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Saturday, May 03, 2014

Government Now Looking For British Spaceport

Rockets could take off from a spaceport in Britain within five years after ministers launched a search for a suitable site.

The UK Space Agency has been tasked with opening a site by 2018, with the first flights having lift-off within a year.

A remote site, away from homes and businesses, will be required in the plan to better prepare the UK to deal with threats from space – and offer trips to space tourists.
The government has launched a search for a site for a spaceport to become the UK's answer to Cape Canaveral
Mr Willetts said: ‘We want an area where there is not much civil airspace, where it is not very busy,” said Mr Willetts.

‘It might be smaller airports, it might be underused or disused RAF airfields.
‘We’re starting to look at relatively remote parts of the country,’ he told the Telegraph.

7 years ago I made a rather more ambitious proposal for a British and indeed world spaceport which could have been running by now. Even the commenting environmentalist (& several "environmentalists") who objected had no doubt it would work. Ah well.

I have written this to David Willets and we will see:

Dear David Willets,
                                  I am very pleased to see that you are now actively promoting the development of a British spaceport. I would like to repeat a suggestion I made to the previous government and to our space agency (& I believe also to you when appointed).

       It is ancillary to your current proposals, which I very much hope will result in a British spaceport being set up at Lossiemouth or similar in Scotland. I am informed that the reason Virgin went originally to Sweden was because nobody in the Holyrood government was remotely interested in helping them get through the Luddite regulatory morass that affects so much here (& makes even Westminster look efficient by comparison). Indeed an announcement on that basis before the referendum might be opportune.

        However with space industry growing at 10% annually in Britain and the potential for much more we will need as much spaceport capacity as possible.

         My option requires some spending on port facilities, possibly a launch site (though there is an airport already) and limited road and power infrastructure but these could easily be paid for out of a bond issue, redeemable from their use. It would be more likely to augment a UK mainland spaceport, being able to handle larger, including non man-rated cargos.

         It would also have the potential to be the chief spaceport of the western hemisphere. I am assuming Singapore, which has no more potential than this, will be the eastern one.

         This is the proposal I made:

Ascension Island is an unimpressive 35 square mile rock extruded from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge though fortunately not currently tectonically active. It is one of a number of small left overs from the British Empire situated just 7.5 degrees south of the equator. Currently its main importance is that it has a substantial Anglo-American airbase big enough to handle regular Hercules flights to the Falkland Islands. Current British government practice is to discourage migration, tourism & development, presumably to prevent the locals being able to object to the base. "In order to gain an entry to Ascension Island, people need the written permission of the Administrator. It is nearly impossible to take up permanent residence. Employment is a requirement to stay on the island. The UK government has asserted that no inhabitant of Ascension Island has a "right to abode".

The values I am concerned about are, in order, that it is near the equator, that it is under British legal authority & that it is an island far from the nearest shore. The UK rule & isolation mean that it & any business activities on it are secure. The position on the equator & being surrounded by sea make it one of the best places in the world for 1 particular business.

Developed properly it could be Earth's prime spaceport.

The Earth rotates & the equator rotates at 1000mph, which is 10% of the speed needed to reach orbit. From the equator costs to orbit are therefore much more than 10% less than they can be elsewhere. This is why Cape Canaveral & Baikonur are located in the southernmost parts of their respective countries. Moreover the automatic position reached in orbit from the equator is an equatorial orbit which is easier to match to than orbits starting at some other point & would allow communication satellites to hold a relatively stable position in the sky.

Developing the island conventionally would not be hard, which is why our government have had to actively prevent it. 3 of the world's richest territories are places with few natural resources which have become wealthy as British colonies. This is because our law ensures contracts are worth the paper they are written on & because being part of the Empire keeps them safe from predatory neighbours & even more importantly from police chiefs & political leaders, not necessarily more irresponsible than those of Springfield but who should not be trusted with the power of absolute sovereignty. The 3 are
Bermuda, the Cayman Islands & Hong Kong (Hong Kong may not be British anymore but it got rich that way - in 1948 it got 2 million Chinese refugees, without the "aid" provided to the much less numerous Palestinians to keep them refugees). The success of these places, now richer than Britain, supports the libertarian view that beyond upholding the law most of the rest of government is parasitic & the old fashioned imperialist view that the natives generally benefited from our Empire.

