How a small Scottish town aims to transform commercial spaceflight

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Sutherland, a rugged and sparsely populated county in the north of Scotland, is traditionally known for its striking beauty, complete with high sea cliffs and dramatic mountains. Soon, however, it will be known for something perhaps even more breath-taking: spaceships.

On Sunday,  U.K. Business Secretary Greg Clark announced that Sutherland will be home to the U.K.’s first spaceport.

As in so many areas there is a strong U.K./U.S. foundation to this development as American aerospace giant Lockheed Martin is leading the charge. The U.K. government has awarded them and a number of other space companies more than $40 million to build launch infrastructure in Sutherland and rocket technology across the U.K.

The potential for easier access to spaceflight is having an impact on all facets of society, opening up new commercial markets and facilitating scientific breakthroughs. Never has it been so easy to reach the heavens, and there are more options of how and where to launch than ever before.

The U.K. may not immediately come to mind when considering where to develop spaceflight operations. After this week’s announcement, it’s clear that it should. A perfect alignment of industrial capability, government support including through the industrial strategy, local talent and geography gives the U.K. real potential to be a leader in the new commercial space age.

In terms of making this a reality we are not starting from scratch. The U.K. builds one out of every two small satellites. And it is British scientists, engineers, programmers and entrepreneurs—trained at the best universities in the world—that are at the forefront of satellite applications and services after they are in the sky. Even our architects are getting in on the act, with Foster + Partners designing Spaceport America in New Mexico.

The potential for launching from the U.K. was the missing piece of the puzzle, and with this week’s announcement, the U.K. is on the road to offering a one-stop-shop for building, operating and now launching satellites.

Sutherland is also a geographically strategic location, with a high northern inclination ideal for polar and near-polar orbit launches. It’s also in a prime location to reach Low Earth Orbit, the destination of 75 percent of the satellites launched in 2016. The coastal location will provide access to water, enabling safe and flexible launch opportunities. And there are excellent transport and cargo links to the rest of Europe.

But it’s not just about having the right geography or infrastructure. You need the regulations to match. We’ve spent decades refining our space regulation. The U.K.’s space program launched in 1952 (six years before NASA!), and we launched our first satellite in 1962, years before the Beatles ever played on The Ed Sullivan Show. 

Today, the U.K. is committed to creating one of the world’s most modern, user-friendly and streamlined regulatory environments for launch and spaceflight, working with industry to achieve the right balance of safety, sustainability, and support. For instance, operators no longer need to navigate daunting bureaucratic mazes; rather, a single user-focused digital portal will allow operators to easily apply for a launch license, saving precious time and money.

Beyond establishing the right regulatory environment, the U.K. government is also committed to providing capital support. Just last year, the U.K. announced its largest increase in R&D funding in four decades with much of it going to fund our space efforts. We’re also offering innovative incentive packages and tax credits for space companies willing to establish manufacturing centers or corporate headquarters in the U.K..

Already many American companies have found a home alongside the U.K.’s thriving science and research community. Over 10 percent of U.S. foreign R&D investment goes into the U.K., the largest share of any single country. And for good reason – the U.K. boasts more Nobel Prizes per capita than the U.S., France, Germany, Russia or Japan.

Following Sunday’s announcement at the Farnborough Air Show, we only expect appetite for British launch capability to grow. We’re already eyeing locations for the next spaceport. This could bring more frequent, possibly even daily, launches from British soil.

Just over 70 years ago, British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke wrote a letter to the editor of Wireless World magazine describing a future transformed by space exploration. Ahead of his time, he contended that satellites would become the “ultimate solution” to many of the world’s challenges.

Today, I am filled with the same sense of optimism and am confident he would be proud of the role that the U.K. is set to play in helping to access the cosmos.

Antony Phillipson the U.K.’s  trade commissioner for North America.