The mid-December flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo has sparked interest in the commercial exploitation of space. The craft was Burt Rutan’s rocket plane, following on from his winning of the X-Prize in October 2004 with his SpaceShipOne, funded by Paul Allen. It was then that Sir Richard Branson stepped in to fund its successor, promising space tourism “within a couple of years.” Important though the recent flight was, it reached only 82km, which Branson has redefined as “space.” The accepted international boundary is the Karman Line at 100km, which Rutan had to reach twice to win the X-Prize.
The phrase “a couple of years” resonates because it reveals the difficulties of achieving safe sub-orbital flight for paying passengers. I was the first person in Britain to sign up and pay a deposit for such a flight late last century. I was told then that it would probably be in “a couple of years.” Since then it has always been two years away. However, the recent flight indicates that we might be nearing the elusive goal. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are in competition with Virgin Galactic to carry the first fare-paying passengers into space. Both of the competitors have achieved many uncrewed flights into space.
After years of lacklustre interest in space, the UK has finally moved to enter what is expected to be a multi-billion pound industry by designating several areas as spaceports. Vertically launched rockets and satellites will initially lift off from the A ‘Mhoine peninsula in Sutherland, at a site between Tongue and Durness, and a £2m development fund will go towards spaceports for horizontal launches from Prestwick, Newquay, Campbeltown and Llanbedr.
What is needed now is for government to speed up the regulatory environment under which these launches will take place, and to refrain from a heavy-handed approach that might use the precautionary principle to hold back development. The aim should be to give the UK an important niche in a fast developing industry.