The mock-up published by the UK Government imagining what a British spaceport will look like ticks every box on the science fiction ‘must have’; surprising architecture, futuristic spaceplanes, open countryside and no clutter or crowds.
It’s entirely speculative but the artist wasn’t getting completely carried away. Something similar to this will be built in Britain sometime after 2018, giving the country and early lead in sub-orbital travel. A decade from now, spaceplanes could be taking off from it carrying paying passengers.
The sum earmarked by the UK Government to build the spaceport under the forthcoming Modern Transport Bill is a relatively modest £150 million ($220 million), a fraction of the estimated £18.6 billion it will take to add a third runway to Heathrow.
What is a spaceport?
The primary function of the spaceport will be to launch sub-orbital craft such as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two (SS2) or the Skylon developed in Britain by Reaction Engines. The Virgin design is still in development and the Skylon is not even off the drawing board, but with a burst of activity across the world in this sector it is clear that they will become a reality at some point in the future.
A spaceport is not meant to be used for vertical launches capable of putting rockets into orbit, a more complex undertaking not least because the UK is far from the equator. Sub-orbital craft skim the edge of space and return fairly quickly. If a vertical site is ever built it’s likely that it will be a separate development.
The point? Initially it looks as if people will use spaceports and sub-orbital craft for space tourism, in other words for the hell of it. Further out in time, this type of craft could cut journey times to far-flung parts of the world.
Why is it important?
Space has been identified by the UK Government as one of a number of key industries that will become important for the future of the UK’s industrial base. This is sometimes hard for people to get their minds around. The image of space today is still bathed in the NASA programs of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and it is seen as little more than an exciting fringe. Today, the space industry supports 35,000 jobs and is worth (according to the Government) £11.3 billion per annum. Two decades hence it could be many times this sum.
Which sites have been earmarked?
The shortlist of eight sites was published in July 2014, since when two sites (RAF Leuchars and Kinloss Barracks) have dropped out because of their military significance. That leaves six sites, four of which are in Scotland: Campbeltown Airport, Glasgow Prestwick Airport, RAF Lossiemouth, Stornoway Airport, Llanbedr Airport, Newquay Cornwall Airport.
What does the wining site have to do?
To stand a chance, candidates had to have space for a 3,000 metre runway, shorter than current commercial hubs such as Heathrow. They also have to be reasonably remote from population centres without being too remote, and to be in places capable of having what is called a ‘segregated airspace’ away from commercial air traffic. Weather was another issue mentioned, never an easy ask in the UK.
A big influence on the choice will inevitably be the private-sector companies planning to use it, currently led in the UK by Virgin Galactic. Because the first craft operating from the spaceport will be partly experimental, distance from population centres and other aircraft could be more heavily weighted.
Our money would be on Prestwick in Scotland (already a major airport), Llanbedr in Wales and Newquay in Cornwall. They all have pros and cons; despite being the most developed site Prestwick is politically difficult because of Scotland’s interest in independence and the fact it was nationalised in 2013, Llanbedr is photogenic but would require a major roads upgrade while Newquay is still more associated with surfing than technology. Newquay remains the clear favourite simply because it represents a good balance of all the necessary criteria mentioned above.
When will a decision be made?
One is promised for 2018 with the work to be commenced after that. There is no point building a spaceport without craft to take off from it and paying customers to fill those craft. Both of these are some way off. On the other hand, with no spaceport those craft will end up being launched from somewhere else.
Timescales are still a bit vague and some experts remain sceptical that building a spaceport in the UK is even viable give the country’s distance from the orbit-friendly equator and tendency for it to rain for weeks on end. We'll assume the esperts are wrong but with prestige at stake politics - and future budgets - could also get in the way. Strong local opposition would likely kill the candidacy of a site; no government will want to fight locals or face planning delays building something as feelgood as a spaceport.