In the far northern Highlands of Scotland, the historic county of Sutherland cradles rugged coastline, ruined castles, and the A’ Mhòine peninsula—Scots Gaelic for “the peat bog”—an expanse so barren it could be the surface of the moon. Save for greylag geese and dunlin wading birds, all that rises from this ancient, unspoiled landscape are the distant summits of mountains. And, perhaps soon, spaceships in flight.
As early as autumn 2022, crowds may gather here to watch low-carbon rockets blast off from a launchpad situated within the bracken. Transporting communications satellites into orbit, the pad will fulfill an ambition by the United Kingdom Space Agency (UKSA) and its partners to fly spaceships from British soil. The port will propel the country into a commercial space launch industry currently driven by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. And it will thrust this region into a global space economy that is anticipated to be worth as much as $1.4 trillion by the decade’s end.
Space Hub Sutherland could become Europe’s first continental orbital spaceport, reviving an area in economic decline through new jobs and adding “rocket-spotting” to Scotland’s tourism profile, alongside the traditional offerings of whiskey, golf, and moors. The technology involved might even help the space industry become more climate conscious.
But while Scotland’s nascent space industry seems poised for take-off, challenges remain. Stakeholders must balance the economic future of Sutherland and the disruption of the area’s fragile and biodiverse environment, which is vital in the fight against climate change.
The space crofters of Melness
At locations from Prestwick to Kintyre, Stornoway, and North Uist, the idea of creating horizontal and vertical launch spaceports in Scotland has been explored for years. One of the northernmost landmasses in Europe, Scotland is advantageously located to access polar and Sun-synchronous orbits, while the country’s relatively low population density (182 people per square mile) and abundance of surrounding coastal waters for emergency splashdowns offer reassurance should a launch go wrong.
In Sutherland—a 2,028-square-mile area home to around 13,500 inhabitants—population density drops to less than seven people per square mile and may become even sparser. With the decommissioning of Dounreay Nuclear Power Station and the North Sea oil industry in decline, jobs are becoming scarcer. Sutherland’s population may plummet by 11.9 percent in the next 20 years, according to one Scottish government projection.
“They’re lucky if they’ve got 20 pupils now,” says retired teacher Dorothy Pritchard of the school where she taught in the Sutherland village of Tongue. “Every time a family leaves it’s like a dagger in the heart.” Pritchard is a sixth-generation crofter (a small-hold, traditionally tenant farmer) and chairwoman of Melness Crofters’ Estate (MCE), a community of 57 landowning crofters on A’ Mhòine.
In 2017, much to the crofters’ surprise, they were approached by regional development agency Highlands and Islands Enterprise about building a spaceport on their lands, co-funded by UKSA. Fierce debate among the crofters ensued before a vote was taken to let the rocket men in. “But not at any cost,” Pritchard insists.
Strict assurances were secured that no missiles will be launched, and that the facility will have the lowest possible impact on an area heavily protected for its many rare species of threatened wildlife and plants, not to mention the way in which peatland captures and stores carbon. The core of the spaceport will be 759 acres, including a control center designed to blend into the environment and “floating” access roads that don’t necessitate digging peat.
Forty permanent local jobs are projected to be created; half of all money earned from the spaceport by MCE will go into a charitable fund for the local community. “I just think it’d be so fantastically exciting for this area,” says Pritchard, a self-confessed “Trekkie” (fan of the Star Trek sci-fi television and film franchise) and keenest of the “Space Crofters,” as they jokingly call themselves. “It’s a sustainable future.”
Highland hospitality, now with rockets
“If it’s going to come in, it’s going to be tiny, and not be Scotland’s Cape Canaveral,” says Chris Lamour, CEO of Space Hub Sutherland’s commercial operator Orbex, as he recounts locals’ demands during negotiations. A small, low-impact spaceport needs a rocket to match and Orbex’s answer is Prime, a 150-kg payload launch vehicle currently being built at Orbex’s Forres headquarters, which the company claims will be the greenest rocket ever flown. Orbex says that Prime will be reusable and powered by renewable, bio-propane fuel that cuts carbon emissions by 90 percent.
