Britain has become “toxic” for satellite launches following the “absolute disaster” of Cornwall’s failed Virgin Orbit take-off, MPs have heard.
Welsh company Space Forge, which lost its inaugural satellite when Virgin’s rocket suffered a fuel filter failure in January, said that there would need to be a “seismic shift” to make the UK attractive again for companies.
Space Forge, which wants to produce alloys in the microgravity of space, was hoping to become the first company to successfully bring a satellite back down to Earth.
But it said that lengthy delays by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) coupled with the launch failure had left it six months behind the competition when it had been six months ahead. It now plans to launch with SpaceX in the US.
Patrick McCall, non-executive director at Space Forge, told MPs on the Science and Technology Select Committee, that if the company sought to launch again in the UK it would be given “short shrift” by investors.
“I think unless there is a seismic change in that approach the UK is not going to be competitive from a launch perspective,” he said.
“There is no chance that Josh Western [the Space Forge CEO] would win the argument to do the next launch in the UK. Even if the UK came and said you can do it for free, I would say don’t do that.
“I don’t think it’s deliberate, I think people at the CAA want to make it happen, but it’s not working, and either we change that with a seismic shift or we save the money and spend it on other things which are achievable.”
Last-minute failure after payload rocket deployed
The historic mission on Jan 10 would have seen Britain become the first European country to launch from home soil, but shortly after the payload rocket was deployed, Virgin announced that a last-minute failure had prevented the final push into the correct orbit. The rocket burnt up on re-entry destroying the satellites on board.
Mr McCall said Britain should consider spending the money it is investing in launch capability on other areas, such as hospitals.
Responding to his comments, MP Greg Clark, the chair of the committee and former science minister, said the Government had “thrown away” its advantage in the area of space launches.
“It’s a disaster isn’t it?” he said: “We attempted to show what we are capable of, and the result is it’s now toxic for a privately funded launch.
“We had the first attempted launch but the result is that you as an investor in space are saying there is no chance of investors supporting another launch from the UK with the current regulator conditions.”
Virgin says ‘UK regulator far more conservative’
Dan Hart, the CEO of Virgin Orbit, told MPs that he had expected the CAA to work in a similar way to the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) in the US but had found the UK regulator far more conservative.
Mr Hart said the company had faced a headache after the CAA insisted on implementing a launch safety zone that was five times more cautious than the FAA, meaning that many roads and businesses in Cornwall needed to be closed.
The company has now ended its contract with Spaceport Cornwall at Newquay Airport, although it said it was still hoping to launch from the site.
Responding to the criticism, Sir Stephen Hillier, chair of the CAA, said: “Our primary duty is to ensure that the space activity in the UK is conducted safely. The CAA licensed in advance of technical readiness.”