Mind the Gap. The Great British Spaceport
Last month the British government announced eight sites, at various locations around the country, that could potentially host a new spaceport before the end of the decade. The spaceport would have two main purposes: to launch commercial satellites into orbit, and to lob tourists into space on brief suborbital hops.
Of all the nuclear powers, Britain is the only one that has never managed to develop an indigenous space-launch capability. Russia and the United States were the pioneers, of course – but France, China, India and other countries have since followed suit. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, has generally been content to use the facilities in other countries to launch its satellites into space.
The UK did make an early attempt to develop a space launcher, called the Black Arrow – but it only ever made two successful flights, one suborbital and one orbital. The latter put a 66 kg experimental satellite, Prospero, into low earth orbit in 1971. All the Black Arrow tests – successful and unsuccessful – took place on the other side of the globe, at the Woomera test range in Australia.
After 40 years of idleness, the British government seems to have woken up to the fact that spaceflight wasn’t just one of those passing fads of the 1960s. According to the newly announced plans, a full-scale spaceport on British soil would be open for business by 2018. Eight sites have been proposed: Newquay in England, Llanbedr in Wales and no fewer than six locations in Scotland – Campbeltown, Kinloss, Leuchars, Lossiemouth, Prestwick and Stornorway. The selection criteria were:
- A coastal location a reasonable distance from densely populated areas
- An existing runway capable of being extended to three kilometers in length
- Ability to introduce segregated airspace to manage spaceflights safely
UFO buffs will recognize at least two of the names on the government list. RAF Lossiemouth has been the site of several UFO sightings, most notoriously the alleged close encounter that Cedric Allingham had with a flying saucer in 1954. Allingham’s dramatic claims were reminiscent of those made by U.S. contactee George Adamski the previous year. In 1962 another Scottish airbase, RAF Kinloss, was involved in the case that David Clarke has described as “The Scottish Roswell”.
The stated aim of the new spaceport is to provide “a focus for regional and international investment for growth and establishing the UK as a leader in the rapidly-expanding space market.” In practice this is likely to mean launching commercial satellites atop conventional rocket boosters, so the evocative term “spaceport” is somewhat overblown. However, the hope is that more ambitious activities will eventually be undertaken as well, such as launching tourists into space on short suborbital flights. A British company, Virgin Galactic, is already one of the pioneers in this emerging sector.