes to manufacturing satellites, but it lacks rocket launching experience. The only British rocket ever launched was Black Arrow, but that was way back in 1971. And, since the UK did not have a spaceport, the event took place from an Australian launch site. So, one can say that the UK’s international space collaboration goes way back, so Orbex Space is not a new development.
On the other hand, the world is different from what it was in the 1970s. One can certainly draw parallels because the 1970s and 2020s are both very eventful when it comes to space tech development and rocket launches. Still, private aerospace companies, including Orbex Space, have managed to reduce the cost of launching rockets — something the governments of the past could not or would not do. So, it makes perfect sense that the UK is ready to breathe new life into its space initiatives.
The Black Arrow program had to be curtailed because building local spaceports in the 1970s was economically unviable. Now, when the UK already produces more satellites than any other country in Europe, it is the right time to consider launch sites of its own.
The sheer amount of private aerospace companies, Orbex Space included, implies that these spaceports won’t be vacant. Even now, plenty of international players are expressing interest in Scotland’s planned launch sites. US-based Virgin Orbit, with its air-launch technology, is willing to deploy its rocket from Cornwall. Danish-originating Orbex Space is getting ready for its first commercial launch from Sutherland. But where are domestic rocket makers?
While the UK has its own rocket makers, such as Skyrora, the UK Space Agency highlights the positive effects of international collaboration, which includes funding Orbex Space. According to its report, out of every £1 invested in IPP, £2.57 return to the UK’s state budget. The same report also highlights the environmental and social benefits of international collaboration. The agency states that this collaboration helped prevent deforestation of over 383,000 hectares of land and alleviated the effects of natural disasters. Moreover, over 300 remote schools got an access to the satellite Internet.
All of this sounds great, but experts still point out that international space companies, including Orbex, outnumber the domestic ones. And it’s a reason to be concerned. Besides, the UK Space Act allows foreign rocket launches from UK. That’s what international companies like Orbex Space, Lockheed Martin, and Virgin Orbit are betting on. Plus, the UKSA actively funds these companies, allocating grants for spaceport construction to local and international companies alike.
Spaceport construction is not cheap, so supporting interested launch providers makes sense. However, the proportion of investment in foreign companies like Orbex Space raises some concerns. Out of a total £40 million investment from the UKSA, £23.5 million have been granted to Lockheed Martin UK. While technically a UK division, the main office of this major US defense contractor is in the USA.
One more US-based launch operator that received a £7.35 million grant from the UK Space Agency is Virgin Orbit. This company at least has a British owner, Richard Branson, which inspires hope that the company will consider the UK’s interests in this new space race.
In comparison to that, Orbex’s share of funding is not that large — just £2.5 million. However, the question is how this grant was allocated because the UKSA employee responsible for this decision was hired by Orbex shortly after the grant was finalized. Besides, unlike Lockheed Martin and Virgin Orbit, Orbex is a relatively new player, and it is not yet clear whether its Prime rocket, still in development, will actually fly.
Speaking of flying rockets, domestic company Skyrora carried out a successful firing test of its carrier — something that hasn’t happened in the last fifty years. More importantly, the vertical launch test took place in Scotland, where most spaceport projects are currently planned. So, experts once again wonder why support unproven companies like Orbex when a domestic rocket manufacturer is launch-ready.
Despite the UKSA’s questionable support of Orbex Space and the like, the local space industry keeps moving forward. Besides producing 40% of all satellites worldwide, the UK space sector employs over 40 thousand people, whose combined annual income is £14.8 billion a year. This is a very substantial figure given the lack of any commercial launches so far. Once the spaceports are operational, this figure will most certainly grow, as Sutherland spaceport alone should create 40 new jobs on the spot and 400 more in the area.
Besides, the UKSA is not the only organization that invests in spaceport construction. Sutherland, with one of the highest commissioning odds, has strong financial support from its developer, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE). To date, HIE has already invested £9.8 million into Sutherland spaceport construction and £5 million came from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. The UK Space Agency also reported an additional £30 million from private investors.
Still, despite private investors’ funds, the spaceport clearly needs more support. Right now, the total construction estimate stands at £100 million. This figure includes not only the actual launchpad and ground control station construction, but also the associated spaceport infrastructure.
The UK Space Agency urges all private capital funds to invest in local spaceports, currently proposed in Scotland, England, and Wales. However, given the UKSA’s support of foreign companies like Orbex Space, makes it clear why so many private investors are in no great rush to give money.
The UKSA’s focus on international collaboration makes it unclear whose interests all those foreign companies are pursuing. While Karen Pierce, UK Ambassador to America, highlights the importance of collaboration between the UK and US, some wonder where Orbex Space comes in. The company does have offices in the UK, but it was originally founded in Denmark by Peter Madsen, convicted for murder in 2017.
To be fair, this should not affect Orbex SPace now because the company’s current CEO, Chris Larmour, is not associated with any public scandals. On the other hand, private investors are known for picking their partners very carefully, so their unwillingness to invest in a launch site and support Orbex is understandable.
Besides, experts wonder how profits from spaceport commissioning will be divided. Especially, when given funds have been allocated to other International companies, not just Orbex Space. Many believe that these companies are only acting in their own interest, which is discouraging for the future of the UK space industry. Experts point out that since foreign launch operators like Orbex already received so many UKSA funds, it is the government’s duty to oversee how this money is spent. Simply put, people worry that the British money will end up filling US pockets.
If, however, the UKSA would invest more in local companies like Skyrora, more private investors would be willing to support Sutherland. Sutherland is a launch facility Skyrora hopes to use along with Orbex Space. One more strong argument in favor of Skyrora is that this company’s rockets are already past their development and testing stages. But Orbex’s Prime carrier is not over with testing yet.
To be fair, UKSA’s investment in Orbex Space and the rest is not the only thing challenging spaceport construction. The environmental opposition against these sites keeps growing. Sutherland, in particular, faces a judicial review in June 2021, after Scotland’s biggest landowner filed a legal inquiry against the facility via his company Wildland.
Another concern is the UK’s carbon-free initiatives that do not exactly fall in line with spaceport construction. It will take many efforts to construct the facilities in the first place. Then, there is the matter of delivering rocket component parts and other materials to the sites. And, of course, there is the pressing matter of carbon emissions from rocket fuel.
Technically, Orbex Space is trying to address those by designing an environmentally sustainable launch system, where the first-stage booster is reusable. The Orbex Prime rocket is powered by bio-derived fuel with minimum carbon emissions. But once again, Orbex Space and its Prime rocket are not anywhere near the testing stage, so it’s not clear if Orbex will deliver on its green promises.
Still, regardless of all concerns associated with ecology and investments in Orbex Space, the UK space industry is moving forward. Quite possibly, we will see rockets take off from British soil as soon as next year.