The launch of the first orbital rocket from British soil is scheduled for Monday, marking the start of the UK’s space race.
The ambition is to make the country a global player in space, from manufacturing satellites to building rockets and creating new spaceports. But can the UK carve out a place for itself in an increasingly crowded market, and why try to reach for the stars?
“We are the guinea pigs,” says Melissa Thorpe.
“This is the first time any of us have done this, so it’s been a great learning experience.”
Melissa is in charge of Spaceport Cornwall, which is about to attempt its first foray into space.
He’s showing me his base at Newquay airport.
There’s all the usual bustle of activity: passengers arriving, suitcases being loaded, planes being fueled.
But there is also something more amazing on the asphalt: a 21 m long rocket.
A team is busy preparing it for the first launch from British soil that will put satellites into orbit around the Earth.
But this is a takeoff with a difference.
There will be no vertical launch from the ground. Instead, the rocket is attached under the wing of a modified jumbo jet. Once the plane is airborne, the rocket will break free and fire up its engines to head off into space.
The creation of the UK’s first spaceport has taken years and a lot of hard work, plus a whole new regulatory framework to ensure these launches are safe.
The hope is that it will make a difference in the local area, one of the poorest in the UK, by bringing in new businesses and creating new jobs.
“I think it’s the next chapter for Cornwall,” says Melissa.
“We were at the heart of the Industrial Revolution. We are not new to pioneering technologies.”
But there is also a broader ambition. If this is successful, it should help position the UK as a leading place in the space.
However, this is not the first attempt to create a British launch industry.
A red and white rocket, nicknamed “the lipstick”, was supposed to be the start of something big for the UK.
It took off in 1971, sending a satellite into space.
The program was called Black Arrow, and this was the first British-made rocket to put a British-made satellite into orbit, although it took off from Australia.
But the government considered the costs too high, so the first launch turned out to be the last.
The UK launch industry went on a long hiatus after this, but another aspect took off in Britain: satellite building.
And this has helped fuel a thriving space sector which, according to a recent government report, is worth £16.5bn a year to the UK economy and employs almost 50,000 people.
“We absolutely knock it out of the park when it comes to manufacturing small satellites,” says Dr Alice Bunn, chief executive of UKSpace, the trade association for British space companies.
Until now, he says, UK-built satellites have had to be sent overseas to get into space, but this first launch will change that.
And it comes at a time when satellites have become an integral part of our lives, although Alice says most people don’t know how dependent we are on this technology.
“Think of satellite navigation systems, environmental monitoring, emergency response, let alone all the telecommunications capacity, that we can provide from space. It really is a common thread in our lives,” he says.
And some companies have big plans with this technology.
Cardiff-based company Space Forge believes a host of new materials can be made in orbit.
In a clean room, one of its small satellites is being painstakingly prepared for its journey. He is one of nine sent into space by the Cornwall launch.
Space Forge describes its shoebox-sized satellites as mini-factories.
“In space, with the absence of gravity, you can mix whatever material you want,” says Andrew Bacon, chief technology officer.
“So if you take the whole periodic table and start putting things together, like lead, aluminum, rubidium, einsteinium, there are billions of new alloys that you can now make that you couldn’t make on Earth.”
The new materials could be used in electric vehicles, green technology or computing, he explains.
And he believes there are some big advantages to launching these satellites close to their Welsh base.
“The fact that we can drive down the highway for a couple of hours to get to our spaceport is a big shock,” says Andrew.
But it’s not just about Cornwall’s space race.
Amid the bleakly beautiful rolling hills and jagged cliffs of the Shetland island of Unst, there is a hive of activity as bulldozers and dump trucks come and go.
The team here is celebrating because a major milestone has been reached. Concrete is setting on its first launch pad, one of three planned at the site.
The SaxaVord spaceport is being built on a peninsula jutting out into the sea, in the far north of the UK.
“I think the first response from the locals was maybe it was April Fool’s Day or something,” says Debbie Strang, SaxaVord’s director of operations.
“And then as they’ve seen the progress and development, there’s been real enthusiasm for what we’ve been doing.”
There’s a good reason they’ve chosen such a remote location, where Shetland sheep and ponies outnumber the inhabitants.
“It’s the security element for us,” says Debbie.
“What we’re doing needs to be as far away from population centers as possible so that when the rocket leaves, there’s no real danger to people nearby.”
SaxaVord is targeting the UK’s first vertical rocket launch to put satellites into orbit, with up to 30 launches a year once fully operational.
It’s not the only spaceport based in Scotland. Others are planned at Sutherland in the Highlands and Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides.
The hope is that all of these can boost local economies, and that’s especially important on Unst.
“This island has suffered quite a bit from depopulation in the last 20 to 30 years,” explains Scott Hammond, SaxaVord’s deputy CEO.
“There was a small airfield here which used to be the third busiest heliport in the UK. And then they also had an RAF station here.
“When that went away, it halved the island’s population and clearly had a massive economic impact.”
He hopes the spaceport can give the island a boost.
“We will have more and more service jobs, during the fueling of the rockets, for example, putting the liquid oxygen in the rockets. And those, of course, will be highly skilled and well-paid jobs.”
But if you’re building a launch pad, you also need rockets, and SaxaVord is working with a number of companies looking to use Unst to get it off the ground.
One of them is Skyrora, based in Cumbernauld, on the outskirts of Glasgow.
Inside their large hangar, the team is busy working on different parts of the rocket, from nose cones to engines and propellant canisters.
The company is making smaller prototypes, before building a larger rocket, Skyrora XL, which they plan to eventually launch from the Shetland Islands.
“You do a complete design on paper and then you start building it. You build prototypes, you test, you go back to the drawing board and see what needs to be fixed,” says Ahsan Zaman.
He has just finished his aerospace degree and says the new push for space in the UK is opening up opportunities for science and engineering graduates. He is proud to be working on the project.
“If we’re successful, we’ll forever be known as the first people to do it in the UK. So yeah, it’s an honor as well as an exciting one.”
While the launch industry is only just beginning to take hold in the UK, it is much better established in other parts of the world.
And one company in particular now dominates the market: Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
With its reusable rockets, the company has greatly reduced the price of sending satellites into space.
Can the raft of small new rocket companies compete?
Skyrora CEO Volodymyr Levykin says he wants his rockets to offer a more personalized service.
“We want to be like a satellite taxi service,” he explains.
“To launch when the client wants us to and get them to an exact position where they need to be in orbit.”
He thinks that because more and more small satellites are being built, the market to launch them will grow, but not all companies will succeed.
“Some of us, of course, will fail,” he says.
“But there are some who believe in this emerging market. And we decided to invest sooner rather than later, to be ready when the market really starts to grow.”
The UK government says it wants to boost the space sector and is investing in research and development.
But UKSpace’s Alice Bunn says the support needs to be long-term.
“You’re not going to become a global space player by just investing in research and development. There has to be some kind of commitment from the government to continued operational capability.”
She says this could mean the government signing up as a customer for launches, for example.
“We need to do some creative thinking, industry and government working together, just to get us off the ground here.”
All eyes are now on Cornwall, waiting for the first UK launch to take off.
It will be just the beginning of this new industry and there will be many challenges ahead.
But as the well-known mantra goes, space is tough, and anyone who works in this industry knows it.
The hope is that with this high risk, comes the possibility of sky-high rewards.
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Produced by Alison Francis, Senior Journalist, Climate and Science