Is the UK still on track to become Europe’s leading space nation?

In 2021, the UK’s National Space Strategy was being touted as the catalyst that would enable “Galactic Britain”. Key to the plan were the country’s evolving launch capabilities. Indeed, the launch of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne was heralded by the government as a key step in growing the country’s space industry. In the wake of LauncherOne’s failure to reach space and the subsequent shut down of Virgin Orbit, many are wondering, “what’s next”? We spoke with Paul Kostek, IEEE senior member and advisory systems engineer with Air Direct Solutions LLC to get his opinion on what the future holds.

Crispin Littlehales, Executive Editor, Satellite Evolution Group

Question: In April, after the failure of the Virgin Orbit launch, the UK Space Agency announced it would launch a £20 million fund to support NewSpace capabilities through both national investment and the strengthening of international industrial partnerships. Where will that money likely be spent?

Paul Kostek: Although £20 million might be able to sustain a spaceport, I’m not sure that amount can fuel expansion unless it is used to invest in some successful startups that will use the facilities.

A big challenge with any of the UK spaceports that are being created is to figure out how you are going to invest in the future – especially if you’ve only got one initial kick off customer that fails. Some of the funding will probably have to be used just to keep the infrastructure that’s been put together in Cornwall in place.

A million pounds or dollars won’t go very far in terms of building infrastructure. It’s more a matter of how many companies are going to commit to using Space Cornwall. I know that US based space company, Sierra Nevada Corporation, recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Cornwall to explore future collaboration opportunities for landing its Dream Chaser spaceplane but I’m not sure how soon Sierra will be flying.

Another restriction that could hinder progress for the spaceport is the limited number of launches allowed each year. How can they be competitive with companies like SpaceX or Rocket Lab which are talking about launching every three days? You might attract the small companies and universities that want to send up small satellites for research but you’re not going to attract a huge commercial business because they are looking for more launches. Then, too, there is the whole question of vertical launches versus just horizontal lift off. Not offering vertical capability is going to be a limitation.

Question: The UK’s seven proposed spaceports have been said to all be operational by 2024. What kind of investments are needed to assure that? What does a successful spaceport need to thrive?

Paul Kostek: Building seven spaceports and having them all in place by next year might be possible if you take hangars and convert them to be used in payload assembly, and then command and control of the launch. But when you start thinking about spaceports, and what companies are doing around the world, it’s all about vertical launch and not launching and landing spaceplanes.

There are lots of discussions of how many spaceports and rocket capacity is needed right now since there is a lot of demand because of all the LEO constellations that are planned. But once everything is in orbit there won’t be the massive launches that we are seeing right now. So, the question is, how are seven spaceports going to survive? Will there be enough ongoing activity to make that financially worthwhile?

For European companies that want to put satellites into low Earth orbit, there is an advantage to launching from the UK as opposed to French Guiana, or New Zealand, or the US. You don’t have to send your rocket or your payload on an airplane or a ship to the South Atlantic to get it launched. Still, is it prudent to create seven spaceports when your kick-off spaceport doesn’t have a second customer yet? If the next customer at space Cornwall is Sierra space, will they only be using the facility to land? There are still questions that need to be answered.

We are going to see mergers and acquisitions in the space industry just as we have in the aerospace industry both in the US and the UK. How many airlines have been created, flown for a while then either merged or sold off their assets? We are in the same boat and that is the danger for a government that is creating a whole group of spaceports. They may end up with some pretty buildings and signs but never get the market they expect.

Question: The Virgin Orbit launch failure at Cornwall was a setback for the nation’s space strategy. How does the UK space sector make up for this?

Paul Kostek: The sudden failure of Virgin Orbit changed what people perceived was going to happen. I think that initially the government will have to determine what kind of projects are needed for these spaceports to be viable. Perhaps the government will decide to use the facilities for military and defense purposes. Whatever the case may be, finding the clients who want to use the spaceports will be essential for survival.

There will be some situations where the ESA site in French Guiana or the Esrange Space Centre in Arctic Sweden won’t be ideal, and the UK needs to position itself to be the alternative. It might be more difficult for space Cornwall considering that every company that had a payload on the Virgin Orbit flight might be hesitant to do another airplane launch.

Question: A huge issue with NewSpace industry worldwide, and uniquely in the UK, is its associated skills gap. The UK doesn’t have enough academics and engineers to support the growth in space technology because we abandoned our world class space program in the 80s. How do we get it back?

Paul Kostek: I recently read a book entitled When the Heavens Went on Sale. One of the people mentioned by the author is Peter Beck, founder of Rocket Lab. He started off as a tool-and-die-maker apprentice at Fisher & Paykel company. He’s not an engineer and he didn’t go to university, yet he taught himself about rockets and propellants.

Because of the nature of the way the world is going with rocketry, there is no rule that says the founder of a company must be an engineer. Look at Elon Musk. He has degrees in economics and physics. It’s about having the ability to come up with a concept that you can sell to venture capitalists or the government or whomever might be supporting it. I think a lot of these stories need to be told so that people understand you don’t have to have a PhD in aeronautical engineering to start a space company or even build a rocket.

There are also people who might have backgrounds in related areas, like automobile design, and now they want to transition to building space vehicles. It’s not that different. What’s more, a lot of young people are coming out of engineering schools, and they want to work in the space sector.

I don’t see talent as the biggest concern because I believe that young people are excited by what’s going on in space and want to work for NewSpace startups.

I think the business side of things will be challenging. There is a lot of competition. There are many nations that are developing launch capabilities and payloads with ambitions to go to the moon and to Mars. The challenge for the spaceports is understanding who their customers are and what offerings are most important to them.

Question: Reusable rocket tests are projected to begin in 2024 at Estrange, the new EU spaceport in Sweden. What can the UK’s national space sector learn from Europe about supporting the space industry?

Paul Kostek: SpaceX, Rocket Lab, and Blue Origin are all demonstrating how reuse saves money and time. This interest in reusing rockets is only going to grow and perhaps it is an area that space Cornwall should consider. Even if they don’t develop vertical launch capabilities, the spaceport could be a landing spot for rockets that have done a vertical lift elsewhere. That idea would work well with the spaceport’s commitment to being environmentally responsible in that they would be supporting reuse of rockets.

The UK government needs to decide how much it wants to spend on building its own rockets or helping to fund companies that are willing and interested and moving forward to compete with what’s going on in Europe, the US, and other parts of the world. There are the politics of funding things and the need to justify decisions. These government projects do create jobs and opportunities. The hope is that some of those people who work on government projects will then go and create their own businesses, thereby growing the customer base for the spaceports.

Question: What are your expectations for the UK space industry by 2030?

Paul Kostek: I doubt there will be that much winged flight by 2030 – but Stratolaunch, the company that recently purchased Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl plans to use that spaceplane in hypersonic test missions. Additionally, at some point one of the spaceports might be dedicated to tourism. If Virgin Galactic continues to succeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sir Richard Branson decided to bring that business to the UK. The other area that could be fruitful is on the defense side. The US Space Force, for example, has two X-37B reusable robotic spacecraft. They launch off a rocket but land like an airplane.

The UK government might also invest more heavily in a manned space program, given the country’s strong aeronautical history. I expect the UK would want to have a role in future space stations and be part of developing a presence on the Moon. I can see the UK partnering with the US, Canada, and Japan on these kinds of missions. They would be a good fit.

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