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Building a hub for space tourism could provide a futuristic boost to the British economy, according to a report from the Institute of Directors, which urges the government and private sector to start planning a UK spaceport.
In the first of a planned series of reports on business infrastructure, the IoD argues that Britain’s booming space industry needs a UK spaceport for space tourism, research and development to continue the industry’s “Bric-style growth” into the future.
Already an £8bn industry, Britain’s space sector employs 25,000 people directly and 60,000 indirectly, with jobs growing by 15 per cent a year, the report estimates.
Requirements for a spaceport include a long runway (at least 5,000 metres) and an undisturbed high altitude air corridor. Although that rules out south-east England, several RAF bases in Scotland and Northern Ireland could potentially be converted, the report says; a location in south-west England might be another option.
Although the funding might be mostly private, strong support from local and central government would be essential to establish a spaceport – not just to tackle planning and air traffic control issues, but also to establish a regulatory framework for journeys into space.
“To get the ball rolling, the most important step is to enact a UK regulatory regime that is not too onerous and is as close as possible to the one in the US,” said Dan Lewis, the IoD policy adviser who compiled the report.
“With no safety, environmental or flight regulations in place for trips into space from the UK, it’s harder for space pioneers to insure and calculate the cost of setting up – and hopefully clustering – upstream companies that build space hardware and downstream firms that offer space-related services in Britain,” Mr Lewis added.
A spaceport would enable Britain to share in the coming era of suborbital space tourism, pioneered by companies such as Virgin Galactic. Wealthy space tourists who are willing to pay $200,000 for a few minutes of weightlessness and stunning views of the globe would have substantial disposable income to help the local economy, the report observes.
But tourism would just be part of the spaceport’s business. It would also be a research and development centre for space-oriented businesses and perhaps a base for launching small unmanned satellites into orbit.
The space sector came about largely as a result of Britain’s early adoption of satellite broadcasting, according to the IoD, allowing the country to draw on the skills of overlapping world-class aerospace and defence industries.
By contrast, the government has had very little involvement compared with other industrialised countries. The UK Space Agency received just £313m in public funding – just 0.73 per cent of the combined global space agency budget of $65bn in 2010 – making the space sector one of the least subsidised parts of the UK economy, the report says.
“Now is the time to look at the infrastructure that is needed to take the space industry on to the next stage,” said Simon Walker, IoD director-general of the Institute of Directors. “It would be fantastic to have commercial space flights operating from a British spaceport, shipping goods and passengers into orbit and boosting the economy.”