UK space faces cash freeze unless watchdogs step up
'Toxic' environment requires reboot to restore confidence following failed satellite launch
Regulatory delays – rather than technical failures – are set to threaten the UK commercial space launch industry, a committee of MPs heard yesterday, as the industry described a "toxic" environment for investment.
The result of "jarring" interactions with Blighty's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) was that it cost more to license satellites in the UK than it did to launch them, said Joshua Western, CEO of Space Forge, the Welsh satellite maker whose hardware missed orbit in the failed Virgin Orbit launch from Cornwall in January.
Speaking to the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee, Patrick McCall, the company's non-executive director, said that for the UK to win back investor confidence it needed two or three customers from the public sector to show unnecessary regulatory difficulties would not delay launches.
Committee chairman Greg Clark said the situation was a disaster for the UK space program.
"Isn't it that we attempted to show what we were capable of? And the result is that it's now toxic for private funded launch. We now need to have the government do it to earn back the confidence of private space investors," he said, and McCall agreed.
However, Sir Stephen Hillier, CAA chairman, denied the delayed launch was down to a regulatory drag.
"Our core role is to enact the legislation which was given to us and our primary aim is to ensure that the space activity in the UK is safe," he said.
Virgin Orbit also needed to be technically ready for the UK launch in January, he claimed.
"There's always going to take a period of time for them to reconstitute in another country and new operations [and] deliver the mission but in terms of how the sequencing works, from our perspective, we are confident that we licensed in advance of technical readiness," Hillier told MPs.
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But Space Forge's Western said the company was looking to conduct its return operations with Portugal because of its access to the Atlantic ocean. There was a marked difference between the UK approach to regulation and that in Portugal, he said.
"It is the pace of the touch points with the engagement. [In Portugal] we have either somebody from their government or somebody from their regulator, pretty much speaking with us on a weekly basis to move forward their own process," he said.
But in the UK, sometimes it might be a couple of weeks to get a response, sometimes six weeks, he said.
"There was a real jarring between the submission of the license and [the fact that] the licence application via the portal could only be submitted once. What that meant was that when the CAA teams had questions, we had to go via email to answer those questions, and then there were significant differences both in size, detail, etc between the portal submission and what we were actually detailing to the CAA. So it costs us more to license our satellite launch than it did to launch it."
McCall, who sits on several space tech company boards, said the pace of regulatory approval was vital for startups as they were working with limited cash whereby any delay could consume a significant chunk of working capital. He said the regulatory issue was more important than technical problems with the UK launch.
"Irrespective of whether the Cornwall launch was a success or not, it would have been exactly the same issue. For the UK to be able to launch again, using commercial customers, it needs to have its next one, two or three launch customers [from] government, people who are happy to take a risk that this could take quite a long time.
"Then the UK can say we're going to announce in March, we'll launch in September, and show that actually happens. Then in a year or two's time Joshua [Western] can come back and say, 'Look, they've got a track record, now we can actually go with these people.' But right now, there's just no way that Joshua or any other board would win the argument of [launching in the UK]."
In February 2022, the government launched a National Space Strategy about "tapping our vast pools of talent and enthusiasm, putting the UK firmly in the front rank of the global space industry," according to Boris Johnson, who was UK prime minister at the time. ®