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What next for the UK’s space industry?

What next for the UK’s space industry?

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An historic mission to launch satellites from UK soil into orbit has failed. What does it mean for the country’s space race?

Two thousand people braved the wind and the cold to peer through the chain link fence at Newquay Airport in Cornwall.

They were there to witness an historic moment in British space exploration…

“The clock is counting down to the first rocket launch from the UK to put satellites in orbit.”

Sky News

But this was not your typical launch. There was no giant rocket, standing tall, ready to fire its enormous engines and soar up, through a mushroom of white smoke into the atmosphere. Instead, the crowd had gathered to see a repurposed Boeing 747 take off down a runway.

Operated by Virgin Orbit and nicknamed Cosmic Girl, in a previous life she’d ferried tens of thousands of passengers. Now, she was a launchpad. 

Her seats had been ripped out, and the top deck turned into a control centre. Most importantly, she had a 21-metre-long rocket strapped under her right wing. And that was carrying nine satellites. 

The plan was to launch these into orbit around the Earth…

“It will release nine satellites about the size of a toaster. One is testing components for a future space factory, another will look for illegal fishing trafficking and piracy.”

Sky News

At 10pm, the plane made its way down the runway and took off into the night sky. The crowd cheered as ‘Start Me Up’ blared through the speakers. The entire mission had been named after the Rolling Stones hit.

45 minutes after take off, at 35,000 feet, she released the rocket carrying the satellites…   

“We have it looks to be a successful ignition of the stage one engine as we make our way to space.”

Virgin Orbit Youtube Livestream

Everything appeared to be going to plan. On the ground, the crowds popped champagne.

But tens of thousands of feet above them, there was a problem unfolding in mission control. And then, this announcement…

“It appears the LauncherOne has suffered an anomaly which will prevent us from making orbit for this mission.”

Virgin Orbit Youtube Livestream

The rocket had failed to reach the orbit needed to deploy the nine satellites. Instead, they burned up in the atmosphere. 

Bemused and disappointed, the crowd started to trickle away. Engineers who had spent over a decade working on the launch were gutted:

“I’m absolutely devastated. We put our heart and soul into this and it’s such a personal journey for me as well, my family are here. So yeah, it was pretty rough.”

BBC Breakfast

Britain’s dream of putting satellites into orbit is on pause for now.

***

The UK builds more rockets than anywhere else, except California, but satellites produced here have to be sent to foreign spaceports to be launched into space.

The Cornwall launch was supposed to change that. It was supposed to be a major milestone for the country’s space industry, and in a sense it was. A plane carrying a rocket with nine satellites did take off and the rocket did launch.. 

But the ultimate aim, the holy grail, was to become the first country in western Europe to launch its own satellites into orbit. Mellisa Thorpe is the chief executive of Spaceport Cornwall…

“Joining that really exclusive club of launch nations is so important because it gives us our own access to space.”

Melissa Thorpe

Monday night’s failure is a blow to all those involved.

Virgin Orbit, which owns Cosmic Girl, invested £2.5 million in the project, but the main bulk of investment came from Spaceport Cornwall. Mellisa Thorpe said it cost less than £20 million to convert the tiny Newquay airport into a spaceport. In space terms, that’s relatively cheap.

That money came from a number of sources. £12 million from Cornwall Council, just under 8 million pounds from the UK Space Agency and half a million pounds from the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership. 

That’s a lot of taxpayer money spent on a project that’s being called a failure. But was it wasted?

***

“We get up, we go back, we try again, that’s what defines us.”

Ian Annett

That’s Ian Annett, deputy chief executive of the U.K. Space Agency, which co-funded the development of Spaceport Cornwall. 

There is an air of defiance and steely determination amongst those involved in mission Start Me Up. They don’t see it as a total failure, because they did manage to launch the rocket carrying the satellites from the plane.

2023 is set to be a big year for the UK’s space industry. After huge government investment, spaceports like the one in Cornwall are being built in Shetland, Prestwick, Argyll, Snowdonia and the Outer Hebrides. 12 more launches are also planned for this year. 

And despite the failure of this one, there’ll no doubt be further launches from Newquay, bringing thousands of jobs to the area. 

“We’re so proud of what we have achieved. Cornwall has done everything right. We’ve turned an airport into a spaceport. We got it to space.”

Melissa Thorpe

The UK is slowly joining the race to fill up the Earth’s lower orbit with satellites, but it’s getting crowded up there. 

Elon Musk’s broadband company Starlink sent 113 satellites into space in one go – just a few days before the failed Newquay launch.

Proof that the new space race is no longer just between nation states.

This episode was written and produced by Rebecca Moore.