Being a relatively small island isn’t going to stop the UK from building its own spaceport, especially now that space tourism is poised to rake in loads of dough from customers who want a brief foray into the cosmos. Of course, satellites and rockets can be launched from a spaceport too.
It does seem that the ability to launch vehicles and people into space comes with some bragging rights, just as a country’s inability to launch its own astronauts can carry a bit of shame. The European Space Agency (ESA) generally launches satellites and supplies from the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana (being near the equator allows for some extra launch velocity), so while it would be possible to use the UK spaceport for those missions, it’s likely that the ESA will continue primarily using the Guiana port, leaving the UK port free for tourism.
The spaceport will cost an estimated $85.5 million to build, which is indeed a hefty sum, but the UK government anticipates making about $65 million per year on tourism alone. There’s also a space plane industry growing in the UK, focused largely on the Skylon spacecraft, which has an engine called the Sabre, believed to “enable an aircraft to fly anywhere in the world in under four hours or a spaceplane to fly into orbit around the Earth — slashing the cost of space travel and creating new commercial opportunities in space,” according to Skylon researcher Alan Bond. Estimates indicate that the spaceplane market could net the UK nearly $34 million per year by the year 2030.
2030 is the target date by which the government hopes the spaceport will be fully integrated into its economy and netting those profits. Before then, there are a slew of other key dates on the timeline. The spaceport might be functional as early as 2016, preparing for its first scheduled sub-orbital flight in 2018 and first sub-orbital satellite launch in 2020. The testing of rocket engines is slated for 2026, which gives them four more years to make sure their fleet of space planes/Skylon is fully operational.
For the next few months, the U.K. Space Agency will try to figure out where to locate the spaceport, conducting surveys and consultations about possible sites. The U.K. Civil Aviation Authority has already come up with eight candidate sites, six of which are in Scotland, one in Wales, and one on the southern coast of England. Richard Branson has a preference for an existing Air Force site in northern Scotland, and given Virgin Galactic’s role in space tourism, his thoughts may carry a good deal of weight, much like the spaceplanes that will soon be taking off from their new base.