LauncherOne at Spaceport Cornwall
Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne at Spaceport Cornwall being prepared for its first launch from the U.K. Credit: Spaceport Cornwall

WASHINGTON — A United Kingdom Parliament committee is calling on the government to revise its approach for licensing launches, warning it could fall behind international competitors if it fails to do so.

The House of Commons Science, Innovation and Technology Committee published a report July 14 that concluded that, based on the experience from the first orbital launch attempt from the U.K. in January, reforms are needed to streamline the process and avoid delays.

“We recommend that the Government should convene all relevant bodies without delay to take steps now to improve the licensing system of UK satellite launch,” the report stated.

That conclusion was based in large part on the delays securing a license from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for a Virgin Orbit launch from Spaceport Cornwall in January. The launch was planned for last fall but delayed until January because Virgin Orbit did not get a license from the CAA until mid-December. The CAA noted at the time that it issued the license 15 months after the start of the application process, “well within the expected timescales for these types of licences.”

That launch failed to reach orbit, but the report said there was no evidence that the licensing process contributed to the failure. Virgin Orbit filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April and has liquidated its assets.

Other companies are planning to launch from the U.K. and are working on obtaining launch licenses from the CAA. Some of those companies testified to the committee that, after a slow start, they are seeing improvements in the regulatory process.

“We are pleased to hear that the regulatory experiences of the UK launch sector are moving in a positive direction, and we encourage the CAA to continue this trajectory,” the report stated. “However, more can be done to streamline the regulatory process to help ensure that the UK launch sector can reach its full potential.”

Government officials, including George Freeman, the minister whose portfolio includes space, told the committee the government would review lessons learned from the Virgin Orbit licensing process and related topics. The committee backed that approach but said that the review must be done “at pace” and be completed by September.

The committee offered some recommendations for launch licensing streamlining in the report based on testimony from several companies. Those recommendations focus on coordinating the various organizations involved in the licensing process, such as creating a “central portal” for companies to provide information at one time, rather than having to provide similar data, in different formats, to individual organizations.

The report also warned that the reforms identified in the report “must be carried out urgently, and conclude by the end of this year, to avoid the UK losing its head start in launch.”

“The UK has huge opportunities in the burgeoning space and satellite industry. But the sector is global and fast-paced, and to maintain our position the UK must act urgently to applies the lessons of the Cornwall disappointment to the regulatory system for satellite launch,” Greg Clark, chair of the committee, said in a statement.

The CAA noted in a response to the report that it was already working on streamlining improvements identified by the committee. “We welcome the recommendations to further streamline and simplify the space licensing process and have made significant improvements already, with many more to come,” Tim Johnson, director of space regulation at the CAA, said in an agency statement.

The committee also used the report to criticize more broadly the government’s attention to space matters. The report noted that a new National Space Council, an interagency body modeled on its U.S. counterpart, has yet to meet for the first time months after the government said it was reestablishing it. A report on a national position, navigation and timing (PNT) strategy originally slated for release in 2021 has yet to be published.

“It is symptomatic of a disjointed approach to concrete policy and leadership for the UK’s space and satellite sector which now risks hampering its potential,” the committee said of the delayed PNT strategy.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...