Welcome to Britain’s answer to Cape Canaveral: How decommissioned RAF base tucked away on remote Shetland isle will soon be launching rockets into space
- SaxaVord spaceport is on course to get its licence within eight weeks
- Crowd-pleasing rocket launch will be a ‘vertical’ launch from a launch pad
Britain’s first spaceport licence for a vertical rocket launch is just weeks away from being granted.
SaxaVord spaceport in Shetland is on course to get its licence from the Civil Aviation Authority within eight weeks, according to its leadership team.
Unlike the ‘horizontal’ rocket launch attempt by Virgin Orbit in Cornwall in January, where the rocket was released from underneath the wing of a jumbo jet, Shetland’s crowd-pleasing rocket launch will be a ‘vertical’ launch from a launch pad, with a countdown, blast-off and trail of flames in its wake.
The sub-orbital launch, of a rocket from German company HyImpulse, which will be the first non-military launch of a large rocket in Britain, is planned to go ahead in early October.
Then, next April, the remote spaceport on the Shetland island of Unst is set to make history, hopefully beating Norway and Sweden to becoming the first country in Europe to launch a rocket into orbit.
SaxaVord spaceport in Shetland is on course to get its licence from the Civil Aviation Authority within eight weeks, according to its leadership team
The sub-orbital launch, of a rocket from German company HyImpulse, which will be the first non-military launch of a large rocket in Britain, is planned to go ahead in early October
Frank Strang, chief executive of SaxVord Spaceport, said: ‘This is a landmark event, knowing it is so close is an emotional moment.
‘We have never contemplated failure but it is nice to prove that we can do this.
‘The feedback we always had from rocket companies was, because of the location, and the maths and physics of it, if we built it, they would come.’
The exact launch time of the first rocket will, inevitably on one of the UK’s most blustery islands, depend on the weather.
A meteorological balloon will be sent up first, to identify which way the wind is blowing.
But the rocket launch tower will not be quite as able to adjust its position based on the wind direction as previously planned, as it is being made less adjustable to meet the rapid deadline set for the first rocket launch in a few months.
The planned timeline of September or October, hoped to beat European competitors, has been possible in part, the company says, because it has been so ‘fleet of foot’.
Funded only by private investors, until public funding started to be offered last year, there were fewer hoops to jump through.
Thousands of people are expected to want to attend Britain’s first large vertical rocket launch, but it is not quite as simple as it was to go to Cornwall earlier in the year.
The location, on the remote island of Unst, requires a plane journey or overnight ferry trip from the Scottish mainland, and then two separate ferries from mainland Shetland
Unst, an island with just 635 residents, has only one hotel, with a second planned hotel on the SaxaVord site not yet constructed, although it has some B&Bs and a campsite
The location, on the remote island of Unst, requires a plane journey or overnight ferry trip from the Scottish mainland, and then two separate ferries from mainland Shetland.
Unst, an island with just 635 residents, has only one hotel, with a second planned hotel on the SaxaVord site not yet constructed, although it has some B&Bs and a campsite.
The exact number of spectators allowed is yet to be decided, in communication with community groups, and depending on the exclusion zone required around the launch pad site.
But people could also use innovative measures, like using fishing boats to grab the perfect vantage point from the sea, from outside the exclusion zone, which is planned to be enforced by boundary boats.
The husband and wife team who spent their life-savings trying to make UK rocket launch dream happen
Saxavord spaceport is the ultimate underdog project by a husband and wife team who spent their life savings and remortgaged their house trying to make it happen.
It was put into action without any public funding, with bailiffs turning up at the family home at one point as Frank and Debbie Strang faced bankruptcy trying to send a rocket into space.
Yet, when they started out, the couple, who run a gin distillery in Shetland, freely admit they knew nothing at all about space travel.
When they bought SaxaVord, the former RAF radar station, from the Ministry of Defence in 2004, they intended it only as a place to stay for tourists hoping to see orcas, dolphins and otters.
But then, in 2017, Shetland Council got in touch to ask if they had considered getting involved in space.
And next they discovered a commercial report commissioned by the UK Space Agency stating that, for a type of orbit in high demand, when it comes to safety and the maximum payload, SaxaVord is the best location in Britain for a rocket launch.
Saxavord spaceport is the ultimate underdog project by a husband and wife team who spent their life savings and remortgaged their house trying to make it happen. It was put into action without any public funding, with bailiffs turning up at the family home at one point as Frank and Debbie Strang faced bankruptcy trying to send a rocket into space
Deciding all the signs were pushing them towards space, the couple recruited their best friend, Scott Hammond, a 60-year-old former flight instructor who worked at the Air Warfare Centre, as well as a finance director and one single engineer, to start working on their spaceport.
Incredibly, they now have 82 staff, three launch pads and the beginnings of a hangar, and are working with seven rocket firms, including Lockheed Martin, while they are on course to make history by launching the first rocket into orbit from European soil.
The couple now find, to their astonishment, that their project is now frequently referred to as ‘Britain’s Cape Canaveral’.
