Recently George Osborne announced that he would sanction Government finance for the construction of a spaceport, and the relevant department (Business Innovation and Skills) released eight potential sites for development:
They have also released a very futuristic concept drawing of the new spaceport (wherever it’s located), which I find quite upsetting because I know that it will not look this cool in real life (if it is ever built).
Unsurprisingly the fact that six out of the eight suggested locations are in Scotland hasn’t escaped notice as the Scottish independence referendum is getting closer. This tempting offer of a spaceport by 2018 (with the location to be decided after the referendum) has been added to a long list of decisions which both the Westminster and Holyrood Governments will sort out once the results are in, and in the meantime looks a tiny little bit like a bribe.
The SNP have dismissed it out of hand, instead highlighting that after independence a Scottish built, Scottish owned spaceport would bring in revenue for Scotland, and that Scottish companies would directly benefit from the facility.
There is even a proposal for a Scottish Spaceport, which rivals the BIS one for its futurism and ‘coolness’.
Whichever is built, wherever it’s built and however cool it will look when they build it the one thing my PhD has taught me so far is that the decision will only hinge on two things – politics and money – and not on feasibility, practicality, or scientific preference. The site listed on Stornoway has pretty much been ruled out already because Richard Branson has said it’s too far away.
The Guardian pointed out that these ideas for a spaceport aren’t new, and that Britain had been planning a home-based launching site in the 1960s.
In 1964, Britain began its own space launcher project to launch small scale scientific satellites. That three stage launcher, Black Arrow was meant to prove that Britain could build the best satellite components in the world, and unlike most other nations, it would pre-test them all in space before selling any of them. The already-established base at Woomera in the south Australian outback was serving as a test site for the Black Arrow, but a run-down of staff at the site meant Black Arrow would need to be launched from somewhere else in the 1970s.
A potential site in Norfolk was ruled out on political grounds, as Ministers felt that even a one in 5,000,000 chance of a missile strike on a North Sea rig would be too difficult to justify. Later assessments showed that the risk was actually far less than initially suggested, and perhaps the new plans for launches from the eastern coast of Scotland reflect this. However, looking at the map showing the sale of North Sea exploration licences in 1967 it is easy to see why people would be worried about the potential for disaster if something did go wrong.
Other sites under consideration were:
Aberporth in Wales: a WWII rocket range where smaller rockets had been tested (ruled out due to cost and worry about the shipping in the Irish Sea).
Highdown on the Isle of Wight: what could be more British than a rocket launched from The Needles? Worries here were largely about shipping, prevailing winds, and also a worry that France might reciprocate with a testing site of their own across the Channel.
Spadeadam in Cumbria: where static tests were carried on Black Arrow’s larger relative Blue Streak (ruled out due to an incredibly unlikely Ministerial concern about bits of rocket hitting Sellafield, the Isle of Man, or Northern Ireland).
North and South Uist: on the western coast of Scotland, which weren’t really bases for anything at the time, and seemed to be a hopeful attempt at increasing local employment (ruled out ostensibly due to distance, but largely because of the weather).
Having ruled out all the UK based options, the Ministry of Technology officials looked abroad. However, neither the French built base at Kourou in French Guiana nor the American base at Wallops Field would do the job as they were foreign.
I’d like to point out that this wasn’t entirely due to a 60s-racist little Englander mind set (well, OK, maybe with the French one it was entirely due to a 60s-racist little Englander mind set); anyway, devaluation of the pound in 1967 meant that foreign currency transactions had to be of “vital necessity” to get Treasury approval (coincidentally the Treasury had been trying to cancel Black Arrow since 1964 and also defined what “vital” and “necessity” meant).
So, nothing in Britain would do, nothing in Europe would do, and nothing in the States would do, and a new launching site had to be decided upon quickly.
The Ministry of Technology plumped for the obvious choice.
A research station operated by McGill University (Montreal), but located in….. Barbados!
Yes, I know, it sounds just like the plot of an episode of Yes Prime Minister.
Really it was all happy coincidence. McGill were worried that their own funding was being cut so would accept payment in pounds, and offered to accept it at the kind of exchange rate that only true friends can offer. Even with all the extra travel involved, the Ministry of Technology managed to convince themselves, and the Treasury that:
‘To achieve the maximum benefit from the Black Arrow programme both technically and financially the Barbados range should selected as the ultimate range for Black Arrow launches.
(AVIA 111/5, R.H.W. Bullock to Mr. Boreham, 29 December 1967. (My emphasis added.))
Another happy coincidence was that the launch schedule meant that the officials, scientists and engineers involved would spend six months a year in Barbados. Can you guess which six months of the year? (No, I’m not going to tell you the answer.)
Unfortunately for everyone involved, a change of government, and an increase in Treasury fiscal control, meant that Black Arrow was cancelled in 1971 after successfully launching its first satellite, and Britain went on to use American launchers launched from American bases.
This is usually cast as a bad thing, and a brilliant example of the British making a technology work then wasting all the effort. However, the money saved was invested in ramping up satellite production, and it should be pointed out that Britain now makes about 1/3rd of the world’s satellites, so it’s not all bad news.
Will Britain get a spaceport this time?
Probably. The current government has decided that space is a good investment, and if the SABRE and Skylon projects get off the ground then a testing/launching site in this country makes a certain amount of sense.
Will it be in Scotland?
Well, whatever happens in the referendum it’s pretty likely that someone will build something there, and the proposed locations now are a lot less remote than those proposed in the 1960s (with the exception of Stornoway).
Make a guess as to which location they’ll choose!
I’d hate to do this, but I can probably tell you which ones they probably won’t choose.
As with all government documents the BIS information doesn’t say which might be best but there are pointers about which are worse.
- Stornoway – too far away (and with VirginSpace saying that too there’s a “Business Case” for rejecting it)
- Glasgow Prestwick – too close to Glasgow, as I was plotting this on the map I went back to the BIS infographic at the top and read the bit about being “away from densely populated areas” and “normal flight routes”. Prestwick isn’t either of those.
All the others are in with a fighting chance.
My gut instinct however, says that it will be Campbeltown, Lossiemouth and Kinloss which make the running, and which one of those wins will depend a lot on the priorities of the government at the time.
The defence cuts will bite especially hard in Kinloss and Lossiemouth, and there might be an “employment” case to be made there.
For me Campbeltown has the edge as it’s closer to Glasgow (but not too close) and its transport links to the “affluent south” where, let’s face it, most of the space tourists will come from.
As for Llanbedr and Newquay Cornwall, neither seems that likely to me.
I think it’s pretty safe to rule out Llanbedr. The transport links aren’t great, and it’s in Snowdonia National Park so would involve a lot of local opposition presumably (if the amount of opposition faced when they recently tried to reopen the airfield is anything to go by).
Newquay Cornwall makes a certain amount of sense, but it’s in the privileged south, and it would presumably make local concerns about the fact that most employment is seasonal (tourist-based) worse. UPDATE: having said all this, a quick look at the 2010 election result for the local constituency shows that the Conservatives are in with a chance of taking the seat from the Lib Dems, so maybe Newquay is in with a chance too.
So, provided all goes well, you could be blasted off to space in a British built space plane from a British/Scottish/rUK spaceport at some point in the 2020s (there’s a sentence most of us never thought we’d read). Wherever that would be depends entirely on the circumstances at the time, and an awful lot depends on the outcome of the independence referendum.
Post by Stuart.