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SaxaVord spaceport on Shetland Islands experiencing funding/regulatory problems

Proposed spaceports surrounding Norwegian Sea
Proposed spaceports surrounding Norwegian Sea,
updated to include Esrange spaceport in Sweden.

According to a report in the British press today, construction of the SaxaVord spaceport on the Shetland Islands has stopped because of lack of funds.

Shetland-based DITT declined to comment but sources have confirmed its bills have not been paid. A source said: “This is a huge construction project and you need to have the money to complete it.

…“DITT’s bills stopped being paid and so the company had no choice but to stop work until things are resolved. It would be great to see rockets blasting off into outer space from Shetland, but at the moment it seems more pie in the sky.”

This lack of work was noted in August by a local Shetland new source. It is now three months later and the work stoppage still continues.

The article also noted this comment from a SaxaVord official: “SaxaVord continues to have excellent dialogue with the authorities and is fully expecting to receive its spaceport licence very soon from the Civil Aviation Authority [CAA].” That license application however was submitted in November 2022, one full year ago. Apparently the CAA is doing the same to SaxaVord that it did to Virgin Orbit. With Virgin Orbit the CAA delayed issuing its launch permit by more than six months, during which the company could do no launches, make no money, and eventually went bankrupt when that launch failed and it no longer had the resources to recover.

Now the CAA is twiddling its thumbs for so long in issuing SaxaVord its spaceport license that launch business is shifting elsewhere and the spaceport is beginning to run short of cash. In January spaceport officials had predicted the first launch there would occur by the fall of this year. The fall is now passing and there is no sign of any launch soon, with construction halted.

Expect the business that was originally intended for the two British spaceports in Scotland to increasingly shift elsewhere. The spaceports at Andoya in Norway and Esrange in Sweden have an opportunity to pick up some business.

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  • Surly

    Isn’t November 2022 – November 2023 one full year?

  • Surly: You are correct. I remember earlier reports that said the license application was submitted much earlier, but now cannot find them . I will fix.

  • I figured out where my error came from. I was confusing the spaceport application of Saxaford (on the Shetland Islands) with that of the Sutherland spaceport. The latter submitted in February 2022, and as far as I can tell so far, still does not have a license.

  • David Eastman

    I recall that several months ago there was a hearing where the CAA was questioned on why it took so long to permit Virgin, and they refused to admit that there was any problem, that’s just how long it takes. I gather nothing has, or is going to, change, and there will be no viable spaceports in the UK.

  • DOS

    The CAA is not the issue. The launch site needs tens of millions more investment, as well as an operational customer. It’s a long, long way from either, unless you think RFA or ABL Space are ready ton launch from Shetland in the next 12 months?

    And maybe, just maybe, the serious, professional regulator of national and international aviation, with a duty to protect the public, isn’t happy with the information it has been provided? One of the criteria to be granted a CAA licence is the financial capability to carry out the licenced activities. Perhaps a spaceport with no money can’t clear that hurdle?

  • David Eastman: For that hearing, see this post:

    UK’s bureaucracy blasted for delaying Virgin Orbit launch

    It took place in March 2023.

    Note too that the other spaceport in Scotland, at Sutherland, applied for its permit from the CAA in February 2022, and as far as I have been able to find out so far, it also has not gotten a license from the CAA. And the Sutherland spaceport has several confirmed renters, including money from Lockheed Martin.

  • David Ross

    Dan Daren’t.

  • David Eastman

    DOS, your attitude is the one that gets called out here all the time. Sure, they need to do a review. And sure, it needs to be detailed and responsible. But there is no reason such a review should take even half a year, much less a year or more. It’s just the universal bureaucratic tendency to always wait, let someone else stick their neck out with a yes or no, always second guess, and just wait until you actually HAVE to give an answer by law.

  • Cloudy

    Spaceports are something everybody and their mother want, in theory. Lots of places want to be considered for a launch site. But once the whole thing looks like it might actually happen, the usual suspects will slow things down. This is usually the case with large projects in democratic counties. Look at what happened in Boca Chica. My guess is it is pure bureaucratic laziness. Almost no one in a regulatory agency wants to spend a ton of time doing the legwork to approve something that will be a pipe dream 9 times out of 10. To a lesser degree, this even applies to NIBYs and environmental groups. The unfortunate thing is reality limits the number of viable sites . There are only a few places that are convenient to get to , don’t require one to fly over populated areas and will cause minimal impact to other activities. In Europe, you may be able to get off a few polar launches from the aforementioned islands or from Northern Scandinavia. However, most of Europe has access to sites in far more suitable places.

  • Col Beausabre

    The sclerotic nature of British bureaucracy is notorious – so much so that it is constantly lampooned

    In 1950, a member of the Foreign Office retired after fifty years service. “My job was to predict whether there would be a major war in Europe in the coming year. Year after year, I predicted that war would not break out. In fifty years, I was only wrong twice”

  • Col Beausabre

    Cloudy- The default position for bureaucrats is “No”. If they get overruled by their superiors and something goes wrong, it is not THEIR fault.

  • DOS

    @Robert Zimmerman – The Sutherland company is Orbex, and they applied for a rocket launch licence, not a spaceport licence (at least not yet – they will in due course as they are also constructing a spaceport). There are three different licences in the UK system: launch, spaceport and range. Also, the review with Virgin Orbit was followed up by another review that was more balanced, and within which Saxavord and Sutherland both expressed their happiness with the regulator:

    “In our second evidence session—with witnesses involved in the development of vertical launch sites in Scotland—representatives from SaxaVord Spaceport told us that their experience of the CAA’s licencing approach had been more positive. Dave Ballance, Launch Operations Manager at SaxaVord Spaceport, said that the licencing had got off to slow start, explaining that the CAA were assessing their application in a particular order:

    ‘[ … ] to get from the initial screening through to the assessment phase the process is set up so that everything has to go at the same time. For example, we had to revisit one particular area several times. All the other stuff that was ready, from our perspective, was not being assessed. Whether it could have been assessed at that time, I do not know.’

