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Spaceport Cornwall
England’s Spaceport Cornwall, located at Cornwall Airport Newquay, plans to start hosting Virgin Orbit LauncherOne missions as soon as 2022. (credit: Spaceport Cornwall)

Growing the global space community: onboarding spacefaring nations

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The space sector is truly going global. The massive influx of private investment into the commercial space sector over the past decade is no longer centered on the United States space startups are now a common fixture of the space ecosystem in regions such as Europe and Asia. Recognizing the many benefits that space capabilities provide, more and more countries across the world are actively developing robust domestic space sectors of their own: standing up dedicated space agencies, crafting forward-looking space strategies, and initiating work on a variety of new space projects.

As part of this trend, several countries are looking to become bona fide “launching” states, able to send vehicles into space on their own, closing the gap between the countries with spacecraft in orbit (more than 80) and the countries that can launch them themselves (only nine.)

How might the traditional “established” spacefaring nations help “onboard” newcomers to the sector, to facilitate mutually beneficial partnerships?

And, as the number of space-interested and spacefaring nations expands, so too does the interest of US space companies to operate overseas in partnership with them. For example, Virgin Orbit has announced plans to conduct in-country launch from the United Kingdom, Brazil, and Japan; Sierra Space looks to execute landings of its Dream Chaser spaceplane in the United Kingdom; SpaceX has future plans for point-to-point travel through space; and Rocket Lab is conducting launches from New Zealand.

Drawing on these trends, a global network of active and proposed spaceports is booming. With more international space business than ever before, it is only expected to grow. As the space industry rapidly globalizes, established programs and countries are seeking deeper cooperation with new ones.

To that end, how might the traditional “established” spacefaring nations help “onboard” newcomers to the sector, to facilitate mutually beneficial partnerships? And, to understand how best to help, what’s driving the desire among the global community to set up local launch locations?

These questions were the focus of an in-depth panel titled “Space for Everyone: Onboarding Spacefaring Nations” held during this year’s AIAA ASCEND Conference. It featured four experts leading the drive on international commercial space cooperation, who have unique insights into the many steps that need to be taken next: Janice Starzyk (Vice President of Government Operations at Virgin Orbit), Rebecca Shrimpton (Head of Defense, Space, and Infrastructure at the Australian Trade and Investment Commission), Melissa Thorpe (Head of Spaceport Cornwall), and Pam Underwood (Director of Spaceports at the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation).

Why are regions across the world turning to and investing in spaceports? To Austrade’s Shrimpton and Spaceport Cornwall’s Thorpe, the desire is rooted in both local economic concerns and fits into broader national strategies. Much like industrial parks, spaceports can become local space hubs for the regional space sector, drawing in investment, providing ready-made infrastructure for businesses and international tenants, and kickstarting a self-sufficient space economy. Spaceports attract new companies to the area, which in turn creates demand for upgraded lease facilities, contributes to the local tax base, and helps to drive infrastructure improvement. In short, spaceports seed a broader ecosystem across the space value chain which in turn encourages more entrepreneurship.

Take, for example, the story of Spaceport Cornwall, located in the southwest of the British Isles and one of the several spaceport projects underway in the United Kingdom. Cornwall has had a long and storied history in space: it is the site of the Goonhilly Earth Station, the oldest satellite Earth station in the United Kingdom and a key asset during the Apollo 11 lunar landing. In recent years, however, the region’s economy has been considerably stagnant; although a popular tourist location, it is among the poorest in the United Kingdom.

Spaceport Cornwall is expected to be a driver of significant, and locally important, economic growth. Much like the case at Cape Canaveral and elsewhere, the Spaceport’s advocates see a steady launch presence transforming the location into an active aerospace hub, with satellite manufacturers, suppliers, and downstream companies relocating to the site to take advantage of its infrastructure, talent pool, and proximity to operations.

Co-located with the regional Newquay Airport, the spaceport is, as Thorpe sees it, enhancing already existing assets and infrastructure: a low-cost investment with potentially significant payoff. Leveraging financial support and resources from the UK government during the COVID-19 pandemic, the spaceport has invested in building an on-site satellite integration facility. That facility has given Cornwall a “physical place that it can use to attract and spinout talent, share knowledge, and use” anchor partners such as Virgin Orbit and Sierra Space. It will also be important toward capturing opportunities for further economic growth, attracting other companies to use the site for payload manufacture, integration, and launch.

