Space is NOT for everyone

The Sunday Herald (Scotland) | 24th September 2023

The UK Space Agency’s ‘Space for Everyone’ tour touched down in Scotland last week. The event hoped to drum up support for several new spaceports promising space-related STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) jobs for young Scots. Marketing materials suggested Scotland’s space cadets could choose from a constellation of careers, including space artists, space lawyers and space chefs.

Only around 250 punters have ever eaten anything in space. But feeding the handful of super-rich rocket men might one day prove a lucrative business. Afterall, a return trip and 8-days full-board on the International Space Station (ISS) would set you back around $82 million.

Thanks to the Space for Everyone tour, Scots without that kind of cash can experience a self-catered version of what it feels like to be a gazillionaire in the relative safety of a shipping container with a VR headset. The exhibition’s centrepiece is a full-size replica of Richard Branson’s LauncherOne rocket. A dislodged fuel filter caused the real one to explode over Cornwall earlier this year. With it, the company’s space-related jobs promised for the locals below ended in the wrong kind of fireworks.

Branson’s company Virgin Orbit, filed for bankruptcy soon after. The firm laid off most of its space cadets before shutting up shop in the UK forever. Branson continues to send American gazzilionnaires into orbit from the company’s New Mexico spaceport.

Despite the setbacks, Glasgow’s Prestwick airport is being offered up as one of several new UK spaceports across Scotland. The others include Shetland, Sutherland, Argyll, and Scolpaig on the island of North Uist. The promise of new space-related jobs is a big selling point for communities of the Highlands and Islands suffering declining populations of mainly young people. Without new ideas to attract young families to North Uist, the outlook’s bleak. According to the Scottish stats office, 18% of families have left the Outer Hebrides since the 1980s, with a further 14% likely to head off by 2041. Its young population (aged 15-29) is expected to decrease by 38% in the next 15 years.

Attracting young families and tourists with the promise of peace and tranquillity, beautiful beaches and pristine wildlife might seem the sensible way to go. But for most Comhairle nan Eilean Siar councillors, precarious space jobs on an expanded firing range is the preferred option.

For the Highlands and Islands, a commercially viable space industry means year-round explosions. Optimal weather conditions for launches coincides with breeding seasons for the region’s iconic birds, including white-tailed eagles and corncrakes. Introducing rockets to wetlands of international importance will change the face of the islands permanently. The Outer Hebridean islands of St. Kilda are already a UNESCO World Heritage site. Sutherland’s Flow Country peatlands are seeking the same protective status. But UK rockets may put that in jeopardy.

According to Atrium, a big insurance company for rocket-makers, early space-faring outfits can typically expect 30% of their launches to end in catastrophic failure. When the SpaceX starship launch in Texas went south earlier this year, clouds of kerosene fuel and hydraulic fluid rained down on people’s homes. Debris broke windows. Toxic particulates and wreckage were scattered over 385 acres of parkland causing fires that burned across the Boca Chica State Park, home to endangered birds and rare ocelot cats.

With ambitions to launch relatively small satellites, rather than people, into low-earth orbit, Scotland’s spaceports are unlikely to become as spectacularly destructive as those in the US. At least, in the short term. But the likely smog from North Uist will be significant. A report from site operator QinetiQ, suggests the spaceport could have a carbon footprint 30 times higher than what the site owners had initially assured the local planning authority. An understandable error, when both the developer and the planning authority are the same council body.  

As well as over a thousand objections from local residents, the fears of local fishermen and tour operators have also been overlooked. Some are concerned their fishing grounds will be closed. A group of concerned residents led by artists and land-owners Friends of Scolpaig, have asked conservation charities to step up and advocate for a more sustainable way forward for the islands. RSPB Scotland have contested a number of the development’s dubious planning provisions to protect bird habitats. But while the UK government threatens to withdraw the organisation’s charitable status, RSPB’s hands appear to be tied.

Conservative peer David Willet dismissed the naysayers whilst explaining the money-making drivers behind the Scottish spaceport developments. “There are always the sceptics who do not see the point of any of this – just thinking of Space as vainglorious projects for the rich. But Space is useful,” he said. “Our role at the UK Space Agency, which I chair, is not to run ambitious technology development programmes. Instead, we create the environment in which a host of space companies large and small can operate and thrive.” While corporate profits are being underwritten by the UK Government, the risks are being placed squarely on the shoulders of tenant farmers, fishermen, and tour operators, not to mention Scotland’s wildlife.  

Like all large developments, the UK’s lofty space ambitions will not benefit everyone. But attracting tourists and young families, whilst providing a sanctuary for Scotland’s natural heritage will likely mean listening to the ambitions of locals, rather than dismissing them as cynics. I spoke to many in North Uist excited by the prospect of new money flowing in. But fairytale promises of jobs in space whilst selling Scotland’s natural heritage off for cheap as a firing range, will end in the wrong kind of fireworks.