Regulators uncertain on schedule for first U.K. launch
WASHINGTON — Plans to host the first orbital launches from the United Kingdom this year are moving ahead despite uncertainty about when regulators will grant licenses for those launches.
Virgin Orbit intends to conduct two launches of its LauncherOne air-launch system this year in flights this summer from Cornwall Airport Newquay, also known as Spaceport Cornwall in southwestern England.
“The Cornwall launches are targeted around the middle of the year, summertime,” said Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said in a call with reporters Jan. 11, two days before its “Above the Clouds” launch from Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Tony Gingiss, chief operating officer of Virgin Orbit, said in the call that the first Cornwall launch would be two flights after Above the Clouds.
Hart said one factor governing that schedule is licensing. “That’s predicated on getting through the licensing process successfully and some of the logistics, but that is what we’re driving for,” he said. “That will be the first launch ever from U.K. soil.”
Both Virgin Orbit and Spaceport Cornwall will require licenses from the U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Virgin Orbit, as a U.S. company, will need a launch license from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration as well.
In a presentation at a Jan. 10 meeting of the Global Spaceport Alliance, Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, said the spaceport was already working with British regulators on its spaceport license. “We’re moving towards launch in less than six months,” she said. “Our application for launch as a spaceport is in to the CAA, as is Virgin Orbit’s.”
The spaceport’s application was submitted in October, she said, and “we’re just working through the feedback on that.” She didn’t give a schedule for the license but said it will be “hopefully the first spaceport license to come out of the U.K.”
However, CAA officials testifying at a Jan. 12 hearing by the U.K. House of Commons Science and Technology Committee offered far less certainty about licensing for Spaceport Cornwall or any other U.K. launch site.
Tim Johnson, director of strategy and policy for the CAA, repeatedly declined to say if his agency expected the first U.K. launch to take place in 2022. He said four applications had been formally submitted with 14 others in a “pre-application” review.
“You are set up. You’ve had these applications. Do you expect a launch in 2022?” asked the committee’s chair, Greg Clark.
“We’re open for business. We’re processing applications. The key driver for the timetable will be the quality of the applications, the evidence presented,” Johnson responded.
In a back-and-forth with Clark, Johnson repeatedly declined to say if a first U.K. launch would take place in 2022, to the growing frustration of committee members. “I’m a bit disappointed that we haven’t been able to get a clear answer from you on the question that Greg just posed about whether you do expect a launch by the end of the year,” said another committee member, Dehenna Davison. “Can you give us a yes or no?”
Johnson again declined. “The CAA understands the importance of timeliness in this regard and we’re doing absolutely everything we can to achieve that.”
Later in the hearing, though, Colin Macleod, head of space regulation at the CAA, said he expected it to take 6 to 12 months to issue a license for a spaceport, and 9 to 18 months for a launch license. “The biggest factors in that timescale are how well the applicants can explain their safety to us,” he said. “They are the experts, they know their technology, and the whole point of our approach is to enable innovative space activity to take place, so they are the biggest determinants in how quickly we can move.”
Spaceport Cornwall is one of several prospective launch sites, including vertical launch sites in northern Scotland and the Shetland Islands. That prompted concerns from the committee that the CAA would struggle to evaluate several spaceport licenses at the same time.
Johnson said that the CAA has 35 people working on spaceport and launch licensing. “We’ve got space expertise and regulation expertise and policy expertise, but we’ve got a degree of flexibility so we can reallocate and readjust the team depending on the phasing of the applications that we get.”
That staff includes one person from the FAA. “We’ve got an FAA secondee into our space regulation team so we can learn from some of what they do,” he said. “Where there are things we can learn from each other, we do that.”
Macleod said a bigger factor may be the readiness of the prospective spaceports and launch providers. “Applicants tend to take longer than they think to complete the applications, and that’s why we’re putting in extra support where we can to help them through those most difficult stages.”