A long-anticipated plan to launch rockets from the UK has finally been fleshed out, with £31.5 million in UK Space Agency grants provided to start flights to orbit from Sutherland, Scotland from the “early 2020s”.

The grants were announced as the Farnborough air show opened yesterday morning. Lockheed Martin – which partly funds RocketLabs’ Electron, a US-New Zealand small launcher – will get £23.5 million “to establish vertical launch operations and develop innovative technologies”. Another £5.5 million is going to Orbex, a UK-Danish start-up developing a small launcher designed to orbit small satellites to polar orbits. There is growing global demand for such services, a job for which Scotland is geographically suited. The remaining £2.5 million will support the Highlands and Islands Enterprise council.

Talk of establishing a UK launch industry dates to the early 2010s, and the 2014 Farnborough air show saw the government unveil ambitious plans to establish a spaceport – at that time billed to be operational by 2018. Prospective launch sites from Cornwall to Scotland put in bids, but the project went quiet until very recently. However, the government has been hailing the UK space industry as a world leader, and touting plans for dramatic growth in line with demand for satellites, deep space missions and data-driven services.

Launch has been a missing link in the value chain, but the Space Industry Act passed by Parliament earlier this year cleared regulatory and liability roadblocks to flights from the UK.

Orbex chief executive Chris Larmour tells Flight Daily News that his company’s innovative fuel technology promises to slash the mass of the launch vehicle. He declines to indicate the target price of a launch, but says its first vertical flight is expected in 2021. And, he adds, target customers are European, so flying from Scotland – where the company is to build the rockets, with Danish motors – offers huge convenience.

The enthusiasm for launch from the UK represents a dramatic government policy U-turn. The UK is a major player in the European Space Agency, but for decades has refused to fund launchers. Ironically, the country was an early leader in ballistic missile technology and developed an orbital launch vehicle called Black Arrow – which, flying from Australia, successfully orbited a UK-built satellite called Prospero in 1971. But the government then cancelled the programme, deciding that it would be cheaper to buy American flights. An unflown Black Arrow is on display in London's Science Museum.

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Source: Flight Daily News