What do you know about rockets, satellites, the space station and the space industry in general? If you’ve watched Apollo 13 or Asteroid you probably know about as much as I did six months ago when I was asked to head up a project to turn an existing UK airport into a fully functioning spaceport, potentially the first such spaceport in the UK (perhaps even Europe). I’m still no rocket scientist, but it’s fair to say I know a little more now. Let me explain.
The UK government’s space innovation and growth strategy, published in 2014 included an ambition to establish a “spaceport” in the UK by 2018 and to identify further reforms to regulation needed to allow commercial space flight in the UK. In July of that year the CAA published some basic operational, safety, meteorological, environmental and economic criteria for selecting a suitable site for a spaceport, and initiated a bid process in the UK. A number of UK airports submitted bids and late in 2015 the CAA announced its shortlist of five sites that met the criteria. These being; Prestwick, Stornoway, and Macrihanish in Scotland, Newquay in Cornwall and Llanbedr airport in Wales.
It has to be said that with varying levels of investment, any of these sites could have the potential to take off (and land) a launch vehicle headed for space, whether that be for rich wannabe astronauts or the deployment of low Earth orbit satellites. However, whilst runway length, clear airspace and sea facing locations (to avoid the need to fly over populated areas) are obviously vital factors in determining a suitable site for a UK spaceport, they do not necessarily ensure that any particular site is a viable proposition for a commercial spaceport.
So what does determine whether any given spaceport site has the potential to be a viable and sustainable long term business proposition?
To answer that I believe we need to look at this from the potential customer’s point of view. As an airline is a customer to a conventional airport, a space launch vehicle operator will be the primary customer and revenue source for an operational spaceport. Commercial spaceport operations are already starting to spring up around the world, and in the future there could possibly be an abundance of spaceport locations to choose from, so any prospective launch vehicle operator will be looking closely at a number of factors when choosing a potential spaceport site for their launch operations.
Let’s look at some of the key ones:
Connectivity will be an essential component of any decision on which spaceport to use. Launch vehicles, launch vehicle parts, satellites, satellite components, fuel and people will all at some point need to be transported to and from the spaceport site. Much of this will require large trucks or rail transportation so motorway/wide road and rail access will be a crucial factor in any decision on launch site. The availability of a deep sea port close to the spaceport might also play a part as large space vehicles and satellites could potentially be delivered to the launch location via sea.
Handling, storage and potential recovery of the launch vehicles and components will be an ongoing requirement for any launch vehicle operator. This will include everything from the effective handling and storage of complete or partially built launch vehicles at the spaceport site, to the recovery and transportation of launch vehicles from any other potential location on the planet back to the spaceport. A conventional large freighter aircraft operation will need to be permanently available at the spaceport for the transportation of vehicles, parts and potential satellite payloads to support the launch vehicle operator’s global business.
Mission or launch control is an obvious and fundamental component of any space launch and successful return of a launch vehicle. We’ve all seen the Cape Canaveral countdowns 10…9…8…7…6…; but the technology sitting behind that launch sequence; the checking of every detail, every safety component, guaranteed free airspace above and evaluating every potential scenario as the moment of launch fast approaches is vital to a safe and successful launch and return of the space vehicle. The launch vehicle operator will either need to assure itself that the spaceport is capable of providing this technology or will be required to invest in all the necessary hardware and systems itself, before any launch can take place.
Technical support is another primary concern. Similar to a conventional airline establishing operations at a new airport, a space launch vehicle operator will require extensive on the ground technical support for its operations. This might include high-tech engineering support, planned maintenance and repair of the launch vehicle itself and any associated ground support vehicles such as tugs, fuelling rigs, etc. The launch vehicle operator will be evaluating whether they would need to make the significant investment required to establish these support services themselves, or whether they would be provided by the existing spaceport infrastructure?
Resources. For a launch vehicle operator, another perhaps less obvious factor for deciding on the long term sustainability of any potential spaceport operation will be the ongoing availability of specialist resources. For example; a launch vehicle operator would most likely be asking: what are the size and demographics of the local population? Where will all the new specialist aerospace engineers, planners, IT specialists, mechanics and ground handling personnel be coming from? Are there local universities, colleges, schools and other training facilities available to feed the needs of the business over the long term, or does all this have to be put in place? And perhaps a wider question, what are the local area and available amenities like, will our own staff want to relocate there?
