WASHINGTON — The United Kingdom’s would-be launch service providers — a mix of British startups and international primes — told Parliament this week the country’s goal of seeing a first launch from within its borders by 2020 is at this point most likely wishful thinking.
That outlook stands in contrast to that of U.K. Space Agency Interim Chief Executive Katherine Courtney, who said late last month that she was “confident that 2020 will see the first launches from British soil.”
Officials from several aerospace companies testifying before Parliament March 27 did not share Courtney’s optimism, but they praised the government for creating policies that should make fertile ground for a British launch industry to emerge.
The U.K. launched its first rocket in 1971, orbiting the Prospero satellite on a Black Arrow rocket, but the mission took place from Australia, not Europe, and the U.K. government had already canceled the launch program by the time the mission occurred. Launch came back to the fore in 2009 when the U.K. set the goal of growing its space industry to comprise 10 percent of the global space industry by 2030.
Parliament released a draft spaceflight bill Feb. 21 detailing the country’s proposed regulatory framework for space launch. The draft bill is described as “part of a wider Government programme to stimulate the market for space activities (primarily small satellite launch) and sub-orbital spaceflight activities in the United Kingdom from 2020.”
In a March 27 parliamentary session in the U.K. House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Stephen Metcalfe, committee chair, asked industry how feasible it would be to achieve a first launch in three years time.
“Hitting 2020 is going to be pretty nigh impossible,” Richard Peckham, business development director for Airbus Group, replied.
“[For] horizontal launch, if you are using an existing airport, I suppose there is less infrastructure [needed],” Peckham explained. “For vertical launch, if you are going to go through all of the planning process and environmental assessments and all the things you need to do, once you’ve chosen your site in parallel with all the legislation and so on that’s going, I would say 2020 is very optimistic.”
Other members of industry, though less bleak about the prospects of a near-term domestic launch, echoed a similar conviction.
“I’m not quite in the ‘pretty impossible’ count that Richard was in, but it’s certainly very challenging,” said Mark Thomas, managing director of Reaction Engines, a British engine developer with investments from the U.K. Space Agency, the European Space Agency and BAE Systems to build a hypersonic propulsion system for orbital and point to point spaceplane missions.
David Ashford, managing director of Bristol Spaceplanes, a company developing a suborbital spaceplane called Ascender for human spaceflight and microgravity experiments, said his company could have a demonstrator flying a science payload by 2021 at the earliest.
“We can’t honestly claim 2020,” he said.
Orbital Access, a Scotland-based startup designing an air-launch smallsat vehicle, does claim intent to have a first launch by 2020, but was not in attendance during the session.
Legislation in the fast lane
Despite the admissions that industry is unlikely to field a launcher from U.K. soil by 2020, Parliament received praise for the fast pace of regulatory developments to support a launch industry. The U.K. government created the draft bill in just six months and shared it with industry for feedback early in the development of the legislation.
Most of the U.K.’s launch ambition is centered around small satellites, which often piggyback on larger missions as secondary payloads. Two major small satellite developers, Airbus subsidiary Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. and Clyde Space, and a network of smallsat component suppliers are all based in the U.K. The country is in the process of fostering the establishment of one or more domestic spaceports, though the process is taking longer than expected.
Industry representatives said the U.K.’s spaceflight regulatory regime needs to have rules specifically tailored for smallsat launches so as to not squelch the market with geostationary-sized taxes and fees. Peckham said licensing missions, for example, shouldn’t have costs that are per satellite if a rocket now has 100 satellites on board instead of one or two.
“We also need to change the insurance,” added Joanne Wheeler, a partner at the law firm Bird & Bird. “At the moment, it’s third party liability insurance per satellite at 60 million euros ($64.5 million), and that simply does not work for constellations. We need to look at different models there.”
Cubesats and other small satellites often cost only a few million dollars to manufacture, meaning such insurance costs per satellite could easily dwarf the entire cost of the spacecraft.
Overall, a thumbs up
Peckham said Airbus Safran Launchers, the Airbus-Safran joint venture that builds the Ariane 5 and future Ariane 6 rockets, views the draft bill as positive toward launch operations in the U.K. Paul Davey, Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ U.K. business development lead, said the bill also appears to be on good footing. “It seems to be going in the right direction at this stage,” he said.
Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp. opened a space technology office in Harwell, Oxfordshire, in 2014. Along with conducting commercial Atlas 5 launches in the U.S., Lockheed Martin has an investment in small satellite launcher Rocket Lab of the U.S. and New Zealand and is building a significant portion of Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser mini-shuttle.
“From my perspective, we just have to keep the pace on this,” said Thomas. “It is very encouraging that we see a [draft] bill within six months. To see another iteration of that in an equal period of time, that would be fantastic.”
Ashford said the bill appears flexible enough to cater to vertical and horizontal launch systems, despite the vast differences between the two.