Mr Strang, 65, a qualified PE teacher and later businessman who met his wife of 32 years, Debbie, when both were based at RAF Lossiemouth on the north-east coast of Scotland, said: ‘When we started, we knew about aviation defence and airspace, but we knew nothing about the space industry and really had no clue about what we were getting into.
‘People thought we were absolutely mad, you could see it in their eyes.
Race to space: MailOnline looks at the spaceports due to become operational across Britain from this year and beyond, and how their launch capabilities differ
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‘When we first briefed Shetland Council on our plans, I started the presentation by saying ‘this is not an April fool’.’
He added: ‘I keep calling it the forgotten spaceport because no one believed it would happen.
‘It was difficult, because in the eyes of many, if you don’t have public funding, you can’t be a real project.
‘But we rolled the dice, we charged on – we kissed a lot of frogs when it came to possible investors, and bit by bit we got there.’
The first years of the project were tough, with bailiffs turning up at the door of the couple’s home in Granttown-on-Spey after a loan was recalled.
Mr Strang, a father of two who was in the RAF for 12 years, said: ‘We’ve had deaths, divorces and near-bankruptcy, as well as Debbie opening the door to bailiffs.
‘I get only about three hours a night of sleep because there is so much to do, and we are all very tired as we have had to fight continuously, but we have punched through.’
SaxaVord is in many ways the perfect site, at the northernmost tip of Britain, where rockets launched will avoid populated areas and achieve the perfect orbit following the path of the sun.
But in other ways it has been more tricky, with £9million of work required to the roads to make them fit for heavy cranes and transported rocket parts.
As a wildlife haven, no work could be done on the launch pads between May and the end of June to avoid nesting birds, 12 partially soundproof underground chambers have had to be created for otters, and sheep owned by local crofters will need to be moved off the launch site before each rocket takes off.
The Shetland spaceport team say the only public money they have received, which came late in the project, is £378,000 from the UK Space Agency for part of the rocket tower for its sub-orbital launch, and funding from Highlands and Islands Enterprise towards the salaries of an education and sustainability officer.
The Lamba Ness peninsular in Unst (pictured) will be home to the spaceport
My 18-hour journey to the remote spaceport, by Science Editor VICTORIA ALLEN
Science Editor Victoria Allen took a train to Aberdeen, an overnight ferry to mainland Shetland and two separate ferries to the island of Unst – a journey across the North Sea of more than 18 hours – to see the site expected to launch the first rocket into orbit from European soil.
The trip, staying in the former military quarters of decommissioned radar station RAF SaxaVord, involved a first look at the spaceport site, on the most northerly inhabited part of the British Isles.
The location still appears largely wild and barren, dominated by sheep and wheeling seabirds, but rearing up from it is the imposing 12m (39ft) ‘stool’, built with millimetre-level precision by German firm Ostseestahl, from which Britain’s first ever orbital rocket will take off next year.
It is also possible to see the beginnings of the giant hangar which will become the Satellite Integration Facility.
A full briefing on the six-year project was delivered by passionate husband and wife team Frank and Debbie Strang, whose company cars include an SUV which local schoolchildren have painted with aliens, planets and comets.
But Mr Strang, head of a business consortium which previously ran Prestwick Airport in Scotland, has painstakingly, over three years, raised £29million from around 400 investors – principally Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen, who is the biggest shareholder in online fashion firm ASOS.
The space site may be on an island of just 635 people, with staff based in a building next to a field of Shetland ponies, but it is now being taken very seriously, with several politicians having taken the long trip north to visit.
The story of a small community winning people over is a classic reminiscent of the famous Scotland-based film Local Hero.
Mr Strang, who has fought for years to persuade people of his vision, said: ‘It has been like Local Hero meets Rocky.’
Mr Hammond, who has spent years improving his knowledge of the technicalities of space flight, said: ‘At first I would go to space events and people would just ignore you – it was hard work because people didn’t want to know.
‘Now if we are not at a space consortium, people want to know why we weren’t there.
‘When that rocket blasts off, for me, there will be tears and I think I will be in bits.’
But Shetland is keen to avoid the hype of the Virgin Orbit launch from Spaceport Cornwall, where the rocket launched from underneath the wing of a jumbo jet did not reach orbit, and the satellites it was supposed to deposit in space had to be jettisoned into the sea.
The team are quick to tell people that up to 80 per cent of initial rocket launch attempts are a failure, and that theirs may not even make it off the launch pad without burning up.
But if at first they don’t succeed, having three separate launch pads, with two more planned, will make it simpler to quickly try again with rockets produced by separate companies.
The spaceport expects to host the launch of Lockheed Martin’s Pathfinder mission, which has £23.5million in funding from the UK Space Agency, next year.
The spaceport in Shetland, an island well known for its Viking past, has the tagline on one of its promotional posters ‘Space Invaders: from the longship to the spaceship.’
The spaceport team say local people on Unst have been broadly supportive, although some bird-watchers and people who want peace and quiet on the island are unhappy.
Mrs Strang said: ‘We are building something that has never been built before in the UK.
‘But because of the team we have, and their sheer determination to get through, we have punched through in a sector of which we had little knowledge.’
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