Thus much of what is needed is merely to do nothing. No bans on immigration & development, allow commercial & tourist flights, don't charge corporation & most other taxes (the place is hardly a source of revenue currently). To develop it into a space port we would first need the UK government to have
set up an X-Prize Foundation as I have previously suggested. Beyond that a little infrastructure - a good harbour & an Ocean Thermal Energy Converter (OTEC) able to produce enough power to hydrolyse as much hydrogen & liquid oxygen as might be needed or indeed to run a laser launching system. An extra effect of an OTEC is that by bringing nutrient rich deep ocean water to the surface it can facilitate algae & fish industries. Marshall Savage's book The Millennial Project details how & I have borrowed extensively from him for this idea, which is considerably less ambitious than his floating islands proposal. The US would have to be squared but if Pearl Harbour does not have to be isolated I don't see this base as presenting insuperable security problems, indeed good harbour facilities should make it a more useful base.

I am envisaging a spaceport in perhaps 10 years, launching a fleet of shuttles developed from "3 operational spacecraft which have achieved low earth orbit, returned to earth, and flown to orbit again three times in a period of three weeks" (as Dr Pournelle's X-Prize proposal suggests) relatively accessible from the North Atlantic shores of Britain, the USA & Europe. It may sound very Dan Dare but I see no reason why a forward looking self confident nation couldn't create it. I would welcome criticisms & refinements. Isn't the island's name a magnificent example of serendipity.

    As I say I would welcome any criticism. All the discussion on the subject has confirmed that it would work - even those who don't want it to.

    Because I have had no reply to this from various government sources when suggested over the last 7 years; because a previous enquiry showed that the government had simply binned, without consideration, a 2009 proposal for an X-Prize Foundation which would probably have made us leader in space industry by now if that had been desired; and because, on another occasion, I was informed by the Scottish executive that they would never, under any circumstances, give any consideration to any concept that did not come directly from the brow of the leadership I am forced to make a formal request.

      Under the Freedom of Information Act I request all documentation relating to the Ministry's/Agency's consideration of this, or of the decision to bin it without consideration, specifically including all reasons for doing it, or for deciding not to bother.

       I trust this is not an insuperable inconvenience - perhaps it will even give you the leverage to get the civil service to give you an honest answer on feasibility.

Neil Craig
map of ascension island,


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While Ascension is a very logical location from a traditional rocket launch point of view what the government is proposing is a spaceport for the new generation of low cost to orbit launchers such as Skylon.
At the price point of a Skylon launch the economics change, the extra cost of doing business from Ascension rather than mainland UK, the increased operational costs of running the place, the transportation costs for staff and equipment plus the payload transport and lost opportunity costs from not being able to do highly responsive payload launches means unless you need to launch the maximum possible payload or need an LEO orbital latitude below what a Skylon could reach from the UK Ascension may not make financial sense.
Low cost to orbit is all about squeezing operational costs, Ascension increases them in exchange for more launch performance which may rarely be needed.
Fair point. The advantage of equatorial launch is greater for a rocket, going straight to orbit, than for something that is half aircraft.

There would also be costs in putting in port etc facilities for Ascension.

On the other hand Skylon is a long way from operational (Pournelle was sceptical if it could work) and in any case there should be a market for both man rated aircraft style launches and non-rated rocket ones.

Also there are costs of having the site in Britain, where airspace is heavily used. It seems likely to me that Ascension's location would make for more efficient utilisation in business as well as orbital energy terms. Long distance goods transport to Ascension, or anywhere, is comparatively cheap once port facilities exist.
Skylon is a lot more real than many people seem aware, its just entered a funding phase worth £360m and the only new technology involved has been successfully tested at flight scale. The government has been progressively supporting Skylon development for over five years and has put nearly half of UKSA's disposable budget into the project this year. The same report that announced an intention to investigate building a spaceport states they are considering a launch investment scheme for space investments of exceptional scale, such as perhaps Skylon. The spaceport proposal itself has the very ambitious timeline of being operational in four years perhaps because the Skylon timeline has the test programme beginning in 2021 and a test site close to the production site would be programmatically advantageous. In short Skylon is technically, financially and politically much further along than many people commonly assume.

Even with a port cost of living would be an issue as it is on many small islands dependant on impport for almost everything, there would still be an increased cost and increased delay in moving virtually everything, employees would still be more expensive to employ to make up for being castaways. The UK is a major manufacturer of satellites already, with a mainland launch site a payload could be assembled and then launched within a hundred miles of where it was put together, off the shelf units could be purchased and launched within a week to cover emergencies. There are many potential business models enabled by responsive launch and satellite design.
You may be right about Skylon and I certainly hope so. If most of the money is being raised privately that strongly supports the assumption of practicality. In the same way that X-Prizes should cover only about 30% of the cost of wining because the project itself is inherently desirable.

The viability of Ascension will depend on how big the community becomes. Supplying a small community is, per capita, more expensive but if it became remotely comparable to Singapore it would be comparably competitive (with the considerable advantage of not being encircled by Indonesia). That is why the tax advantages I have suggested matter (& cost us nothing compared to not having this spaceport).
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