UK spaceports: contested orbital landscapes

The past decade has seen a new global interest in establishing commercial spaceports for launching a diverse range of spacecraft. This signifies a shift away from national ownership of space-launch facilities, as a host of smaller, privately-backed facilities are emerging around the world, including Spaceport America outside Truth or Consequences, New Mexico; Equatorial Launch Australia in Arnhem, in Australia’s Northern Territory; and Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in Mahia, New Zealand. Such sites are currently in varying states of readiness to offer commercial satellite launches in the near future, with sub-orbital space tourism a more distant prospect. The UK is part of this global shift, with several small spaceports currently in development, representing an interest that has arisen partly out of the growth of UK satellite-manufacturing and space-services industries, alongside a more general proliferation and specialisation of satellite technologies since the late twentieth century.

The anticipated expansion of the commercial market for space launches in the UK should come as no surprise, as British companies, laboratories, and universities have long been involved in the space science and aerospace industries (see Chapters 5 and 7). While the commercialisation of outer space in the past few decades has been driven by the growth of satellite industries, particularly in the communications, environmental monitoring and surveillance sectors, these industries have relied on support from governments and the public sector. This new era in space exploration, with private companies operating alongside national and international space agencies, is occurring in both the Earth-orbital sphere, as well as increasingly in resource-oriented approaches to deep space exploration.1 Moreover, the global satellite industry has been recognised as being closely associated with the neoliberal economic policies of Western states since the late twentieth century and related geopolitical imperatives.2 One outcome of this association between industry and the state has been the application of satellite imagery to military as well as commercial uses, with these sectors said to be ‘going hand in hand to assert national objectives in outer space’.3 Indeed, despite landmark international agreements, such as the Outer Space Treaty (1967) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (1972 2002), the orbital realm is increasingly seen as militarised and even weaponised? An emerging regulatory and legislative environment has, therefore, created a new frontier for the commercialisation of outer space in Britain, with important implications for the militarisation of space.

In domestic political discourse, the establishment of the UK Space Agency in 2010 and the endorsement of Tim Peake as Britain’s first ‘official’ astronaut in 2015 signalled a renewed focus on space exploration in Britain. As well as indicating a closer involvement with the European Space Agency’s human spaceflight programme, this move has sought to carve out a greater role for the private space industry, including satellites but also in space science and prospective space tourism. The Space Industry Act in 2018 became the first major outer-space legislation in the UK since 1986, and identified satellite-launching as a growth industry of the future, estimated to be worth £10 billion to the UK economy.5 Advocacy groups including the BIS have supported such moves enthusiastically, seeing the 2018 Act as a cornerstone of Britain’s future as a spacefaring nation, while upholding the Society’s long-standing ambitions for spaceflight (see Chapter 3). Such discourses are emblematic of a new phase of space exploration, that looks back on prior achievements in British spaceflight with a sense of nostalgia, while excitedly anticipating ‘an indigenous launch capability for the UK’.6 As such, recent Spaceflight editorials recall the British-made Prospero satellite of 1971 as an icon of past British achievement in space (see Chapter 5), while describing the UK as forcefully ‘standing] alone’ and independently pursuing space exploration through partnerships between the public and private sectors, with the prospect of regular space launches taking place 'from British soil’.7 Here, familiar national touchstones have again come to inform the ambitions of space exploration.

The prospect of establishing a home-grown satellite-navigation system to replace the UK’s involvement in the European Union’s Galileo project post-Brexit has acted as a further stimulus to the UK space industry. In July 2020, the UK Government bought a £400 million stake in the bankrupt American satellite firm OneWeb, a move designed to create a ‘sovereign space capability’ with applications across the commercial, communications and defence sectors.8 Indeed, while Galileo will still be available to UK users for everyday satellite navigation, its more precise military and strategic positioning system is restricted to EU member-states. With the anticipation of a UK space strategy, amid such investments in the space industry, it is fair to say that the UK government is serious about space in the new commercial era. While there is a clear potential for economic growth in this area, concerns remain about increased military use of Earth-orbital space, as well as the wider political environment of nationalism and international competition in space. British spaceport proposals have further contributed to such narratives, enrolling distinct geographies of landscape, aerial and orbital space.

