Wales dreams of the cosmos as small-nation space race heats up

The country hopes growing space industry will bring jobs and revive industrial heartlands

Wales, photographed by Nasa, wants to use the space industry to bring high-skilled jobs to the country. PA
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Andrew Bacon would ideally like humanity to “make things in space and leave Earth as a nice garden”, but until that day comes, he hopes to be part of an industrial rebirth closer to home.

His satellite-making start-up, Space Forge, is a centrepiece of Wales’s space ambitions – a big vision for a small country to become a centre for futuristic industries.

Wales's dream to lead the world in sustainable space tech by 2040 is the latest sign of how a cosmos once dominated by Cold War superpowers is now within the grasp of smaller nations such as Wales and the UAE and rich pioneers such as Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson.

But Mr Bacon, an engineer, wants to achieve more than a billionaire's show of pride, aiming to use the zero gravity, extreme temperatures and vacuum beyond the Earth’s atmosphere to reinvent manufacturing and bring space age products back to Wales.

His prototype satellite, which will launch from an English spaceport this summer, is no larger than a microwave oven, but is designed to function as an unmanned, floating factory where yet-undiscovered materials can be forged.

Those materials, which might be as small as parts of a semiconductor or a fibreoptic cable, would be produced in space and brought back to Earth in what Mr Bacon believes will be a cheaper process than simulating the same conditions on the ground.

“Earth is not a very good place to make things,” he told The National at his headquarters in the suburbs of Cardiff, a business park unit that he took over from a fleet of food vans but is already becoming too small for his team of engineers.

A Welsh flag hangs over an airlocked assembly room and a pile of gadgets that were once used in a game of robot wars between engineers, who celebrate learning from their mistakes with a “failure of the month” award.

They hope to expand in time for a 2023 manufacturing demonstration in space and the start of a floating production line from 2024, but relish their place as a big fish in the Welsh pond after developing the country’s first home-grown satellite.

“Let’s do it … let’s make Wales a space power,” Mr Bacon said.

Space strategy

Wales has several things in its favour. It is part of the UK economy, the fifth largest in the world, and the European Space Agency. It has good research universities, a healthy semiconductor sector and 1,400 kilometres of coastline for fetching spacecraft from the sea.

More romantically, it has what one insider called a memory of manufacturing, a heritage from its coal and iron-producing glory days that ministers would like to revive after the long years of post-industrial poverty in the Welsh valleys.

“The value of engineering is appreciated here,” said Lewis D’Ambra, Space Forge’s head of government affairs. “It’s nice to see things coming back.”

A space strategy unveiled by the Welsh government in February puts the focus on creating high-skilled jobs for the country of three million people and generating a £2 billion ($2.61bn) dividend per year for its economy.

The vision is not of daring feats by explorers, although some astronauts of Welsh heritage have been to space, but of a country manufacturing the technology of the future instead of buying it from rivals.

Wales’s space dream “isn’t just about the traditional images of a big rocket”, Economy Minister Vaughan Gething told The National while leading a trade mission to Dubai.

“What I’d really like to see the public get excited about is the opportunity, and the opportunity is essentially more really good jobs,” he said.

With investment bank Morgan Stanley estimating that space could be a trillion-dollar industry by 2040, even a small slice of that pie is an attractive prize for policymakers.

Emirati space officials have spoken of attracting skilled workers to the UAE via the space economy and plan to more than double the Dh1.5 billion ($408 million) they have invested in the industry in the past eight years.

The UAE was the first Arab country to put a spacecraft in Martian orbit, only the fifth power to do so after the US, Soviet Union, India and the European Union, and plans to put a rover on the Moon in October.

Luxembourg, one of Europe’s smallest countries, is home to about 50 space companies, has collaboration agreements with Nasa and India and earns 2 per cent of its GDP from the space sector. It has a stated aim of becoming the “European hub in space resources”.

Europe more broadly was largely left behind by the US and China in the internet and social media revolution and wants to avoid missing the boat in next-generation industries such as space and artificial intelligence.

Israel is another competitor in the race, expanding an initially military space programme into civilian activity and hoping to capture up to 5 per cent of the global space market.

Mr Gething said that Wales’s push is hamstrung by Britain’s financial carve-up after Brexit, with science and innovation funding once received from the European Union no longer finding its way to Cardiff. The UK as a whole has its own space strategy, partly focused on defence.

The minister said this is an obstacle to his plans to invest in science, upgrade the skills of the workforce and foster flagship, high-tech space companies in Wales.

Airbus, Raytheon, Qinetiq and Qioptiq, who make 98 per cent of the glass used in the world’s satellites and spacecraft, all have premises in Wales. A company in Newport, B2Space, wants to launch satellites with balloons.

The idea is to put small satellites into space and save them from waiting in line to be launched on a large rocket, unpacked by astronauts and working to the timetable of Nasa or other space agencies.

An airfield in Llanbedr, North Wales, is home to an aerospace centre that its operators hope to turn into a fully-fledged Spaceport Snowdonia, although it has rivals in this field elsewhere in the UK.

European launches typically take place from a spaceport in French Guiana, while co-operation between the ESA and Russia’s space programme has been largely suspended because of the invasion of Ukraine.

Billionaires such as Amazon's Mr Bezos, Virgin chief Mr Branson and Tesla founder Elon Musk are bringing the cost of launch down but a thriving space industry will eventually need satellites taking off every day, Mr Bacon said.

His prototype will be taking off this summer on a Virgin Orbit rocket designed by Mr Branson’s company in Long Beach, California.

Space Forge is developing a re-entry shield. Mr Bacon is unwilling to reveal details but he says it will bring back “100 per cent of the satellite we launch”, lowering the cost of the spacecraft.

He believes the company, which has raised more than $10 million from investors and received funding from the ESA, has found an opening in the market where spacecraft are not used for exploration or as a high ground for communications and observation but as a free-standing, robot-operated factory.

This saves companies money because extreme heat or cold that is expensive to simulate on Earth can be attained simply by opening the spacecraft door, Mr Bacon said. A second advantage is the vacuum, which removes the risk of contamination.

A third is that materials of different weights, which gravity would separate on Earth, can be neatly merged in space where “there’s no up, there’s no down”, he said.

Extra-strong materials developed this way could be used to make wind turbines or aircraft parts bigger and more powerful, since assembling larger ones from several pieces can only be done if there is no risk they will fall apart.

This matters because sustainability is an important motto for Wales, Space Forge and other industry players planning to pitch their activities in space to an increasingly climate-conscious market.

Industry insiders see spacecraft as part of the solution, both in monitoring environmental changes on Earth and in showing the way for aircraft to produce less carbon.

“We wouldn’t even know that there’s a climate crisis at all” without space observation, Mr Bacon said.

He hopes Space Forge will bring back energy-saving materials and parts for electric car chargers from space, while any waste can be fired into the nothingness rather than accumulating on the ground.

"I don't see an end point for this type of business" for generations to come, he said.

Updated: April 22, 2022, 6:00 PM