“Hamilton, we have a problem”

James Ford

Could Scotland beat England into space?

Beam me up, Scotty. Never mind the spiralling cost of HS2, this week the Department for Transport and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills launched a joint public consultation to identify a suitable location for a UK spaceport.  Such a facility could be open by 2018.
Launching the consultation, Business Secretary Vince Cable said: “Space is big business for the UK. It already contributes £11.3 billion to the economy each year, supporting nearly 35,000 jobs. That’s why it’s important for us to prepare the UK for new launcher technology and take steps towards meeting our ambition of establishing the first British spaceport by 2018.”

The Government’s 2011 Plan for Growth identified the space industry as one of eight key sectors, with an ambition that the UK’s space economy should account for 10% of the global market by 2030, equating to roughly £40 billion per year. A key part of this ambition is for the UK to be the European centre for sub-orbital spaceflight. In order to attract potential commercial spaceflight operators to set up here, the Government is keen to ensure the UK is one of the first countries in Europe to develop suitable infrastructure.

The Civil Aviation Authority has drawn up criteria to identify suitable coastal locations, all of which are civilian or military aerodromes in coastal areas.  Whilst I will be the first to praise this rare example of forward thinking in Government, the shortlist of possible locations is far from future proof. Of the eight options, six are in Scotland.

This means that, in the event of a yes vote on Scottish independence in September, three-quarters of the UK’s best locations for a spaceport could end up being in a foreign country. If the SNP succeeds in its aim of forcing the removal of the UK nuclear submarine fleet from an independent Scotland we could see many of highly-skilled engineers that currently work on the Clyde maintaining Trident rushing to become the first recruits to McNASA (as I imagine a Scottish space agency would surely be called).

Sub-orbital spaceflight is not just a remote science. Whilst early applications are likely to include the delivery of satellites and other scientific payloads, in the longer term using sub-orbital trajectories could dramatically cut flight times for air journeys. The CAA estimates that a sub-orbital flight could slash the flight time of a journey from the UK to Australia from 20 to just 2 hours.

Who knows, maybe commercial spaceflight will be the 21st century boost to the Scottish economy that North Sea Oil was in the late 20th century.

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