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Does Britain really need a space port?

Plus: Sky TV accounts for most of UK's 'space sector'

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Analysis Everyone knows about Britain's soaraway space sector. It turns over £8bn a year – the same sort of money as the remaining automotive industry – it employs tens of thousands of people, and it's growing faster than the Chinese economy. And, famously, it has done all this without any significant government help.

Some people think that ought to change. This morning, the Reg attended an event at the Institute of Directors at which the IoD brought out its new report Space: Britain's New Infrastructure Frontier. Among other things, the document seeks to make the case for a British "spaceport", from which the various new craft being prepared by such companies as Virgin Galactic and XCOR might fly. And the very word "infrastructure" pretty much implies some sort of government help or investment.

The report is excellently researched and full of interesting facts*. For a start, it gives a much clearer picture of what the UK "space industry" actually does than most documents of its kind. Generally in such papers one will hear much about such companies as the famous Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, successful pioneer of the new small-satellite sector and nowadays owned by European space giant EADS Astrium.

Nobody, least of all us here at the Reg, has anything but praise for SSTL. It's a high-tech manufacturing, high-added-value exporter and a huge commercial success. If we all worked at companies like that, old Blighty would be an economic powerhouse indeed.

But we don't all work at companies like that. Nor, it turns out, do most of the people employed in the British "space sector". Of the 25,000 directly employed in UK space, just over 7,000 work in "upstream" businesses like SSTL, actually building and operating spacecraft. The other 17,000+ work in "downstream" space business. Downstream also accounts for nearly all the turnover (£7bn of the £8bn) and most of the rapid growth the space sector has seen.

What's "downstream" space?

The short answer is, it's Sky TV, accounting for two-thirds of the downstream jobs and turnover. BSkyB, the IoD report tells us, is "the biggest player in the UK space economy ... without BSkyB it [UK space] would be half the size, probably less."

In other words the vaunted British space sector mostly isn't a matter of proper boffins building super-advanced hardware and selling it around the world, like SSTL, parts of Logica and a few other British firms. It's primarily a matter of us buying satellites, mainly from other countries, and using them to sell multimedia content – mainly to ourselves. Most of the rest of downstream UK space is accounted for by satcomms firm Inmarsat, which does at least bring in cash from abroad, though again it is a purchaser of spacecraft not a maker of them.

So much for our vaunted "space sector", then: most people would tend to see Sky as a media company, not a space one. There's nothing wrong with Sky as a business, but it's not a viable model for restoring Britain's manufacturing and technological base.

And it certainly doesn't seem to call for a spaceport. Nonetheless the IoD is full of enthusiasm, alluding to the new "Spaceport America" now being built in New Mexico as a base for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space tourism venture. The report says:

Many agree that Richard Branson’s private sector spaceport in New Mexico will lead to the development of many more, but not enough is being done to make the case for the next one in Britain. And it could be done at a fraction of the $200 million first-of-a-kind cost of Spaceport America.

The trouble with Spaceport America, though, is that it isn't really a space port: it cannot be used to put things into space. Virgin Galactic's "SpaceShipTwo" rocketplanes are spacecraft in the same way that a brick is an aircraft. You can throw a brick up into the air, then it will come down again. The brick can get into the sky briefly before falling back to Earth, but it can't do anything useful up there the way an actual aircraft can - and a Virgin SpaceShip gets into space in much the same way that a brick can get into the air. It's only viable purpose is joyrides for wealthy thrill-seekers, on the Virgin Galactic model.

Joyrides aren't much of a business, and they may not be a business at all. There has to be a serious risk for the whole sub-orbital "space tourism" sector that its possible wealthy client base will realise at some point that you can see a black sky from a balloon and you can experience free fall and float about weightlessly in the (much bigger) cabin of an ordinary aeroplane (that's what actual space agencies do for zero-G training and experiments, in fact).

Even if nobody cottons on to this, suborbital space tourism is plainly never going to be a big deal, and "space ports" on the Spaceport America model are basically a dead end as things stand.

To be fair, the IoD report more or less says as much:

The Mojave (California) Air and Space Port, the first facility licensed by the US FAA as a commercial spaceport, is a good model of a small airport that has successfully turned itself into a spaceport and development centre for innovative aviation and space entrepreneurs. This, more than Spaceport New Mexico, is probably the useful economic model for the UK to follow.

There's nothing wrong with an innovative aerospace research-park with attached airport, but there's no great need really for the sideline in suborbital joyrides. And once you remove the airspace requirements of the joyrides, you find that Blighty already has several facilities not dissimilar to Mojave Port - for instance Farnborough, Boscombe Down, the new drone-drome at ParcAberporth in Wales. Another one in Scotland doesn't seem like a good investment of English taxpayers' money, especially given the nowadays fairly real possibility of Scottish secession from the UK: and the alternative given, an artificial island in the Severn estuary, seems frankly bonkers.

In any case, for actual serious space endeavour as opposed to up-and-down joyrides, you need to be able to achieve orbit - and orbit is a matter of velocity more than altitude. For most space applications, it helps a lot if you can take off from a piece of ground, and ascend through a piece of atmosphere, which is already moving fast through the Earth's gravitational field, as is the case near the Equator. That's why the French, when building their spaceport, chose not to put it in France at all but in French Guiana. That's why SpaceX - the only "commercial space" firm in the world which can actually achieve orbit with serious payloads - launches from Cape Canaveral or Kwajalein, not somewhere in the high latitudes like Canada or Scotland.

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