The spaceport has seen huge interest from other domestic and international partners in recent years as a potential site of operations. The spaceport has already announced a partnership with Virgin Orbit to use the site as a horizontal launch location, with a first launch currently scheduled for mid-2022, and with Sierra Space to conduct landings from space. It has also seen interest from local companies “that might not see themselves as space companies,” but see potential “applications or widgets” that could be used for space, creating downstream and offshoot economic benefit from the space economy. Thorpe’s team has been busy holding supply-chain days, sparking innovative thinking from local companies and international firms.

The global community’s pursuit of spaceport projects extends beyond just economic factors and interest in incubating domestic space sectors.

Spaceport Cornwall reflects the United Kingdom’s new national strategy to develop a robust space sector—a strategy that, in large part, sees launch as the spark. To that point, speaking to the investments the United Kingdom’s government has made into the location, Chris Skidmore, the UK’s science minister at the time, said last year that “[w]e want the UK to be the first country in Europe to give its small satellite manufacturers a clear route from the factory to the spaceport. That’s why it’s so important that we are developing new infrastructure to allow aircraft to take off and deploy satellites, a key capability that the UK currently lacks. Today’s announcement will help the UK to harness the commercial opportunities offered by the global space industry and put the UK firmly on the map as Europe’s leading launch destination.”

The story is quite similar in Australia, a country which is no historical stranger to the space community. In the 1960s it was a launching state: only the third, behind the United States and Soviet Union, to conduct an in-country satellite launch. In the years since, however, Australia moved away from domestic capabilities to becoming a consumer of space services, drawing on the data of others.

In Shrimpton’s view, the context of Australia’s approach to space has now begun to shift back. Today, the country’s heavy reliance on the space capabilities of others looks less viable and responsible. Indeed, in 2018, the Australian Space Agency was established with a goal of tripling the size of Australia’s space sector by 2030, creating 20,000 jobs in the process.

Australia needs to “invest in [its] own capabilities,” and is investing in launch capabilities and launch sites to achieve that end. Much like with Spaceport Cornwall, in-country launch enabled through domestic spaceport locations will help spur the growth of a broader space sector across satellite design, manufacture, and operations… as Shrimpton puts it, “when you have launch, you need things to launch.”

Among Australia’s active spaceport projects are Southern Launch and Equatorial Launch Australia, which is second only to French Guiana in proximity to the equator. Shrimpton sees these spaceports as central parts of Australia’s development model, creating aerospace industry clusters “close to the place of launch” that achieve critical mass. In other words, Australia believes “in the value and pull of spaceports and space launch as a catalyst for the broader industry.”

The global community’s pursuit of spaceport projects extends beyond just economic factors and interest in incubating domestic space sectors. Space is inspirational, and regions are hoping to use the presence of an active spaceport to support their efforts in local STEM education. Thorpe and Spaceport Cornwall, for example, are “using launch as aspiration,” beleving that seeing Virgin Orbit’s rocket parked at the spaceport will be “life changing” to people flying into the Newquay airport.

In fact, Cornwall is already seeing an uptake in STEM careers since the spaceport project began, a testament to the many steps the spaceport has taken to engage the local community. Among them: the spaceport has created a STEM mascot; representatives from the spaceport have visited nearly every school in Cornwall County, reaching tens of thousands of school children; and a scale model of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket has been flown in and set up as an on-site STEM exhibition, which over 10,000 people have to-date visited. More tangibly, the spaceport is also supporting a community satellite “by Cornwall, for Cornwall” called Kernow Sat 1 that will monitor ocean health around the Cornish coast.

Regions are using spaceports as a tool to spark interest and create opportunities for regional students and educators, building a talent pool that will support a more robust local aerospace industry. Advanced STEM satellite projects such as Kernow Sat 1 are effective tools for preparing students for the aerospace workforce and incubating entrepreneurial spinoff startups that accelerate local economic growth.