    Despite this slow start Mr Ballance and Frank Strang, CEO of SaxaVord Spaceport, said that they now had a “very good relationship with the space regulation team”, and that they had “no issues at the moment” with the way their licence application was progressing.

    Dr Jonas Bjarnø, Chief Technical Officer of Orbex, a company developing a low-carbon orbital micro-launch system, also described a similar experience of the CAA, with a “somewhat slow and sluggish start” that had now progressed into a “solid working relationship and good, competent technical engagement”.

    Dr Mario Kobald, CEO of HyImpulse Technologies, a German start-up that is developing a small launcher system for small satellites, also reported an overall positive experience of the regulator, but noted that it is clear that the space regulations are still new to the CAA, and that processes were sometimes slow. Dr Kobald also said that the CAA were approaching safety margins more conservatively than other regulators, such as the FAA do.

    Although they praised the CAA’s approach, witnesses from SaxaVord Spaceport suggested that the regulations themselves could be improved,noting that they were not designed with multi-use launch facilities in mind, such as the facility under construction at Saxavord.”

    @David Eastman – the operators of Saxavord are a former physical education teacher, a hotelier and a small-scale manufacturer of gin. They are a small company, and aren’t exactly experienced in running spaceports. It’s possible that their spaceport licence application is not of the same standard as the one supplied by Virgin Orbit, who had a full FAA clearance before trying to launch from the UK. Virgin was also delayed by trying to re-use their FAA paperwork and then discovering the CAA wanted different information to suit the UK legal system, which demands different paperwork. I don’t disagree regualors are bureacratic – that is entirely their role – but it is also possible they have good reasons to not yet grant a licence in this case. One of them is money, another may be another issue we do not see. And finally, while the FAA system gives a 6 month review window, this does not include the lengthy consulting period prior to acceptance of a fully finalized application, while the CAA system includes this consulting and revision process in the 15-18 month window. It’s fine to criticize, but let’s do so on an accurate baseline.

  • DOS: Everything you state proves my point.

    1. The comments from company officials, complementing CAA bureaucrats who have life or death power over their companies, are meaningless. What else can they say? Do you really think that they are going to publicly lambast these officials? Not a chance. More meaningful are the comments of companies that have decided to no longer deal with the CAA and the UK, as I quoted above from that first hearing. They were fooled once, and will not be fooled again.

    2. Your next to last sentence illustrates why the UK is going to lose this business unless it makes some drastic and quick changes to its regulatory framework:

    And finally, while the FAA system gives a 6 month review window, this does not include the lengthy consulting period prior to acceptance of a fully finalized application, while the CAA system includes this consulting and revision process in the 15-18 month window.

    15 to 18 months? Absurd, and impossible for any spaceport to function. Moreover, the FAA does not do lengthy public consulting periods for every launch license, which it appears the CAA does. In fact, this long timeline makes the UK a poor choice for any space launch company. There are many other spaceports available that will do this faster.

    3. Finally, you seem to think that government paper pushers should have the right to determine who is qualified to run a business, and who should not. Such a system is the exact definition of fascism, whereby private enterprise is allowed, but only under strict government supervision. If that’s the system Great Britain now wants, then they will reap the whirlwind as their free nation collapses around them.

    You also fall into the standard trap of assuming these government workers have the insight, knowledge, and expertise to make such determinations. Such an assumption — routinely made by almost everyone nowadays — is senseless and divorced from reality. If anything, the bureaucrats in the CAA know less than the company officials they regulate. No matter, they are with the government, are here to help, and with their direct telephone line with God will be able to decide yay or nay with utter sincerity and accuracy. How dare I question them?!

    So much for freedom and capitalism. Welcome to the dictatorship of the blind and foolish.

  • Edward

    You wrote: “The CAA is not the issue. The launch site needs tens of millions more investment, as well as an operational customer.

    Would you want to invest in a site that the CAA takes too long to approve launches? There are other launch sites and launch regulators that get much faster approvals, and customers will go there, instead. I would invest in the other launch sites.

    For smallsat operators, the important thing is the ability to go from idea to orbit quickly, but if the CAA takes too long, quickly does not happen and the competition eats your lunch. If I were a customer, I would hire the launches from the other launch sites.

    There are four major factors launch customers look for: capability, reliability, affordability, and availability. If these sites are not available, then the other factors to these sites do not matter. The CAA has removed timely availability.

    So, yes. The CAA is the issue.

  • Someone

    It would be nice to stay accurate. The CAA provides a Launch Operator License, a Spaceport Operator and Range operator license. The launcher companies get licensed. It’s not a launch license. Whilst the CAA will want to see updated docs on each launch with regards to trajectory, risk assessment etc, this does not mean each launch will need to be scrutinised for 15-18months. Not at all.

    This being said: I wonder about the regulatory framework for orbital launches from Sweden (Esrange) and Norway (Andoya)… Wait, they don’t have a regulatory framework in place, or do they?

  • Col Beausabre

    Someone, If they adhere to the Outer Space Treaty they do, “Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty deals with international responsibility, stating that “the activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty” and that States Party shall bear international responsibility for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities.” Note authorization and supervision. Norway and Sweden tend to take such things seriously.

  • Col Beausabre

    .”Almost no one in a regulatory agency wants to spend a ton of time doing the legwork to approve something that will be a pipe dream 9 times out of 10″

    Translation. – They don’t want to do job they are paying paid to do, In other words they are useless drones, Get rid of themand find some people willing to work.

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