Page last updated at 03:18 GMT, Wednesday, 1 July 2009 04:18 UK

UK 'yet to embrace space tourism'

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

Virgin Galactic spacecrafts (Image: Virgin Galactic)
Current rules would preclude Virgin from running space trips from the UK

The UK is ill-prepared to exploit the emerging commercial spaceflight sector, says the president of Virgin Galactic.

Will Whitehorn said Britain lacked the regulatory framework that would help the industry grow but which would also ensure the necessary safety standards.

Speaking at a space tourism conference in London, he said current rules would prevent Virgin launches from the UK.

Galactic expects to start taking fare-paying passengers on short space hops in the next few years.

Its "Eve" carrier aircraft will lift a rocket plane to over 50,000ft (15km) before releasing it to make a dramatic climb more than 60 miles (100km) above the Earth. Virgin plans to put satellites in space with the service, as well as people.

The Anglo-American company will operate initially from a dedicated spaceport in New Mexico, US, but then hopes to spread its operations across the globe.

'Vision needed'

Mr Whitehorn said Sweden and the Middle East were the likely locations for these other ventures - but not the UK, currently.

Lossiemouth in Scotland has put itself forward as a possible spaceport, and the Virgin boss said it had great potential. Unfortunately, it was held back by inadequate legislation, he told the conference.

"Lossiemouth would be an ideal location for polar injection of satellites. It could give Britain its own responsive space capability. But the one thing that America has that nobody else has - although the Swedes are close to it - is the legislation which allows our system to be built and operated.

"That was the vision the United States fulfilled with the Commercialisation of Space Amendment Act, and a vision [the UK] is failing to fulfil at the moment.

"The space industry in Britain should be saying to both government and the opposition, 'we've got to have some legislation to allow the new world of space to operate in this country'."

Mr Whitehorn said that the UK had some of the most innovative space companies in the world and they needed to be released into this exciting future.


See the Eve carrier aircraft on one of its recent test flights

The US Federal Aviation Authority has already developed rules to regulate commercial spaceflight activity like Virgin's, with tourists able to fly under an "informed consent" principle which means they waive their rights to litigation if there is an accident.

The approach obviates the need for what are essentially experimental space vehicles to go through a lengthy and costly process of certification, as happens with new airliners, which could hold back the development of the fledgling industry.

The British government last week initiated a panel to review space activity in the UK. The Space Innovation and Growth Team (IGT) will attempt to identify key trends and then list the actions industry and government need to take if they want to fully exploit the changes that are coming over the next 20 years.

Tourism in a burgeoning commercial space sector is expected to be one of those trends and Virgin Galactic has agreed to help develop the IGT blueprint.

"We want to see a much more innovative environment for investment in space in this country. We want to see it begin to mirror some of the exciting things that are happening in the US and Japan," said Mr Whitehorn.

The UK Space Tourism conference was taking place at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London.

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