Indeed, the global regulatory framework for transnational commercial space activity is, at least today, largely fragmented. Duplication of regulations can add burden to companies seeking to operate overseas.

As for the interest among US companies in these locations, foreign spaceports provide ready-to-use infrastructure for operators to extend their business overseas, helping them quickly move into regions and capture parts of the growing global market. Virgin Orbit, for example, intends to use its mobile air-launch platform as a tailor-made launch solution for new space actors or countries without indigenous launch capabilities— essentially bringing launch to the customer. Partnerships between in-country spaceports and companies seeking to operate overseas are intuitive, win-win arrangements.

If these partnerships seem intuitive, however, the path toward making them a reality is anything but. Countries and companies need to navigate a complex path of regulations, legislation, international agreements, and treaties before cross-border commercial space cooperation and activities take place. While not insurmountable, these can become especially challenging when the countries in question are “newcomers” to the space community and are still setting up, or have yet to set up, a regime to govern space activities.

Indeed, the global regulatory framework for transnational commercial space activity is, at least today, largely fragmented. While the UN space treaties mandate that countries need to authorize commercial space activity, many approach the requirement in different ways with their own approval and licensing regimes, which often have unique requirements. Duplication of regulations can add burden to companies seeking to operate overseas. For example, United States launch providers hoping to conduct launches abroad need to secure both a FAA launch license and a license from the country they launch from; if the license requirements are different or require different information, it presents potentially significant extra effort on the part of those companies’ regulatory teams to secure what is, in effect, the same approval.

For the FAA’s Underwood, resolving duplication in regulations is where governments, especially the governments of “established” spacefaring nations, can best help move the needle toward deeper commercial space cooperation. She sees the status of the globalizing space economy of today much like that of aviation in the 1950s and 1960s, and asks the challenging question, “what if the United States had not worked to help set up a global aviation certification or regulatory regime?” She points out that today’s commonality in the international aviation regulatory regime has helped make it a truly global sector and argues that the global space industry should move in a similar direction.

To that end, it is, in the view of the panelists, the job of governments invested in space “to work together to have common requirements and common regulations, minimizing burdensome regulatory duplication or incompatibility.” Industry is best served when it does not need two separate, often different, government approvals to conduct a single activity; it is incumbent on governments to streamline those approvals across their different systems.

Underwood’s office and the FAA have an open-door policy with countries that are interested in setting up a space regime and are conducting active outreach to those countries where US companies have expressed interest in operating. The FAA does not seek to dictate or mandate a single regulatory approach, but rather to consult with other countries to understand where they are, what their governments are thinking, and determine how to best give advice, coordinate, and facilitate future partnerships. Indeed, the FAA has just recently signed a declaration of intent with another prospective launching state, Brazil, on cooperating in space licensing activities.

As the space industry is growing and changing, so too are its ambitions and plans, which increasingly look global and international.

For Shrimpton and Thorpe, the open dialogue between international partners has been key to the continued success and future of their space projects. According to Shrimpton, it is through this coordination on best practices that “Australia is learning the strategic, policy, and operational benefits of an integrated approach to using and building space capabilities across the civil, military, and commercial sectors.” It has helped all countries involved become better aligned, more efficient, and helps standardize international best practices and policies.

It’s not only government-to-government coordination that helps, either. Spaceport Cornwall has benefitted from an UK spaceport alliance where expertise and experiences are shared; the spaceport also sits on a global spaceport alliance, where spaceports across the world discuss best practices. Likewise, says Thorpe, the various spaceports across the globe that are working with US launch partners for future operations—Japan and Spaceport Cornwall, for example—regularly talk on how to best accommodate the unique systems and requirements of the operators seeking to take advantage of their infrastructure.

The interest among countries and regions to develop local launch sites, of US and international operators to utilize them, and the close coordination—between governments, spaceports, and the commercial sector—on enabling those operations are all encouraging trends for an evolution in the global space sector. As the space industry is growing and changing, so too are its ambitions and plans, which increasingly look global and international. Teams such as as those led by Underwood, Shrimpton, and Thorpe are working to shape a future of international commercial space activity, helping the global space economy, which has a projected value that could potentially soar to $1 trillion by the 2040s, liftoff in the coming decades.

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