Over the weekend, I had the displeasure of coming across a Wired article about Virgin Orbit launching from the UK towards the end of the year. The article represents everything that frustrates me about US-based journalists and pundits commenting on the European space market while taking no time to actually understand it. It is articles like this that prompted me to launch European Spaceflight.
The title of the piece is “The UK is rejoining the space race
” and just like that it starts! What does that mean? The space race was about getting there first. It was about pushing boundaries and racing against a foreign power in what felt like an existential fight. The UK is not in a race, and it’s not building anything the world hasn’t seen before.
The UK is developing sovereign launch capabilities to serve what looks to be an increasingly large market. You could claim that the UK is developing launch vehicles and facilities to compete with other European countries that are fast approaching their maiden flights. However, since the UK government is not directing these actions nor are they funding these projects in any meaningful way, I am not sure how you would make that argument. These are private companies pursuing a potentially profitable market with an exciting product. At best, you could say that the UK has created laws that make these activities possible. The term “space race” is so misplaced here that it is stripped of all meaning.
And that’s just the heading. Then we get to the subheading, which declares that Virgin Orbit will be “bringing orbital flight capability to Europe.” Europe! Not just the UK, but all of Europe. The author seems to have forgotten that Europe has enjoyed orbital launch capabilities almost continuously since the first Diamant A rocket was launched in 1965. The first ESA launch was carried out aboard an Ariane 1 in 1979. The idea that an American microlauncher startup is bringing orbital launch capabilities to Europe would be laughable if it wasn’t so condescending!
The absurdity of hyperbole
Let me be clear, Virgin Orbit is not bringing sovereign launch capabilities to the UK. Virgin Orbit is, despite the nationality of its founder, a US company. The company is headquartered in California and has no presence in Europe apart from an integration building at Spaceport Cornwall in the UK.
Additionally, by the author’s own admission, the launch will occur “hundreds of miles off the Irish coast.” International law considers 12 miles or around 22 kilometers off the coast of a country as that country’s sovereign territorial sea. So by that definition, the UK would merely be a departure point for a launch that would actually be occurring over international waters.
So, Virgin Orbit is not a UK company, and it will launch over international waters. How is this the UK entering the “space race”?
What really frustrates me about this is instead of giving a US company the “first orbital launch from the UK” publicity, the country could have waited just 12 more months to see it gain truly sovereign launch capabilities.
As the article mentions so briefly that it is easy to miss it, Orbex and Skyrora are both UK-based launch startups. What the article fails to mention is that both expect to launch maiden flights of their respective orbital launch vehicles in 2023. While Skyrora does have contributions from Ukraine, Orbex and their Prime vehicle have been conceived, built, and will be flown by citizens of the UK on UK soil. One would assume this is the kind of achievement the UK Space Agency and UK government would be all too ready to support. But instead, they’re trying to hype up this Virgin Orbit launch as a significant milestone for the country’s burgeoning launch sector. It truly baffles me.
Snubbing the Nordics
Then there’s the claim that there are “no active launch sites in Europe.” Even if you forget the Guiana Space Centre which is on French soil, regardless of its distance from France, Europe still has two of the world’s oldest active launch sites in Norway and Sweden.
The Andøya Space Center in Norway was founded in 1962, the same year as the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Since then, it has hosted over 1,200 sounding rocket missions.
Esrange Space Center in Sweden was founded in 1964 by the European Space Research Organisation, which would later become the European Space Agency. The facility has hosted over 500 rocket launches in addition to hundreds of high-altitude balloon missions.
Now, the author could be forgiven for being imprecise in their phrasing. Maybe they actually meant orbital launch facilities, despite the fact they mention it multiple times and the fact that the Guiana Space Centre exists. However, it becomes clear a little further in that they are completely unaware of two of the world’s oldest and most historic launch facilities.
After claiming again that there are no operational launch sites in Europe, they reference sites being considered in Germany and Portugal in addition to the UK. While Germany and Portugal have proposed the construction of orbital launch sites, Norway and Sweden are quite literally in the process of building orbital launch facilities, with maiden flights expected in 2023. How you don’t mention two projects that are without doubt further along in their development lifecycle than those in the UK is beyond me. The only conceivable explanation is that the author is completely unaware of either Andøya or Esrange.
A clickbait conclusion
What do the UK space industry and the death of Queen Elizabeth II have in common? If you guessed nothing, you’re correct. That doesn’t stop the author from referencing the Queen’s death and the ascension of King Charles III in the article’s conclusion. And to think, I used to have a great deal of respect for Wired.