Doug Johnson Aecom BW 2018

The government’s recent announcement that it has awarded funding for new horizontal and vertical spaceports is a critical milestone for the UK’s fledgling spaceflight sector. As focus shifts to delivery, the country now has an exciting opportunity to build new capabilities and skills to support growth in the globally competitive commercial space market. 

Given the unique challenges associated with spaceport development, there are a range of specialist technical and leadership skills required to support the delivery and operation of these types of facilities. A deep understanding of the environmental and safety risks associated with space travel is critical from the earliest planning stages. From the expected trajectory of rockets and the dynamic forces required to support launch missions to the complexities of storing, transporting and loading rocket fuel, there are a number of technical challenges distinct to this type of work. 

Spaceports, like the proposed vertical launch site in Sutherland, are often in remote locations. The logistics affiliated with building in such an isolated area provide numerous construction challenges. But spaceports also need sophisticated transport and digital infrastructure to support launch activities that must be developed at the same time. A vast amount of water is needed to help with sound suppression for launch missions, for example, so access to water is a key requirement for any new facility. 

With the UK space sector in its infancy, there are lessons to be learned from overseas. Aecom has been involved in the US space programme since its inception and is committed to bringing its global expertise to the UK, drawing on its experiences from operations at sites such as the Kennedy Space Center. But spaceports also provide an opportunity to create job opportunities for local communities. Aecom plans to develop a UK capability by re-skilling resources from our operation of the Dounreay Nuclear facility, which is located not far from the proposed Sutherland site. Building a trained and capable UK workforce to support growth in the supply chain will take time, and must be a priority to help maximise the success of the sector. 

Investing in horizontal launch sites like those proposed at Newquay and Prestwick will position the UK to take advantage of predicted growth in commercial space transportation. While the focus is currently on launching satellites, in the not too distant future space travel could become more widespread. Spaceplane technology is still in its infancy, but its rapid progress could see the vehicles become a viable mode of transport. Public perception and acceptance of space travel may still need addressing, but a rise in popularity of suborbital space travel could pave the way for multi-modal transport hubs incorporating space. The airports of the future will facilitate both air and space travel. 

The UK has taken a bold step in committing to investing in a new spaceflight market, which has the potential to unlock new jobs and revenue for businesses across the country. The engineering and construction sectors now have a vital role to play in supporting growth in the spaceflight market.