Dave Webb shares a guest blog on the lastest launch failure.
“The UK Space Agency has been keen to say that the new UK spaceports will only launch commercial satellites and will bring money and jobs to local communities. However, following the failure of Virgin Orbit to launch 9 satellites (4 of them for the military) into orbit from Spaceport Cornwall at Newquay in January, MPs have been told that the UK is seen as “toxic” for future launches. It was even suggested that funding should be redirected from launches to hospitals (maybe not a bad idea?).
Virgin Orbit uses a converted Boeing 747 aircraft to carry a rocket (called LauncherOne) up to 35,000 feet where it is released, fires its engines and takes the satellites into orbit. The failure was reported to be due to a dislodged fuel filter, which caused LauncherOne to prematurely shut down. Rocket and payload ended up in the Atlantic. Reports followed that the company had been warned that the rocket was not ready and that the Government may have pressured Virgin Orbit and Spaceport Cornwall to go ahead to create “a good news story”. This has been strongly denied and Virgin has blamed the Civil Aviation Authority for taking so long to grant a licence for the launch – even though that gave them more time to prepare and should have meant less chance of failure.
Virgin has ended its contract with Spaceport Cornwall, claiming that investors would not support another launch from the UK under current licensing conditions. It has also stopped operations and furloughed most of its staff to try to recover from the 44% fall in share prices. Founder Richard Branson has had to fork out a total of $60m in the last four months to keep the company going.
The company’s problems illustrate that entering the space industry is expensive and risky. Their major rival, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, earns billions of dollars from contracts with NASA and the military and Virgin is looking to do the same. Virgin first demonstrated that they could successfully launch minisatellites in January 2021 when they put 10 in orbit for NASA. They said then that they hoped to expand their business to include launches for the US Space Force and US intelligence agencies. Last July they launched seven satellites for the US Space Force from the Mojave Desert spaceport in California. Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said, “We are honoured to be supporting and delivering for the U.S. Space Force and the U.S. Department of Defense”.
The first successful satellite launch from the UK may now be made from Scotland. Five of the seven proposed launch sites in the UK are in Scotland and the SaxaVord spaceport in the Shetland Islands has recently finished construction. As Lockheed Martin is developing launch operations from the Spaceport it seems that future customers will almost certainly include the military.
Promises of only commercial launches, jobs and money have been made to other communities around spaceports and broken (as outlined in ‘For Heaven’s Sake’ – the CND/Dronewars UK report on the UK’s role in militarising space). Shetlanders take note!
Watch this Space.”