The future of rocket launches from UK soil has come under question after the failed first attempt laid bare the lengthy licensing process threatening an exodus of firms. Despite the UK being the first European nation to attempt a rocket launch from its home soil back in January, industry figures have warned European competitors could pull ahead.
UK start-up Space Forge’s first-ever satellite built and designed in Wales was aboard Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket when it suffered an “anomoly” that ruined the historic mission.
Left bitterly disappointed and frustrated by the entire process, SpaceForge’s next satellite will now get sent blasting into orbit from the US instead.
But for the small Cardiff-based firm, it was the lengthy and flawed licensing process of the UK’s space regulator – the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) – rather than the technical failure Virgin’s rocket suffered that put it off from another UK launch.
SpaceForge warned that the regulation process needs serious reform or else the UK risks more companies performing their launch operations elsewhere, such as in US or Portugal. It comes after repeated delays to the Virgin Orbit launch start date due to Britain’s “lethargic” licensing framework.
Despite its decision to launch elsewhere being attributed mainly to licensing issues, the failed launch was still clearly a blow for the company.
Speaking at a Science and Technology Committee hearing, Space Forge’s CEO Joshua Western said: “The launch not succeeding means were are six months behind our competitors in terms of deploying our technology. “
But a summer launch date that had originally been pinpointed did not happen until January 9 2023, which was costly for the firm.
Mr Western said his company “pulled out all the stops to be ready for the original July timeline”. He said there were “gaps between engagements” with the regulator, adding that his firm and likely others suffered from the delays.
Mr Western said: “Quite frankly, it cost us more to license our satellite than it actually did to launch it.”
Meanwhile, he noted that other nations, such as Portugal and the US, have a much smoother regulation process,Mr Western said the “pace” is much quicker, with engagements on a weekly basis.
In fact, Mr Western said that a launch in Portugal could cost up to 15 to 20 times less than in the UK due to the differing pace in the licensing process.
David Morris, the Conservative MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale and the UK’s first appointed national space champion, said he “felt like Nostradamus” listening to the committee hearing as he has been warning about the problems with the CAA for years.
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He told Express.co.uk: “All the businesses say the licensing framework is very lethargic and they are considering doing business elsewhere. Questions have got to be asked of the CAA. I have been telling them to get their act together and sort it out for two years.
“The problem that we have had is that the licensing has been very disproportionate. The problem is not the spaceports or the Government facilities we have created and enabled.
“It is the licensing which has been born out of secondary legislation the CAA themselves had more than a heavy hand in reenacting. It was done in lockdown without any scrutiny because nobody was there…This is nothing new, I am not shocked by what I heard to today.”
While Space Forge suggested the UK does not necessarily need launch capabilities to boost the strength of its burgeoning space industry, Mr Morris said a UK-based rocket launch site would be guaranteed to bring a huge boost to the economy.
He told Express.co.uk: “It is advantageous if we do have our own carriers purely and simply because we can keep it in- house and make more money for the Treasury.”
He added that Britain could also better address some of the industry’s issues by appointing a dedicated minister with a brief dedicated to space alone.
Mr Morris continued: “Currently worth £20billion, I am absolutely certain that if we had a dedicated space minister taking the bull by the horns, you would double that in 12 months….There are not many in parliament that understand this. We currently have four (ministers), but the reality is that space has become such a convoluted issue that it needs someone to sort it out.”
The MPs questioning the CAA in the committee hearing put the concerns over the license delays, uncertainty about the regulation, and worries about duplication and staffing shortages, to the regulator. It also asked why recommendations had not been taken up.
It came after Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit’s CEO, announced his surprise at the lengthy licensing process which involved the rehashing of information and other formalities it has never experienced in the dozens of other launches it has performed in the US.
The CAA responded by claiming it has been trying to play its part in a thriving space environment by enacting the legislation given to it. It added that its duty was to make sure it was acted on safely and that it has to act according to the UK’s own specific requirements.
Express.co.uk is reaching out to the CAA for further comment.
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