There’s some exciting nerd news today, as the government has announced that it is splashing some cash on helping the UK get its own spaceports.
Business Secretary Greg Clark will today announce that £2.5m will be going to the economic development agency for Highlights and Islands Enterprise, to help get the ball rolling on building a vertical launch spaceport in Northern Scotland.
Yep - Britain’s answer to Cape Canaveral could end up being in Sutherland, Scotland.
The government has also said that it will be dishing out an additional £2m to help fund a “horizontal launch” spaceport - think spacecraft like Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. A site for this hasn’t been chosen yet, but places like Newquay in Cornwall, Snowdonia in Wales and Glasgow Prestwick Airport are all in the running.
“This will build on our global reputation for manufacturing small satellites and help the whole country capitalise on the huge potential of the commercial space age”, Clark is quoted as saying in the press release.
Interestingly too, the focus for vertical launch will not be on rockets of the size that NASA or SpaceX launch, but will be on so-called “small satellites” - a new class of satellites that are cheaper and smaller, and which enable organisations to launch equipment into space for a fraction of the cost of a traditional launch.
“The space sector is an important player in the UK’s economy and our recent Space Industry Act has unlocked the potential for hundreds of new jobs and billions of revenue for British business across the country.”, shouts Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, over the voices of thousands of commuters complaining about their Thameslink train being cancelled yet again this morning.
So great news all round, right? More space travel, a big boost to the British economy and the space sector in particular. But here’s the dramatic twist: All this announcement does is further highlight the insanity of Brexit.
Brexit Brain Drain
You don’t need to take my word for it - Brexit is already hitting the UK space industry.
One of the brightest lights in the UK space industry is an Oxford-based company called Open Cosmos, which builds and operates small satellites - the exact thing that today’s news is designed to support. Coincidentally, I spoke to CEO Rafael Jorda Siquier a few weeks ago, long before this announcement - but his comments echoed around my head as I read the spaceport announcement.
The idea behind it is pretty clever: Open Cosmos essentially takes care of all of the difficult stuff when it comes to launching small satellites. It will build the satellite, it will help get it launched - including taking care of all of the complex legal issues - and then once in space, it provides the platform for you to access the data that your new satellite is collecting. In other words, it is hard to imagine a more perfect example of a company that the British government would want to support and champion.
It has the potential to be a truly revolutionary company, as it could slash the cost of getting your own satellite into orbit from millions to around £500,000. And this would unlock the ability to use satellites to do many new things where the economics of full-size satellites just don’t work.
“Imagine a world where any global problem can be literally measured and monitored”, says CEO Rafael Jorda Siquier. He points to how small satellites could be used to monitor the impact of climate change on agriculture and crops, or used to monitor the locations of fishing fleets to work out how fishing is impacting biodiversity. “Imagine that we could understand exactly how much plastic is being dropped into the oceans or how much energy an entire city is consuming. And doing that for all the cities in the world”, he says.
Basically, if you’re a government minister looking to deliver economic growth, this is the sort of nerdy productivity and efficiency stuff that should get you very excited.
And Rafael is also excited by today’s announcement - when I emailed him for his reaction to the spaceport news, he told me:
"Having a spaceport in the UK is great news for Open Cosmos! Our company is already manufacturing, testing and controlling satellites from the UK, but launching is something we have always had to do from outside of the UK. This will make our space mission services faster. We are excited to be contributing to a stronger UK space industry and to help some of our launch suppliers come to the UK, once the spaceport is operative"
But then… there’s Brexit. Again, in the interview a few weeks ago, I asked him what impact he thinks Brexit might have on his company. And he was surprisingly candid about it.
Rafael, after pointing out his own Spanish accent, told me that his first concern was for what was going to happen to all of the commercial opportunities - and how customers might perceive his company in a Brexit Britain. But while not ideal, this perhaps wasn’t too bad.
“I was a little bit reassured when I realise that the UK Space Agency and the government, for the space industry they were very reactive [to the referendum]”, he told me. “Immediately they said we are going to continue putting the funds into the European Space Agency in the same way that Canada have been doing for a decade.”
He was also pleased that the government indicated that it will be continuing to closely support the space sector - perhaps as continued in evidence by backing the new spaceport.
The bigger problem, in Rafael’s opinion, comes from the core grievance at the heart of the Brexit: The movement of people. Even the most optimistic scenarios for an incredibly soft Brexit point towards limiting freedom of the movement - the ability for people to live and work in any European country. The much-heralded Chequers Whitepaper repeatedly uses the phrase “freedom of movement will end” - and this is annoying news for the space industry.
“Restrictions on how people will be able to move in and out of the UK, will have a massive impact in companies like ours”, Rafael said. “We have people of 15 nationalities in our company, because we go for the best global talent and we attract them to the UK.”
“Brexit has been really very hard and has spread concerns among people who have to move with their families here. They are uncertain about the situation, and any uncertainty doesn’t help when you try to take decisions like this.”
“So on the talent side I must say that yes, we’ve felt the impact and we’ve felt it strongly. The talent pool in the UK for some of the positions that we are looking for is simply [lacking] or non-existent. I think that’s a big pity because, yeah the UK is missing out on so much global talent and so many possibilities. That shouldn’t be happening.”
And I think this is the crazy, contradictory, thing: While it is great that the government is supporting the space industry in principle, it being hell-bent on Brexit is massively undermining this.
Chris Grayling, the aforementioned transport secretary, was and still is one of the most hardcore Brexiteers. If the British space industry is to succeed it needs to have access to the most talented people: Sure, highly skilled rocket scientists might not have as much difficulty getting a visa as a Polish plumber after Brexit, but whatever system we have short of free movement is still going to be extra layers of bureaucracy and bullshit for companies and individuals to wade through, making Britain a less appealing place to work and do business. This added friction will in the view of both myself and objective reality, by definition, be bad for business, bad for the space industry, and bad for Britain.
So enjoy your spaceport, Scotland. Let’s just hope there’s some people here who can run it.
James O’Malley is Interim Editor of Gizmodo UK and tweets as @Psythor.