The northern space frontier: How Shetland is leading the UK space race

January 26, 2022

by Thomas Nicolson

In a world full of new rockets, Elon Musk and talk of colonising the moon in our lifetime, space missions might feel light years away from the small population of Shetland.

They are, however, closer to space than anyone else in the UK might think in a multi-billion-pound project that intends to create new jobs which is directly impacting on a number of Bonham & Brook clients from the construction and engineering sectors.

“The project has been one of the most exciting I can ever remember,” said one client. “We’ve been focused on marine engineering all of our lives and suddenly we are now helping to build rockets”.

The spaceport provisions will construct three launch pads and associated infrastructure incorporating a satellite tracking facility, hangar and integration facilities, the creation of a range control centre at the former RAF Saxa Vord complex, use of the fuel storage facility at Ordale Airport at Baltasound, and significant improvements to the launch site’s approach roads.

Scott Hammond, Shetland Space Centre project director, said: “The economic decline of Unst since the closures of Baltasound Airport and RAF Saxa Vord has been well documented.

“We believe our proposals will help regenerate the island by providing skilled jobs and helping with repopulation that can only benefit the social fabric, including the school, health centre and small businesses. The space industry attracts young people and the island needs a healthy population of young families to maintain economic viability.”

Frank Strang, CEO of Shetland Space Centre, said: “Scott and Alan Farningham and his team have assembled a very comprehensive and detailed application that has taken over two years to produce.

“In many ways, the UK is in very new territory and while there are other spaceports situated elsewhere in the world, we are just starting out on the journey and it is very important that we get it right.

“We are trying to portray all the positive aspects of the new space economy and hopefully light a small beacon of hope in these dark times, not just for the Shetland economy but Scotland and the UK in general.”


So where is Unst?


Picture a map of the UK and look towards not only the most northern tip of the mainland – John O’Groats – but towards the most northern tip of the most northern island of Shetland and you will find a place called Unst.

It is more commonly known for its fishing community of 600 and heritage sites of Muness castle.

In 2019 it requested in planning permission to build three state-of-the-art launchpads to fire Lockhead Martin rockets into space in a scheme that will also support hundreds of jobs on the island.

The site has a plethora of characteristics that make Unst an ideal location for getting rockets into space. Besides the remote location, the northern latitude allows provides the shortest route possible for getting into “low earth orbit” – roughly 160,000ft from the surface of the earth. Naturally, because they can be launched directly oversea (similar to most launch sites) minimises risk.

Anyone dreaming of leaving earth via Shetland will be somewhat disappointed to learn that no manned missions are planned as part of the proposals. Nevertheless, the plans are expected to inspire new generations of scientists and engineers.

Similar “Spaceports” are also being lined up in other corners of the Kingdom, including Cornwall and Sutherland, which will principally take up new satellites for commercial customers and also payloads to the International Space Station (ISS) including supplies and new equipment for experiments aboard the ISS.

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