At the northernmost tip of the UK, a former RAF base is thought to be weeks away from official recognition as a spaceport ready to launch satellites into orbit.
SaxaVord spaceport is taking shape on a remote peninsula in Unst in Shetland, with a 12m-high rocket launch stool already in place as well as hangars and launch pads under construction.
Owner Frank Strang, who along with his wife Debbie and a small team built the privately-funded spaceport, says the first launch will be “two fingers to the people who tried to put us out of business”.
The first lift-off will be a sub-orbital rocket made by German company HyImpulse, currently expected around October this year.
In April 2024, another German firm – Rocket Factory Augsburg – aims to achieve the first-ever orbital satellite launch from European soil after blasting off from a launch pad called Fredo at SaxaVord.
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The Strangs and director of operations Scott Hammond showed journalists around the SaxaVord site, a former RAF base for its nearby radar station.
At launch pad Fredo, as well as the giant launch stool, a “deluge” system will spray thousands of litres of water to cool the rocket engine flames, with a vast drainage and storage system below.
Nearby, a large building called the integration hangar is being erected, where satellites will be attached to rockets in a sterile environment.
Two other launch pads are under construction, with US company ABL using one called Elizabeth to launch satellites in the UK’s Pathfinder programme.
Mr Strang said the team expect to receive their licence from the Civil Aviation Authority in around eight weeks, meaning they can operate as a commercial spaceport.
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So far just under £30 million has been spent on the spaceport and its associated accommodation facilities at the ex-RAF base, with just over 80 people employed.
Initially he told people on Unst he was “not building Cape Canaveral” – explaining to disbelieving locals that it would be for smaller commercial rockets.
However, he now hopes to build a total of five launch pads, with the site able to take rockets up to 35 metres long.
The SaxaVord team say that Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) has provided unfair “state aid” to their competitor spaceport in Sutherland on the A’Mhoine peninsula, as well as trying to undermine their efforts.
The development agency has said it is in regular contact with SaxaVord and will “always respond” when issues are raised.
The Strangs took over the site in 2004, initially developing it as a nature resort. They are both former RAF personnel.
Mrs Strang said the process of turning it into a spaceport had not been easy, saying: “That’s been really difficult, not having the recognition, and having those from the agencies and the public sector who you thought were there to support you, actively working against you.”
The first launch will be “very emotional”, she said.
A spokesman for Highlands and Islands Enterprise said: “We are excited to see the progress being made by the developers of both SaxaVord Spaceport and Sutherland Spaceport.
“These two spaceports are designed to serve a dynamic and growing international satellite launch market.
“We regard both as important infrastructure projects that are complementary to one another and part of wider efforts to grow the space sector as a key element of Scotland’s economy.”
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