The Space Industry Act paved the way for the development of commercial spaceports in the UK for the first time. One immediate consequence of the Act was the establishment of the cross-departmental policy programme LaunchUK, through which private companies could bid for government funding towards the specific goal of creating the UK’s first spaceport. Similar legislation in the United States has led to the Federal Aviation Administration approving eleven permits for commercial spaceports across the US by 2018.9 The LaunchUK competition attracted a range of bids, including for a vertical-launch spaceport in Sutherland, on Scotland’s north coast, as well as several options for horizontal-launch spaceports, including in Cornwall, Snowdonia and South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. While the vertical-launch option consists of staged rockets using conventional ballistic trajectories, the horizontal launch involves a modified jumbo jet taking off from a runway, with rocket stages deployed mid-flight to take payloads up into orbit. Each system has its own advantages, with the more ambitious vertical method offering the potential for greater payloads, including the possibility of multiple satellites per launch, and the horizontal method lower in cost, being able to rely on existing airfield infrastructure. Both approaches take advantage of coastal launch sites, with hardware from launch fallout, including booster stages and other abortive materials, able to crash-land in the seas around Britain. The Sutherland proposal was favoured in the first round of bidding, while the funding streams initiated by the Space Industry Act have encouraged continued development of spaceport plans across a range of options, with the Cornwall site, in partnership with Virgin Orbit, additionally awarded funding.

The emerging UK launch industry configures space in a variety of ways, from local landscapes to geopolitical positioning. This has involved envisaging the technological landscapes of the future, reformulating the value of peripheral spaces, and aligning with a variety of global orbital pathways. The qualities of this spatiality are typically summarised as the ‘right geography’ for the space-launch industry in the new commercial space age.10 In a certain sense this space-launch geography updates prior anticipatory visions of global spaceports aligned with the territories of the former British Empire, from the mountain-tops of Africa to the high latitudes of Antarctica, in its projection of British national interests to outer space (see Chapter 5). In 2020, the proposers of the Sutherland site, the Scotland-based technology start-up Orbex and the defence multinational Lockheed Martin, were awarded £17.3 million in funding, sourced from Scotland’s Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the UK's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, and the UK Space Agency, and theirs is, at the time of writing, the most advanced of the proposals submitted to the LaunchUK scheme.11 Prior to this, a government press release stated that ‘Scotland is the best place in the UK to reach in-demand satellite orbits with vertically launched rockets’, namely the polar orbit.12 Across the worldwide launch industry, different kinds of satellite orbit serve different purposes, with far-out geostationary orbits mostly used for Earth-monitoring applications and global communications, as opposed to the low-Earth orbits which are more typically used for reconnaissance, mapping and navigation.1’ The Sutherland proposal involves launching satellites due north into a polar low-Earth orbit, which is beneficial in terms of its potential to cover the entire Earth’s surface in as little as fourteen days, while crossing directly over both polar regions.14 This approach takes advantage of Scotland’s high latitudes, in contrast to tropical and equatorial sites which, due to the effects of the Earth’s rotation, are more suited to attaining geostationary and other extended orbits. Accordingly, a LaunchUK. promotional poster (Fig. 8.1) uses landscape imagery to implicitly favour sites in the far north such as Sutherland. It does this by portraying a vertical rocket launch against a mountainous backdrop, with the blue-green hues of the Aurora Borealis signifying northerly skies. In such ways, the spaces of outer space again become intimately connected to the terrestrial spaces of the Earth’s surface.

The ability to efficiently attain polar orbit is something of a unique selling point of the Sutherland site. This was confirmed in an Orbex pressrelease video in August 2019, which claimed that ‘Sutherland is one of the few locations in Europe to offer easy access to polar orbits’.15 This raises questions about the potential for further militarisation of space, when considered in the broader context of the interplay between government, private finance and the defence industry, alongside the emerging geopolitics of the Arctic. The involvement of the American aerospace-defence contractor Lockheed Martin as part of the bidding consortium infers the likelihood of the Sutherland launch site being considered as ‘dual-use’, a designation that has been used to describe combined civilian and military applications of space hardware.16 This adds to concerns about outer space being treated

