Scottish Space Sector – 14.03.19


David Stewart (Highlands and Islands) (Lab):

I warmly welcome the Scottish Government’s initiative to debate the Scottish space sector. With perfect timing, we are doing so during British science week. I am sure that that was well planned. Labour will support the motion in the name of Ivan McKee.

On 9 July 1962, a Thor-Delta rocket was launched from Cape Canaveral. On board was the United Kingdom’s Ariel 1 satellite, which not only made the UK the third country, after the USA and the Soviet Union, to operate a satellite, but it launched the UK’s space industry. That industry has developed to the point at which, in 2014, it contributed £11.8 billion to the British economy and supported 35,000 jobs, according to UK Government figures.

Just as it was a satellite that began the UK space industry, so it is satellites that will allow the UK Government to secure its ambition of a space industry that will be worth, as we have heard, £40 billion by 2030. That would represent a 10 per cent share of the global space industry market.

The first step towards that goal was the UK Government’s announcement that it intends to develop a single site as the UK’s spaceport. In July 2014, a shortlist of potential sites was announced, with the view being that the chosen site would be up and running by 2018. The original shortlist of eight was reduced to five, which included three sites in Scotland: Prestwick, Campbeltown and the Western Isles. In May 2016, the Department for Transport wrote to the spaceport bidders to inform them of its decision to end the bidding process and to move towards a licensing model.

In previous debates, I supported the case for selecting Campbeltown airport as a horizontal take-off spaceport, but I also recognised the great strengths of the other locations—in Prestwick, Shetland, the Western Isles and Sutherland. In the three years since my members’ business debate on spaceports, there have been substantial developments—for example, the UK Space Agency announced financial support last summer for a HIE-backed scheme to launch satellites from Melness crofters estate in Sutherland. As we have heard, HIE’s board has approved £17.3 million to support that project. That includes £2.5 million from the UKSA, nearly £10 million from HIE and £5 million that is being sought from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. The HIE board approval depends on identification and delivery of local community benefits.

Space hub Sutherland would be a vertical take-off site and, as we have heard, it would aim for six launches annually, with the first in 2020. David Oxley, who is an HIE director, has stated that the jobs target is 400, with the aim of sending 2,000 small satellites into orbit by 2030.

As the minister said, start-up firm Orbex has opened a base in Forres, with the promise of 40 jobs this year and plans to expand to 150. Professor Malcolm Macdonald, who is the director of the Scottish centre of excellence in satellite applications and a UKSA board member, has said:

“we build more spacecraft than anywhere outside California, we have more frequent access to space than anywhere … in the world, and we’re almost certainly going to have the first spaceport in Europe.”

In effect, there is a gap in the market. In Scotland, we design, build and operate spacecraft, and we can exploit the data that comes from them. The gap is in the ability to launch, so a spaceport would solve that problem.

At the most recent meeting of the cross-party group on aviation, which I chaired, Lockheed Martin raised some key issues for the future. For example, will the UK Government provide a liability cap for launch activities? That might become clearer following publication of the secondary legislation that is linked to the Space Industry Act 2018. The other key issue is the commercial viability of the first European small-satellite launch-on-demand service. There is intense competition across Europe on that, so it is crucial that the UK get there first, because the prize is immense.

Oxford Economics carried out an economic impact assessment that said that UK satellite launch capability would add £2.5 billion to gross domestic product and sustain 375 jobs. The largest amount of gross value added—63 per cent—would be in Scotland, because we would house the launch site. Scotland in general, and the Highlands and Islands in particular, have a comparative advantage on location. Scotland provides access to sun-synchronous and polar orbits—low-altitude orbits—which are both well suited to a wide range of commercial and other satellite applications.

It is vital that Scotland does not miss this important opportunity. Throughout history, Scottish scientists and engineers have been in the vanguard of innovation and discovery—from James Watt, who was the godfather of the industrial revolution, to Robert Watson-Watt, who invented radar, and from Williamina Fleming, who was an early astrophysics pioneer, to James Clerk Maxwell, who worked out the composition of Saturn’s rings more than 120 years before a space probe studied them.

Space technology can offer economic, strategic and inspirational gains. As the writer Arthur C Clarke said,

“The inspirational value of the space program is probably of far greater importance to education than any input of dollars … A whole generation is growing up which has been attracted to the hard disciplines of science and engineering by the romance of space.”

We owe it not just to the people of today but to those who are yet to be born to get behind the project. We can build a great legacy and grasp the opportunity to be at the forefront of space technology, or we can choose to be left behind.

Space technology offers a new frontier for Scotland. Now we just need to boldly go and deliver it.

I move amendment S5M-16312.3, to insert at end:

“; notes the crucial diversification to the Scottish economy that the space sector provides; considers that future commercial viability will be dependent on the European small satellite launch on demand service, and notes the comparative advantage that Scotland enjoys for spaceport location by providing access to sun-synchronous and polar orbits.”