Why I am petitioning the UK government to invest in heavy lift space launch
The UK government should approach SpaceX about setting up a UK launch site to support Starship/Superheavy launches from our territory, argues Peter Hague.
There is always, in Britain, a lot of handwringing about decline. We have been falling behind our peers for decades and can’t seem to do anything about it. In few areas is this decline as pronounced as our capabilities in spaceflight. In the 1960s, we developed the Blue Streak missile which could have formed the basis of a decent UK launch vehicle, but it was abandoned only to be resurrected as the first stage of a pan-European launch vehicle which did not have a single successful flight. In the 1970s we flew Black Arrow, a launch vehicle so small that there were not enough useful payloads to justify the program and it was cancelled after just one launch.
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The lack of interest continues to this day. Our space budget is tiny compared to leading powers.
The current global space launch market is utterly dominated by SpaceX, which sent more mass to orbit last year than any single nation with their Falcon rockets. Their reusable boosters have become so successful their flights have become routine, and thus not news, but their capacity to throw mass into orbit has been increasing at a compounding annual rate of over 40%. In the process of this growth, SpaceX has taken commercial launches from other space powers and exceeded them all in total mass to orbit.
China has responded to the dawn of economical reusable rockets by initiating its own reusable launcher projects at the government level with the Long March 9. This is in addition to Chinese commercial ventures like LandSpace developing their own technology.
Other powers, including Europe, have had a far more tepid response. Ariane 6, due to launch this year, is a traditional expendable launcher, and vague plans for a resusable successor are already behind schedule.
Aside from the UK’s stake in the European Space Agency, our launch companies are only working on small launch vehicles that will at best be a marginal part of the market and may well be squeezed out by cheap ride-sharing on larger vehicles.
Whilst others attempt to catch up with Falcon 9, or not, SpaceX is now well into testing its next generation Starship system, which will further expand their lead. This vehicle will be in the same payload class as the Saturn V vehicle but likely will cost less than a Falcon 9 to launch. Much of the development for this rocket is complete and it is currently awaiting its third all-up test flight. I can be confident in saying that no other country or company is likely to develop anything comparable this decade.
So, does this mean non-US space launch is doomed? Not necessarily. The UK government was able to bring Virgin Orbit to the UK to launch from Spaceport Cornwall, with the plan to conduct the first ever orbital launch from the UK mainland. Sadly, the launch failed, and Virgin Orbit went bankrupt shortly afterwards. Although this venture ultimately failed it provides a potential model for how we should proceed in the future.
The UK government should approach SpaceX about setting up a UK launch site to support Starship/Superheavy launches from our territory. At the recent SpaceX all hands, Elon Musk predicted that Starship would be launching from "many different locations around the world," so we can presume SpaceX would be open to such an approach.
I have created a petition to bring this opportunity to the attention of the UK government.
Having such a spaceport, rather than sending UK payloads to be launched from US sites, would have several advantages. It would generate jobs and capabilities. It would reduce costs and time getting payloads and people to the launch site, which in the coming age of high cadence and low costs will become a more significant factor. It would create a market into which a future UK or European made Starship competitor might enter when our industry is ready. It would also expand the global amount of mass-to-orbit capability, allowing the UK to contribute to the acceleration of space development.
The UK is not what most people might think of as a good launch location. Those familiar with orbital dynamics will point out that it takes less energy to get to orbit if you launch eastwards as close as possible to the equator. A UK site on the other hand would launch northwards at high latitude. But this is perfectly suitable and in fact better for polar and sun-synchronous orbits. To support enough launches to these orbits, it may be necessary for public funding of some large project that demands launches, such as a space station. NASA funding for new space stations as part of the commercial LEO destinations program has been limited by the budget constraints imposed by Artemis, so this is perhaps and area where a country such as the UK could specialize.
The greatness of nations in the latter part of this century will be measured by their space capability. We have capacity in payloads but not in launch. The most expedient thing to do would be to focus on our strengths and import that which we lack.
Peter Hague is an Astrophysics PhD and software engineer in the UK. His petition can be found here. He writes a Substack called “Planetocracy.” You can sign up for it here: