US space companies are crossing the Atlantic, bringing rocket launches to the UK for the first time

The only previous launch from U.K. soil was a military demonstration test in February 2016. The mission launched an American rocket from the western coast of Scotland, used to test a missile defense system over the Atlantic Ocean. For commercial purposes, however, a launch infrastructure has never existed.

The light-class rockets designed to launch small satellites command a premium because they launch often, quickly and directly into specific orbits. That can shave months off the time it takes a satellite to become operational. Additionally, locations in the U.K. are located much further north of the equator than most of the world’s launchpads, offering a unique ability to reach orbits commonly used by small satellites.

“Our funding is just a support, to kickstart that process,” the UKSA official told CNBC.

The $65 million earmarked for the UK Spaceflight Programme is a start – but it’s only a fraction of what other nations are investing. NASA’s Commercial Crew program has, on its own, dolled out billions of dollars for Boeing and SpaceX to deliver capsules to send U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station.

Separately, Japan announced in March it was offering nearly $1 billion to to fund space start-ups, made available through investments and loans over the next five years.

“Imagine what $1 billion would do in investment in those [British] sectors,” University of Leicester’s Bowen said.

Several municipalities across the U.K. are trying to attract investment to host a spaceport, with the organization in Melness earning this batch of investment.

While the greater market may be competitive, the UKSA official told CNBC that the ongoing investment program is not designed as a competition, and that the agency is not backing a single location as the nation’s spaceport.

The UKSA estimates that launch demand is worth up to $5 billion to the U.K.’s economy over the next decade. While the UKSA agency CNBC spoke to noted that the economy won’t necessarily capture all of that demand, the estimate is purely commercial – with any military and government contracts bringing in further windfall.

Boeing is also an investor in the U.K.’s launch sector, joining a $37.6 million fundraising round for propulsion company Reaction Engines in April. Reaction Engines’ advanced propulsion “could change the future of air and space travel,” according to Boeing HorizonX vice president Steve Nordlund. The British company is developing a hybrid jet and rocket engine.

In theory, the company’s SABRE engine will be capable of operating as a jet at take-off and transitioning to a rocket at higher altitudes.

UKSA chief executive Graham Turnock says this milestone is both pivotal and only the beginning. He issued an rolling call for any commercial.

“We will continue to engage with any company who seeks to operate here,” Turnock said.

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