LaunchUK promotional image

Figure 8.1 LaunchUK promotional image

Source Credit: UK Space Agencyas ‘the next frontier for military-neoliberal hegemony’, in the renewed context of a broader range of nation-states becoming involved in space-launch activities.17

The UK Government’s publication of a Defence Arctic Strategy in 2018 raises further questions about the militarisation of the Arctic region, including its volumetric spaces. This strategy, the first of its kind, has been understood as part of official responses to ‘environmental, geopolitical and geo-economic trends affecting the Arctic’, including the resurgence of Russia as a military power, the opening up of new shipping routes through the Arctic Ocean as a result of sea-ice melting, and the anticipation of new frontiers of resource extraction similarly exposed as a consequence of anthropogenic global warming.18 It involves the active deployment of military hardware to Arctic spaces, including cold-weather training of ground troops, RAF patrols of Arctic airspace and the deployment of submarines under the Arctic sea ice.19 This contributes to a sense in which the Arctic is understood a region that is gradually ‘melting into the realm of “normal” politics’, not only at sea-level but also above and below the surface, and illustrates the ways in which outer-space activities in the militarised realm often mirror grounded geopolitical realities.20 While ostensibly acting as a forerunner of technological and economic progress in the UK space sector, the proposed Sutherland site, whether or not it ultimately becomes Britain’s first spaceport, must be seen in this broader political context, as well as in the historical context of British cultures and politics of space exploration.

As well as having implications for nationalism in space and the further militarisation of space, spaceports have also attracted critical attention in other ways, including being understood through concepts of empire and utopia, tropes that have become well-known in critical studies of outer space.21 The spaceport of the European Space Agency in Kourou, French Guiana, for example, has been interpreted as a neo-colonial installation, whose construction in the 1970s served to entrench colonialist inequalities, while Spaceport America, completed in 2011, has been questioned for its use of millions of dollars of US taxpayers’ money, as its corporate tenants, including Virgin Galactic, have so far failed to launch their utopian-inflected space tourism projects.22 Understandings of empire and utopia have also implicated notions of peripherality in the geographies of outer space. For example, the ‘empty’ Central Aboriginal Reserve of the Australian continent was materially overlooked by those planning the adjacent Woomera rocket range (see Chapter 5), while the penal colony that was established in French Guiana during the colonial era served as an indication of the value of this location to the imperial metropole. In such ways, the ‘right geographies’ of spaceport location often implicate places that are either seen as immaterial to national economies and political objectives, or available for exploitation.

Notions of peripherality have also been understood in environmental and social terms, and the anticipated spaceport for Sutherland in Scotland, which was granted planning permission in August 2020, has raised some controversy in terms of its likely impact on local landscapes. The A’Mhoine peninsula, where the spaceport is proposed, is part of the Caithness and Sutherland Peatlands Special Area of Conservation, and contains a Site of Special Scientific Interest, its blanket bog an important sink of carbon, and home to a breeding bird assemblage of national importance.23 While, from the planners’ perspective, the site is described as part of an ‘untouched landscape' ripe for development, this landscape is valued in other ways as part of ‘the far north flow country’, whose ecological significance is noted and valued in social and cultural terms, as ‘the birthright of Scots and the world’.24 A petition opposing the spaceport proposal has attracted over one thousand signatories, with commentary tending to cite the ecological significance of the peninsula, the perceived lack of benefit to the local community, concerns about light and noise pollution, and the military ambitions associated with the site.25

Significantly, representations of landscape and the sublime are used in both sides of this debate, portraying A’Mhoine in contrasting terms, as one of the UK’s last wilderness areas under threat from the space industry, or conversely as a high-tech landscape of progress and opportunity. As such, a host of computer-generated landscape images typically portray dramatic rocket launches against a recognisable highlands background as visions of the technological sublime, while landscape photography recalling the traditions of the Romantic sublime is used to illustrate protests against the development. Aspects of both can be seen in the LaunchUK promotional landscape composite (Fig. 8.1), in an image that synthesises the contested nature of sublime landscapes. In such ways, notions of the sublime have been incorporated into debates about outer-space futures in Britain, a theme that has become central to the understanding of outer space in a further realm of representation and experience, that of contemporary conceptual art.

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