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Page last updated at 00:10 GMT, Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Scotland battles Sweden to get European spaceport


Space... Sweden's final frontier?

By Alex Hudson
BBC News

The United States may be the home for Sir Richard Branson's space tourism venture Virgin Galactic, but, even though flights are not scheduled to take off until at least 2013, is he already looking for a European base?

Almost 500 people have bought tickets for the 190-minute journey offering about five minutes of weightlessness in space for $200,000 (£127,000), taking off from a bespoke spaceport in the New Mexico desert.

Despite there being a number of legislative and contractual conundrums to be solved before commercial services can begin, the excitement about the possibility of a holiday - albeit a short one - in space has already taken hold.

Dennis Tito, the first space tourist
Space tourism is space travel for leisure or recreation rather than for scientific purposes
Dennis Tito, aged 60 at the time, paid $20m (£14m) in 2001 to become the first paying passenger to go to outer space
Current commercial plans focus on "sub-orbital" flight, allowing the feeling of weightlessness for short periods
Vehicles reach heights of just over the 100km (62 miles) line above the Earth - the Karman line - where space is commonly agreed to begin

While primarily an American venture, there are rumours that Virgin Galactic is already looking to expand.

And the UK wants the place of expansion to be in Scotland.

The Department for Business says that the UK is keen to attract commercial operations to the country and that Scotland remains a potential base for space tourism in the UK.

RAF Lossiemouth, the largest and busiest fast-jet base in the Royal Air Force, is seen as the leading site for any space tourism in the UK to take place.

With science minister David Willetts telling the Daily Telegraph he wants Virgin Galactic to launch in Europe and former Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn saying that space tourism flights could take off from Scotland - at one point said to be as early as in 2013 - all looked well for the Scottish Highlands to reach for the stars.

"One of the reasons that places like Lossiemouth have been mooted as possible launch sites is because it is relatively far away from centres of population," says Jeremy Curtis, of the UK Space Agency.

The UK space industry has a turnover of £7.5bn a year and is growing. It contributes £3.6bn to the British economy and employs - either directly or indirectly - nearly 85,000 people.

By 2030, the UK government wants to increase revenues to £40bn, about 10% of the forecasted £400bn global space industry.

But there are no firm plans for a spaceport in Scotland and there is one European country in particular that is trying to get a jump on the rest of the pack. It already has a functioning spaceport - Sweden.

"There are a few places in the world trying to establish this but none has come as far as we have," says Karin Nilsdotter, chief executive officer of Spaceport Sweden.

CGI of Virgin Galactic craft
Virgin hopes to be transporting paying customers into space in late 2013

"We also want to build on our existing infrastructure and tourism and business we have here.

"Spaceport Sweden wants to offer you and me the opportunity to go into space but already now we are offering space adventures."

An adventure involves flying to high altitudes to get a clear view of the Northern Lights without any risk of cloud cover getting in the way.

"Spaceport Sweden is potentially a great place to fly from," says Stephen Attenborough, commercial director of Virgin Galactic.

"They've got the ice hotel, it's a great destination and you get a great view - different from New Mexico.

"But one step at a time."

Commercial space race

Despite all this optimism, the attention given to a service from Virgin that is quite literally out of this world could be premature.

Initial plans from Virgin said that paying customers could be in the exosphere by 2007.

The first customers will now not take their trip until at least 2013 and Virgin is not the only competitor in the commercial space race.

Several services are competing to the be the first to take paying customers into sub-orbital flight on a regular basis. Some, like XCOR Aerospace, are offering similar services for less than half the price of Virgin.

The most recent predictions from their sales team RocketShip Tours are plans for launch from Curacao in the Caribbean in the first half of 2014.

There are already eight licensed spaceports with the Federal Aviation Authority in the US, though Virgin's is the first dedicated commercial spaceport.

Forecasts say by 2020, 20,000 people per year will be flying in to space and cost will come down considerably
Karin Nilsdotter, Spaceport Sweden

But as yet, like Virgin, not one of these projects has been truly successful.

And in the rush to turn space tourism into a global business, comparatively little work has taken place outside the US.

"The US is a little more relaxed on experimental, early-stage development," says Professor Sa'id Mosteshar, director of the London Institute of Space Policy and Law

"Their approach is slightly different from the European one because they look primarily at ensuring the safety of passengers and people on the ground."

Only one venture, Project Enterprise, is currently looking at European launches and little news about a confirmed date is available. Original plans stated that European trips would begin in 2010.

And, even after a lot of "ifs" and "whens" from Virgin, it looks like it will not be Europe that gets the second base after all.

"As and when we do think it's the right time to think about [expansion] more seriously, the first place we're likely to look at is Abu Dhabi," says Attenborough.

"We have now a substantial minority shareholder [in Abu Dhabi] who has made no secret of the fact that, through their investment, they would like Virgin Galactic to develop a centre of commercial space in the region.

"There's a lot of desert area and you've got a market."

Yuri Gagarin
About 500 people have been in space since Yuri Gagarin became the first

The market is one thing that Virgin is confident of. After raising nearly $65m in deposits from their US operation and being heavily backed by private investors, it sees a global market and a global industry way beyond what is currently being planned.

While investors in Abu Dhabi could be willing to spend big money for the kudos of having the first working spaceport outside the US, many believe that the UK is not interested in investing in a "trophy" of space travel.

"The UK tends to take a fairly hard-nosed view on activities [which just] create a prestigious centre that creates attention," says Curtis.

"The government's approach tends to be much more business-like. If there's a strong case - whether the UK economy is taken into account - then the government could invest in something."

Although space tourism is the thing grabbing all the headlines, there are variety of uses for sub-orbital flights.

These include high-speed transportation from one point on Earth to another and launching satellites much more cheaply. This activity could lead to economies of scale that sees prices plummeting as soon as a service is proven and begins operation.

"Forecasts say by 2020, 20,000 people per year will be flying in to space and cost will come down considerably. That is $200,000 today but, maybe in 2015, it will be $50,000 (£30,000)," says Nilsdotter

But, for the moment at least, countries preparing for the commercial space race seem to have more infrastructure planned than they have expeditions.

The legal issues facing tourist space travel are daunting.

Despite spaceports in countries from Kazakhstan to Israel, Europe often struggles with "a burden of regulation", according to Mr Willetts.

Even Europe's government-funded spaceport - belonging to the European Space Agency (ESA) - is located in Kourou, French Guiana, over 5,000km (3,100 miles) from mainland Europe.

"The spaceport industry is flourishing," says Attenborough.

"There are spaceports all over the world now - all they need now are spaceships."

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