All these, and other key factors will go towards determining whether any potential UK spaceport site is a viable commercial proposition over the long term. Obviously a site where much of the above is already in place will require significantly less investment than sites where there is no current infrastructure. We then have to ask the question; how will potential UK sites that do require significant investment in infrastructure and people, convince their investors that there will be a viable payback in this uncertain fledgling industry? Or is there simply an expectation that all of this will be government funded, and if so, the question needs to be asked why should the public purse fund such a commercial proposition without the certainty of a reasonable return on that investment?
So, with all that in mind, what of the existing potential UK spaceport sites?
Do any of them fulfil all of the requirements listed above? No.
Do any of them come close? Yes.
Prestwick Airport is the only one of the potential UK sites that already fulfils most of the requirements of a fully functioning spaceport without the need for significant investment. It is, as a result the UK’s best, and perhaps only option for achieving a fully operational spaceport by the original 2018 target date.
With a three kilometre runway, a supporting 1.8 kilometre cross runway, over sea take off and clear airspace around the planned launch trajectory to the west and north of Scotland, Prestwick certainly satisfies all the initial key criteria for a UK spaceport. So let’s look at how it fares against the additional key criteria previously discussed.
The airport has the best surface transport links of any Scottish airport with direct motorway access to the M77 / M8 / M74 and M90, connecting Prestwick Airport with the key centres of Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester and London.
Prestwick Airport has its own railway station and nearby freight siding which provides direct rail access to the main UK west coast line, London and onwards into Europe.
The sea ports of Ayr and Troon are less than six miles away, and the deep sea port of Ardrossan is just 17 miles away.
Handling, storage and recovery:
Prestwick Airport has been handling significant volumes of air cargo for nearly 80 years. The airport has its own cargo handling terminal situated within a modern, purpose built cargo area adjacent to the main passenger terminal and is fully equipped to handle the largest cargo carrying aircraft in the world. In addition to daily B747F freighter operations, the highly experienced Prestwick cargo team regularly handle large charter operations of heavy oil and gas equipment moving in and out of Aberdeen. The handling of industrial sized cargo is second nature to the people at Prestwick.
Aircraft hangar space up to B747 size is already currently available on the airfield, and with a massive 950 acre site there is almost an endless capacity to construct any hangar facility that may be required.
The Prestwick Airport team have long working relationships with a number of global cargo freighter operations, so the establishing of an efficient recovery operation for launch vehicles would be a relatively easy task.
Mission and launch control:
National Air Traffic Control (NATS) will be an integral part of any UK launch as they control the airspace above us. NATS operations sit within the Prestwick Aerospace Campus and are already a formal partner of Prestwick Airport on the spaceport project. NATS will be a key component of the development of Prestwick Airport’s capability to become a fully licensed UK spaceport.
Prestwick Airport is unique in that it is the only potential UK spaceport with an existing aerospace industry cluster surrounding it. Aerospace and space giants such as BAE Systems, Spirit Aerosystems, UTC and GE Aviation have their UK and European headquarters at Prestwick. As a result, with nearly 4,000 aerospace specialist staff currently involved in aerospace at Prestwick, there is already a wealth of technical support capability and specialist facilities available to support the spaceport development programme.
With a population of over 2.5m people located within a one hour drive of Prestwick Airport, this is by no means a remote location. Extensive housing, schools and shopping centres surround the airport, as do the local universities of: The University of the West of Scotland, Strathclyde University and Glasgow University, who all offer comprehensive education programmes which support the local aerospace industry.
Based on all that we know about establishing spaceport operations, and supported by an in depth study of the airport by specialist US spaceport consultants, it is obvious that Prestwick Airport stands out as the most likely candidate to become the UKs first fully operational spaceport. I don’t think I’ll ever be a rocket scientist, and even less likely an astronaut, but I am excited and proud to be a part of the UK’s first spaceport team.