‘Seismic change’ needed to attract space-race investors to Britain

Spacecraft manufacturer highlights prohibitive costs of launch missions and calls for removal of red tape

Virgin Orbit's failed launch bid in January. But the real deterrent is complicated CAA processes, says a leading aerospace firm. PA
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It is unwise to invest in the quest to launch spaceships from British soil until licensing delay issues are resolved, officials were told on Wednesday.

Space Forge, an aerospace manufacturing company, explained to the UK Science and Technology Committee that stringent regulatory processes are making the time and cost of launching missions prohibitive.

Virgin Orbit's failed attempt to blast satellites into orbit from Cornwall in January was blamed on a dislodged fuel filter, resulting in some rocket components and payload falling into the Atlantic.

The failure itself was not necessarily a deterrent to companies wanting to launch spacecraft from the UK, but rather the deterrent was the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) processes, Space Forge claimed.

Patrick McCall, a non-executive director at Space Forge, said: “The CAA is taking a different approach to risk — and a bit to process and timing as well”.

“But I think unless there is, without wanting to be too dramatic, a seismic change in that approach, the UK is not going to be competitive from a launch perspective.”

Joshua Western, Space Forge chief executive, said excessive red tape was hindering progress, suggesting a lack of engagement with UK authorities.

He compared this to Portugal, where official correspondence from the government or the regulator took place on more or less a weekly basis.

Mr Western told the committee: “Quite frankly, it costs us more to license our satellite for launch than it did to launch it.”

Mr McCall added: “I think the conclusion I’ve reached is it’s not a good use of money, because our regulatory framework is not competitive.”

A committee heard regulatory process in the UK were a significant obstacle to space launches. PA

Greg Clark, chairman of the committee, said it was disastrous that an attempt to demonstrate UK capabilities had turned “toxic for private, privately funded launch”.

The MPs heard there were potentially too many organisations and processes involved in achieving regulatory approval, causing delays.

Spaceport Cornwall was awarded an operating licence in November, allowing it to host the UK's first space launch. Still, licences for Virgin Orbit remained outstanding until later in the year due to technical and regulatory issues.

Sir Stephen Hillier, chairman of the CAA, said: “We recognise what they say but the Civil Aviation Authority took on this role in July 2021.

“In that period we’ve had 18 board meetings … at a dozen of those, space and our progress in space was a substantive matter for discussion and debate, including an extraordinary board meeting in advance of the Virgin Orbital launch.”

He added that a key goal for the CAA was to enact the legislation.

Since taking on the regulatory role in July 2021, the CAA have granted 285 space licences, including to Spaceport Cornwall and Virgin Orbit.  Reuters

Tim Johnson, director for space regulation at the CAA, said: “Helping develop a safe and thriving UK space industry is a key part of our work as the space regulator.

“Since taking on the regulatory role in July 2021, we have granted 285 space licences, including to Spaceport Cornwall and Virgin Orbit, and there are a further 38 applications in the pipeline from aspiring spaceport, launch and satellite operators.”

The evidence presented to the committee highlights the regulatory process in the UK as a significant obstacle to space launches. Until these issues are resolved, the UK's attempts to become competitive in this area may continue to fail.

The need for a central gateway to manage the process effectively is crucial to avoid unnecessary delays and high costs for companies seeking to launch from UK soil. While progress has been made, it will take time to ensure that safety is not compromised while streamlining the process to make it more efficient.

Updated: March 01, 2023, 5:11 PM