‘Galactic Britain’: how Cornwall is winning the European space race

Melissa Thorpe guides a group through an exhibition at Newquay Airport's hangar. People laughed at us when we first started. Now, it's only been a few months since launch.
She looks around at a long black curtain and sees a 21-metre-long space rocket glowing under red spot lights. The children's eyes are widening and the adults become agog.

A rocket similar to this will be launched into space next year from the runway outside. It will be suspended beneath the wings of a modified 747 aircraft during horizontal takeoff and propelled into lower Earth orbit with commercial, academic, and government satellites.

One visitor said that it is amazing to think that this could be happening in Cornwall. It was tourism and pasties around here, I thought, said another visitor, half-joking.

Cosmic Girl is a model of the 747 aircraft, nicknamed Cosmic Girl. It will be carrying the Launcher One rocket underneath one of its wings.

Spaceport Cornwall is one cornerstone of the government's National Space Strategy. It was unveiled last month by Boris Johnson, the prime minister. He called for global Britain to become galactic Britain. The government is aiming to build one of the most attractive and innovative space economies in the globe with seven spaceports around the UK.

Black Arrow, the first UK-designed satellite to be placed in Earth's orbit, was launched in 1971 from Australian soil. Spaceport Cornwall, now under Thorpes, is leading a hotly contested European race for space.

Construction has begun on a hangar measuring 18,500 square metres at Newquay Airport. Satellites will be loaded in the rocket. Virgin Orbit, the rockets' owner, has demonstrated its launch capabilities from the Mojave desert in California. Thorpe and her team need to get a license for takeoff next summer.

Spaceport Cornwall will use the construction site for their new hangar.

Thorpe says it's about getting the UK launched before Europe. We have a narrow window of opportunity to secure the market. Although we were ahead in the moment, we were not ahead of time.

The Welsh spaceport site is considering balloon launch. Sites in Scotland and Scotland are interested in vertical launch. There is one in Sweden. Italy has big ambitions for horizontal rocket. We don't want to see a launch from Italy, flying over Cornwall, while we all sit here thinking, oh! we wish we had that.

Stars above an old tin mine, St Agnes in Cornwall.

Thorpe is a passionate space nerd. She admits that she is not a space geek at all. The Canadian admits that although I'm not a space geek, I am amazed at the potential of space for our planet. I want to help protect the planet by innovation, and satellites can make it more efficient.

Satellite technology has many uses, including for tourism, marine protection, off-shore wind, farming, and offshore wind.

A community satellite will be the first payload to launch out of Newquay. Kernow Sat One is the name of this satellite. It will be used to identify areas along Cornwall's coast where sea kelp can be grown, which has the potential to sequester large amounts of carbon.

Paul Bate is the new CEO at the UK Space Agency.

Paul Bate is the new chief executive of UK Space Agency. He shares Thorpe's environmental goals. He asked Newquay schoolchildren: Is it really necessary to do this stuff in space? We have enough problems here on Earth, we just went through a pandemic and now we are facing a climate emergency.

Satellite data is used for more than half of critical climate measurements. If we couldn't see the earth from above, we wouldn't know much about climate change.

Virgin Orbit chair Patrick McCall credits the rise in satellite technology and Richard Bransons willingness of investing a billion dollars in Virgins launch technology for lowering entry costs for customers.

McCall states that the market has changed completely. In the past, satellites were as large as double-decker buses. They were also very expensive to launch and build. To get your satellite up, you would need to spend approximately five years and a half billion dollars.

Satellites are small enough to fit in a shoebox and weigh 300kg. We can therefore pack several of them and launch cheaply. It's a great time for the British aerospace industry.

The Story of a Satellite exhibition is open to all visitors.

Helen Sharman, Britain's first astronaut, is excited about space's potential democratization. She warns, however, that space must not be the next frontier to be polluted by humans.

She says that we must consider the impact on the environment in both the upper and the lower atmospheres, and that spacecraft in orbit need to be subject to the appropriate regulations. Transponders are needed to track and move them away from other craft. This will help us avoid any space debris.

Problem is not the number of satellites launched. We must ensure that we do things correctly and sustainably. However, we shouldn't let that stop us from being excited.

