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Launch – a vital UK Space capability

Much has been written about the Virgin Orbit horizontal launch two weeks ago, above all, it shows how tough Space is. But no matter how challenging to achieve, a national launch capability is vital if the UK is to have a seat at the top table. Our unique geography enables an exciting mix of both vertical and horizontal systems so, when the Cornwall debris settles, we need to press hard to make that launch breakthrough, adopt a keener eye on landing the benefits back into UK and work hard to expand that forward launch order book.

Dan Hart and the Virgin Orbit team should be congratulated for so many things. They have knocked down barriers, lanced myths and given the region, sector and Nation a sense of what the UK could be doing. Legislative hurdles have been leapt, regulatory structures have been sharpened, juices have been running and the notion that Space is cool, exciting, and accessible has been heightened. But the mission did not get into orbit, precious payload has been lost and ambitions have been dented, so it is vital that every element of accessible data is examined to determine what happened to that 2nd stage. Fixing what went wrong will reduce the risks downstream and enable the goal – a UK Space Launch capability – to be realised.

It is curious though how far the UK leant into enabling the Virgin launch, without locking down the benefits. Aircrew on the team, military shipment of the rocket to UK, a PR machine headed by the UK Space Agency and a Spaceport enthusiastically, if not almost ecclesiastically, committed to the venture. That investment in the region was very modest and little revenue returned to the UK is surprising, so one of the key lessons must be that HMG should be harder nosed on benefits to propel the sector and protect taxpayers.

The UK’s unique geography, the accessibility of the oceans and its positioning with respect to interesting and exploitable orbits is a distinct value. That we can develop vertical launch opportunities in the North to get into Sun-synchronous and polar orbits or use fixed-wing aircraft to deliver horizontal options is significant and unique to the UK. There are numerous vertical launch companies coming to the fore which might get that first payload into orbit, but also a number of horizontal companies. Virgin will come back stronger I am sure, but Astraius with its C-17 parachute extraction horizontal launch capability is hot on its heels. This may sound cluttered, but 1700 satellite are expected to be launched this year, 17,000 by 2030, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine now means that there is a surfeit of payload demand and a deficit in launch supply. We just need to be ready to capture some of it.

The first steps in this are in hand with the Civil Aviation Authority speedily commissioning more Space ports in the next few months. The sooner these are certified, the quicker UK can become productive, and the faster industry will grow. It is possible that Rocket Factory Augsburg, in the absence of a German Spaceport, might be the first successful launch later this year, but this does not matter, the greater goal is for the UK to have secured a sure foot in the launch business. This is where the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the UK Space Agency should spread bet its support beyond Virgin to clear that all-important hurdle. Broadening the pipe will extend and expand the return to the space ports, regions, sector, and Treasury.

Virgin have some work to do, but we should congratulate the team for their ambition, perseverance in the face of extreme pressure and for laying big flagstones for others to tread upon. Rocket Factory Augsburg will be primarily funded by European Space Agency – ESA so it is entirely possible that every penny/cent of revenue from the second orbit attempt will again go offshore. So the UK Government has homework too, to ensure that it emerges from the Cornwall event with sharper thinking, higher goals, clearer plans, better engagement and an eye on the return for tax payers. To land this our plans should be bolder, stronger, and clearer-sighted on the primary goals.

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