Shetland enters space age as SaxaVord gains ‘historic’ licence

By Hans J. Marter,
Published by Shetland News, 17 December 2023

Construction work on site at Lamba Ness to re-start by the middle of January, spaceport confirms

SAXAVORD has become the UK’s first licensed spaceport for vertical rocket launches into orbit.

The long-awaited licence was granted to SaxaVord Spaceport by the Civil Aviation Authority at the weekend, paving the way for its first launches in 2024.

The move by the regulator was welcomed as “historic” by the company’s managing director Frank Strang and described as a “fantastic way to end the year and head into Christmas”.

So far, just under £30 million has been spent by private investors on developing the spaceport, which includes three launch pads and a hangar for assembling rockets.

Strang confirmed that construction work at the site at Lamba Ness in Unst would commence again in the new year after it was halted in June this year when the company run into problems with its £139 million debt facility.

Main contractor at the site DITT plus many sub-contractors stopped work on site and removed their equipment and machinery, while Strang was trying to raise fresh money, from existing and new investors.

SaxaVord Spaceport CEO Frank Strang at the Lamba Ness construction site last year. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

Work on the large hangar in the centre of the site however never stopped, and some bills were paid with money from the project’s many shareholders, including Danish billionaire Anders Hoch Povlsen whose company Wild Ventures Ltd back in August confirmed its confidence in the project.

While most of this was an open secret in Shetland, none of those involved were prepared to speak publicly about what was going on behind the scenes so not to prejudice the CAA licence which had been in the pipeline for some time.

Former UK science minister George Freeman visiting the spaceport site in October. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

Speaking to Shetland News on Sunday, Strang said: “We have made enormous process in plugging the funding gap, and while our clients are working on site at the moment, we will be kickstarting some of the other construction work from the new year onwards.”

He added that he was “100 per cent confident” that the crisis has been overcome, adding that UK Government was also looking into investing into the spaceport as well as associated infrastructure.

“We are in talks with the UK Government about investment in the spaceport direct, as part of those discussions we are talking about potential UK Government investment in supporting the infrastructure associated with the spaceport which includes fixed links,” Strang said.

He paid tribute to the local supply chain who had stayed “patient and in support” of SaxaVord Spaceport during the last few months.

“Whilst there is no work going on on the ground, there was ten times more work going on behind the scenes to deliver the licence and the processes, and without the licence and processes there is no point in building the spaceport.

“This now is like winning the cup final. We got the spaceport licence, and what we got to do now is deliver, and it is an enormous responsibility.

“The government has seen fit to give Shetland its place in history, and we now have to deliver these first launches, and I have absolutely no doubt that Shetland economy will go through another boom thanks to space.”

The regulator verified that the privately-owned spaceport met the safety and environmental requirements for vertical space launches.

The spaceport is licensed for up to 30 launches each year and caters for companies looking to send satellites into polar, sun-synchronous orbits.

German companies Rocket Factory Augsburg and HyImpulse hope to carry out launches from SaxaVord in 2024.

Licence ‘era-defining’

Tim Johnson, director of space regulation at the CAA, said: “Granting SaxaVord their licence is an era-defining moment for the UK space sector.

“This marks the beginning of a new chapter for UK space as rockets may soon launch satellites into orbit from Scotland.

“We are undertaking vital work to make sure the UK’s space activities are safe and sustainable for all.”

UK Transport Secretary Mark Harper said: “Today’s historic announcement will boost Shetland’s economy and put the United Kingdom at the forefront of spaceflight innovation.”

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