Locals have voiced reservations. Catherine Smith states: It is amazing how much money the space industry spends. Would it be better if 1% could be used to feed people or sort recycling?

Rowan McIntosh, a St Columb minor school artist, illustrates the benefits of satellite technology for Cornwall.

Ian Jones, chief executive, looks out from an old watchtower at Goonhilly Earth Station, near Helston. The site, which was once owned by BT and now serves as the first private deep-space communication network in the country. It will also track launches from Spaceport Cornwall.

Goonhilly's largest antenna, Merlin, is currently mapping a Mars rover as the vehicle speeds 300m above the sun.

Jones says that we receive a lot of instructions from our customers (in this case, the European Space Agency) and they tell me what they want with their craft, such as taking measurements, orbital maneuvers or data.

He also spoke out about the potential for regional business development. "You always get pockets of magic, but you need a food chain, an environment, and that's what Cornwall has lost in the past," he said. We can both be hubs of integration and development with larger entities such as Spaceport. It's like a snowball.

Ian Jones, Goonhilly Earth Station, Cornwall. The Merlin antenna is in the background.

Engineers at Goonhilly working on smaller antennae

The government predicts that the global economy of space will reach 490 billion by 2030. Spaceport is expected directly to create 150 jobs by 2025.

Thorpe wants Spaceport to grow and diversify. Although it is exciting to launch rockets, we also had to consider what other activities we could be doing while Virgin isn't around. We built the Centre for Space Technology, a clean laboratory where we can collaborate with satellite companies on R&D. It will be great for Cornwall as many smaller SMEs couldn't afford such a facility.

We have also partnered up with Sierra Space in order to allow the Dream Chaser craft to land horizontally here starting in 2025. We can also process microgravity experiments if they are bringing them back.

Many universities in the south-west of England are creating courses and training facilities to prepare for careers in space. This is made possible by the European Social Fund's 1.73m share.

Heidi Thiemann is the Truro and Penwith College project manager.

Heidi Thiemann is Truro and Penwith College's project manager. She says that they will be starting space apprenticeships next year. These apprenticeships will include training in manufacturing, CAD and programming as well as cryogenics and other cool things.

She adds that there is a problem with brain drain in Cornwall, as many people move to London. Our goal is to meet businesses to discuss the training requirements of their employees.

Thiemann notes that Virgin Orbits rockets are being built in the US and can be partially reused. She also says that local jobs will increase further down the supply chain. She says satellite data will soon be coming out of our ears.

(Left to right) Dave Pollard is Spaceport Cornwall's outreach manager and talks with a group schoolchildren about the device that can send individual satellites into different orbits. (Right), Eden Berry (12 years old), from Camborne Science and International Academy talks to her classmates about the rocket.

Thiemann is also the founder of the Space Skills Alliance. This alliance has published a new census about the sector's employment. The stats, which were released as International Space Week's celebration of women in space, make for difficult reading.

She says that while 29% of UK space workers are women, only 47% say they feel welcome, compared with 79% for men. Also, we found that women earn consistently less than men. This gap increases with seniority and age, from 1,000 for junior roles to 9,000 for senior ones.

It was very sad to see some of the comments that women made on the census about childcare discrimination, missed training, and maternity pay.

Thorpe is open to suggestions for improvement. She relates that she was moderating a panel about the future space. Five to six men from the US military were on the panel. I was the moderator.

It is important that girls see other women in the industry as I do. There will be many other career options for them in the future. They don't have to become an astronaut or astro-scientist. Marketing in space, growing food, and mining asteroids.

Destiny Whetter, 7, enjoys the VR experience with Lucy.

Destiny Whetter, seven years old, is immersed in a virtual world that features CGIs from far-flung exoplanets. She exclaims that she saw a lava and sandy rock planets, and a water planet. It was amazing, epic, and frightening.

Whetter looks at her mother and declares confidently that the Launcher One rocket is going to be launched into space, when the commander says the words: 1, 2, 3 blast off!

Thorpe beams with excitement at the prospect. It's been an ethereal project for so many years, it seems surreal to imagine it finally coming to fruition, she said.

It will be very emotional to watch my team take the plane off the asphalt after nearly 10 years of planning and pain. It will be a historic event.