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House of Commons Report Urges Rapid Improvements in UK Spaceport & Launch Licensing

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
August 1, 2023
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House of Commons Report Urges Rapid Improvements in UK Spaceport & Launch Licensing
Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket ignites moments after being released by carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl for the company’s Launch Demo 2 mission on January 17th, 2021.
Image Credit: Virgin Orbit.

A United Kingdom House of Commons report published this month criticized the government’s approval of new spaceports and satellite launches as being excessively slow and bureaucratic, and it urged rapid action to streamline regulations to secure the nation’s status in the booming launch industry.

“Time is running out in this Parliament for the Government to translate high-level ambitions into practical plans,” the report said. “There is now not a moment to lose if the UK is to realise the full potential of this extraordinary sector, which is booming worldwide, and in which we have a world class capability and reputation.”

The report from the House of Commons Science, Innovation, and Technology Committee was based on witness testimony given by officials from launch providers, spaceport operators, satellite manufacturers, government agencies, and other entities involved in the space industry.

“The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) got off to a slow start with implementing the spaceflight regulations. Some people in the launch sector reported that their engagement with the CAA was more cumbersome than they would have wished,” the report stated. “However, it is clear that during the past year, the CAA has taken steps to expand its team dedicated to space launch and to improve its engagement with license applicants.”

A key focus area involved the time it took to license Cornwall Newquay Airport as a spaceport and Richard Branson’s now-defunct Virgin Orbit to launch satellites from the facility using a rocket air-launched by a modified Boeing 747. It was the first time CAA licensed an orbital launch from the United Kingdom.

Virgin Orbit had been anticipating conducting its first launch from Spaceport Cornwall in Summer 2022, but the flight slipped into 2023 due to licensing issues.

“Spaceport Cornwall eventually received its license on 16 November 2022, and Virgin Orbit received its license on 21 December 2022,” the report says. “In its announcement, the CAA said that it had granted the licenses within 15 months, which was ‘well within the expected timescales for these types of licenses, putting the UK’s regulatory framework on a competitive footing with other international space regulators.'”

In sentiments echoed by other witnesses, Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart told the committee the licensing process was slow and complex, in part due to the need to coordinate with multiple government agencies in the United Kingdom and neighboring countries.

For example, Hart was required to coordinate with the following organizations, as listed in the report:

UK organizations: Civil Aviation Authority, UK Space Agency, Department for Transport, Health and Safety Executive, Maritime & Coastguard Agency, Marine Management Organization, UK Hydrographic Office, His Majesty’s Coast Guard, Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, Ministry of Defence, National Air Traffic Services, Cornwall Police Department, Airport Fire Department, MI-5.

Non-UK organizations: Eurocontrol, ACC Shannon – Ireland’s aviation authority, ENAIRE – Spain’s aviation authority, NAV Portugal, Irish Coast Guard, Irish Aviation Authority, US Federal Aviation Authority [sic].”

“When we asked the CAA what it was doing to improve this complex coordination process, representatives told us that it was working with its counterparts in other countries to create an ongoing agreement on how launches, and the use of airspace, would be managed,” the document added.

According to the report, Hart said that while “he had expected to be able to use documentation and analysis that had previously been used by the United States Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), he had to reformulate this in a specific way to meet the CAA requirements,” the report stated.

Virgin Orbit’s launch on January 9, 2023, failed after a filter in LauncherOne’s second-stage propulsion system broke loose. The House committee found that the time it took CAA to issue the licenses did not contribute to the launch failure.

The failure and the long licensing period did exacerbate ongoing problems Virgin Orbit was already experiencing with large quarterly losses and a low flight cadence. LauncherOne failed on its maiden flight in May 2020, but flew successfully two times the following year. Virgin Orbit had planned to launch four to six times in 2022, but the company managed only two flights. The company spent the second half of the year waiting for licenses to be issued for the Cornwall launch.

Virgin Orbit furloughed the majority of its employees in March, and it declared bankruptcy in early April. The company subsequently shut down after selling off its assets to five other space companies.

Witnesses testified that despite the problems, the CAA has made progress in its handling of license applications. Representatives from SaxaVord Spaceport, which is under construction in Scotland, testified they have a very good relationship with CAA officials and that licensing was progressing without any problems.

“We are pleased to hear that the regulatory experiences of the UK launch sector are moving in a positive direction, and we encourage the CAA to continue this trajectory. However, more can be done to streamline the regulatory process to help ensure that the UK launch sector can reach its full potential,” the report said.

“As the spaceflight regulations were put in place before any implementation could take place, there is now a need for the regulations and their implementation to date to be reviewed,” the document added. “We are encouraged to hear that the Government does intend to conduct this review, but recommend that it does so at pace, publishing the outcomes of the review and the planned improvements to the regulatory process by September 2023. Focus should be placed on streamlining the process and improving the experience for both licence applicants and the CAA, whilst maintaining the best safety standards.”

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