SaxaVord Spaceport getting closer to the much anticipated first launch

An image of how a RFA launch could look.

An image of how a RFA launch could look.

By Hans J Marter,
Published by Shetland News, 5 March 2024

PREPARATIONS to become the UK’s first operational spaceport are hotting up in Unst – with the first orbital launch still scheduled for later this year.

Following on from the CAA licence being granted just before Christmas, management at SaxaVord Spaceport is confident it will receive its ‘range licence’ later this month to finally become a “fully-fledged spaceport”.

This second licence, also issued by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), allows rockets launched from SaxaVord to use the airspace.

Main contractor for civil engineering work DITT was finally paid in full last month, but so far the local firm has not been asked to return to the site to carry out further groundwork.

SaxaVord Spaceport has also just submitted a visitor and spectator management plan to the SIC’s planning department, which specifies an exclusion zone, a designated viewing area as well as traffic management measures.

Meanwhile, the CAA is consulting on Rocket Factory Augsburg’s (RFA) application for a launch operator licence for up to ten launches a year.

The German company, SaxaVord’s first dedicated customer, will soon have exclusive use of the Fredo launch pad and is hopeful of successfully carrying out a maiden orbital launch in the second part of 2024.

Finally, SaxaVord has just appointed a spaceport manager and is still hopeful for the UK Space Agency to take a stake in the privately owned business.

Spaceport chief executive Frank Strang said the various teams working at the Lamba Ness base were all facing challenging timescales.

“There are lots of moving parts, our timescales are challenging; [but] we are pushing hard, and we will get there,” he said.

“We have just recruited a spaceport manager from SpaceX – Derek Hamilton – and he starts next week.”

Strang was speaking to Shetland News after returning from Denmark at the end of last week following meetings with the spaceport’s largest individual shareholder, the Danish billionaire Anders Hoch Povlsen.

All eyes will soon be on the progress RFA is making when the Fredo launchpad will officially be handed over to the German company on 31 March.

Strang said the company will be starting testing from then on with a view to initiating the launch campaign for the first vertical lunch from a UK spaceport in the second part of the year.

“We are all working very hard to enable them, but there are a lot of moving parts to that,” Strang said. “They have their own team supporting their own launch, and we support the launch from the spaceport’s perspective.

SaxaVord (UK) Spaceport chief executive Frank Strang. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

“The final responsibility rests with us, we will have a team that is running and monitoring the launch, like air traffic control, but everything else is RFA.”

He added: “It’s a challenging timescale but it is achievable. What we can’t control is the technology.

“We as a spaceport will be ready for them, But I can’t dictate whether their technology will be ready.

“They are very confident, the CAA I know is working with them very closely, my belief is that somewhere between August and late autumn that launch will happen, I am absolutely convinced of that – but I can’t give you a date.”

Strang added that global demand for taking satellites into orbit was continuing to grow and that SaxaVord would be well positioned once fully operational.

He said Elon Musk’s company SpaceX alone carried out 94 successful space missions from America last year, and is planning to increase that to 12 per month during 2024.

“Spaceports will become like an airport, because the demand is there,” Strang said.

SaxaVord continues to have a close relationship with German company HyImpulse and is also expecting the Lockheed Pathfinder project to be ready by the end of this year. The ABL rocket system it is using is currently be tested in Alaska.

“Lockheed is contracted to the UK Government to launch from Unst, and they have been waiting for ABL to get a successful launch in Alaska, they should be launching this month. My belief is that they will be ready to launch in about eight months’ time,” Strang commented.

Will it all go to plan though? Of course not – all of these planned launches are also research and development missions and failure is part of the learning process, he said.

However, the world is watching. “We are talking to the Spanish, the French, Korean interest – they are all waiting to see that first launch,” Strang said.

“For me, success is not to be limited to one client. And remember, we are bringing data down to Shetland right now, we are a revenue generating spaceport today.”

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