Anyone hoping for a spectacle akin to SpaceX’s monster 63,800-kg payload Falcon Heavy heaving off a Florida launchpad may be underwhelmed by the sight of petite Prime streaking into the sky. Yet, Lamour still feels that launches from Sutherland—as many as 12 a year—have potential to attract new visitors to an area that already offers tourists much in terms of sweeping countryside and old-fashioned Highland hospitality.
“The first few launches, you’ll see a lot of people turning up to watch because it’ll be a novelty,” says Lamour. “You might get the hardcore people who want to come and see every launch or people who time their tourist trip on the North Coast 500.”
Glasgow, a satellite city
Space Hub Sutherland follows Glasgow’s growing satellite industry. Scotland’s biggest city is the largest satellite producer outside of California. On the banks of the River Clyde, where once a fifth of the world’s shipping was built, today much smaller vessels—some little larger than a winged Rubik’s Cube—are assembled to feed a ferocious global appetite for satellite data used for everything from military programs to dating apps.
“Glasgow is fundamentally one of the best places on the planet to build spaceships,” says Tom Walkinshaw, founder of satellite maker Alba Orbital. The story of Glasgow’s satellite industry began in 2005, when Clyde Space—today a market leader in CubeSat technology—was founded. Strong investment and a healthy talent and support base surrounding Glasgow’s universities has helped the sector to expand and grow. The Scottish space industry is estimated to be worth more than $5 billion by 2030.
A Scottish spaceport would, in theory, mean that the likes of Clyde Space and Alba no longer need to transport their products to the United States or New Zealand for launch. But despite spaceports being debated for years in Scotland, none are yet built, and Walkinshaw remains skeptical. Even if Orbex blasts off from Sutherland, he feels that a latecomer to a market already dominated by $74 billion SpaceX—“just this gorilla of a company,” he remarks—may struggle.
“As a space guy, I’d love to see rockets launched from Scotland,” Walkinshaw says. “But I worry that this becomes a sideshow.”
Protecting A’ Mhòine
Skepticism aside, there’s also the environment to consider. Construction could begin on the $24 million spaceport before the end of 2021. But the prospect of such a facility being built so close to a fragile peat bog—a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest—incenses many, particularly in the year in which Scotland is set to welcome world leaders for the critical COP26 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow.
A’ Mhòine’s peat bog forms part of the Flow Country, the largest expanse of blanket bog in Europe. In the U.K., peatlands store over three billion tons of carbon, equivalent to all carbon stored in the forests of the U.K., Germany, and France combined. If damaged, peatland can release its carbon. For that reason among others, many oppose the spaceport, including local environmental group Protect The Mhòine, scientists from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), and Britain’s richest man and largest landowner Anders Holch Povlsen.
The billionaire Danish retail entrepreneur and re-wilding enthusiast owns lands bordering Melness Crofters’ Estate. His conservation organization Wildland has an alternative vision for the Highlands—millions of trees re-planted, marine habitats restored, extinct animals such as Eurasian lynx reintroduced, and no spaceport. Or at least, not on A’ Mhòine peninsula (another of Pavlson’s companies, Wild Ventures, has invested nearly $2 million in Shetland Space Centre, a rival project far off atop the Northern Isles).
A judicial review of the Sutherland spaceport’s planning permission, petitioned for by Wildland, is expected to take place in June. Space Hub Sutherland awaits consent from the Scottish Land Court, while Orbex still needs a license to launch from the U.K. government.
The Scottish space race is far from won, but Melness crofter Dorothy Pritchard remains hopeful. In a hillside pebbledash cottage with stunning views of a crashing North Sea, she sips a cup of tea and describes what matters most for her—ensuring that there is a future here for people as much as the environment.
“Any place that’s just empty to me is soulless,” she reflects, “it’s communities and things that make a place, and make it fun to visit and fun to get to know people and their way of life and their cultures. I just think when you lose that, you’ve lost something terribly precious.”
Malcolm Jack is a freelance journalist based in Glasgow, Scotland. Follow him on Twitter.