Spaceport UK – only courage is required

19th May, 2012 1:27 pm

Times are tough.  We get it.  We live with it every day, and can’t even escape the difficulty when we switch on the telly – watching the news is rivalled only by Enya’s back catalogue for its unbridled, baffling and relentless misery.

British industry, despite a competitive fiscal environment, continues to face stiff challenges.  Our once world-beating manufacturing and engineering industries suffer permanent competition from the Far East who make things cheaper and faster than we do.  It’s a trend that shows no sign of halting.

There is a view that we should ‘go back’ to the things we used to excel at – making stuff.

This country invented trains but we now languish behind countless major economies that were rolling out high speed trains years ago.  We used to make the biggest, best ships in the world.  Now most companies buy their vessels from the shipyards of South Korea and much of our maritime skill is slowly being forgotten.  We used to build cars. My God, what cars they were, roaring off midlands-plants onto forecourts the world over.  Now, even some of our most beloved and iconic cars are built in foreign-lands, with foreign Governments reaping the awards.  Britain still hosts plants belonging mainly to American and Japanese firms, where we diligently assemble the parts like skilled Ikea shoppers, but making cars from scratch is a dying British tradition.

What we’ve lost is not the dedicated, ready-and-raring-to-go workforce, nor is it the desire to compete.  What we’ve lost is innovation.  We simply don’t think as big as we used to.

There will always be a place, an important place at that, for skilled workers doing the kind of things we’ve always done well, and we do need to put greater emphasis on manufacturing the things we need, but where we’ve excelled in the past is pushing the next big revolutionary thing.

Twenty years ago, the next big thing – the World Wide Web – was invented by a Brit.  But it was the Americans who unleashed their zeal in making it work.  Google, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter – even the earlier incarnations of Yahoo and Myspace, are all American.  It is their economy, not ours, that has benefited most.

All too often, we invent wonderful, pioneering things and then simply stop.  We have become a country that takes its foot off the pedal.

Now we can’t undo the damage that has already been done to British industry.  Instead we need to ask what’s next in engineering? What’s next in manufacturing? What can we do now that every other country will be trying to do in the years ahead?  The battle is for the future economy, not the present one.

Maybe, just maybe, the answer lies in the stars.

Now I know space is a business sector that our American cousins have led the way on through heavy but now vastly reduced public investment, but Planet Earth is only at the Altavista stage of developing a space economy.  The Google age has yet to begin.  It won’t be long before we think of the space shuttle as primitive and quaint.

Space is currently worth £8bn to the UK economy, yet only receives £310m in public investment (0.73% of global public investment in space technology).  It is the most private of UK industries and it’s growing at a rapid 15% per annum.   By 2020 it will support 100,000 UK jobs.  But with the exception of the brilliant Skylon project (see below), our expertise is essentially an export; we give it to the European Space Agency and occasionally to NASA, but we don’t keep much of it for ourselves.  Even Virgin Galactic, a revolutionary, pioneering company with British roots, chooses to base itself in the deserts of America because they take big ideas seriously, and we don’t.

This week the Institute of Directors published a fascinating report encouraging the UK to invest in a Spaceport.  It sounds bonkers doesn’t it? Well it’s not.  It really is not.  As commercial space travel becomes reality, taking a lion share of a potential £16bn market would provide a major boost to our economy and show that Britain’s ambition is back.  To boldly go where only New Mexico has gone before.

And unlike the costly idea of a new £2bn hub airport in London, we could build a Spaceport for as little as £100m – much of which could be funded privately – by extending and renovating the airstrip of one of the many underused RAF bases around the country.  We should do it – before a rival European economy does.

And it’s not, by the way, an idea that will solely benefit the rich few lucky enough to be able to afford the £125,000 price tag of a trip to space.  Nor will it just provide skilled jobs through a new infrastructure project.   A UK firm is manufacturing technology (‘Skylon’) to deliver payloads into space via a reusable system that can take off every 48 hours. That’s good old fashioned British innovation, but if we don’t have the infrastructure to use it ourselves, then we are simply exporting a product not creating a new industry for the benefit of our country.  If we’re not careful, we will once again be taking our foot off the pedal not because we don’t have the ideas, but because we don’t have the courage to see things through.

Several airlines are already pioneering new technologies that will allow holiday makers to travel from the UK to Sydney in well under 2 hours – via space.  If current technological advancements are maintained, we will see sub-orbital holiday flights becoming mainstream within decades.  If others are ahead of the game, we will lose out.

We must invest in building these technologies ourselves, and have the infrastructural capacity to use them commercially, then we can develop and create the markets that will soon dictate how we travel.  The brightest and best science companies will be desperate to invest here, creating jobs and boosting the economy. Then, not only will Britain’s pride as an innovative, groundbreaking country be restored, but we will reap the economic benefits for generations to come.

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  • Catkins500
  • Daniel Speight

    There’s little wrong with Jonathan’s post although I have no idea how profitable a space port could be. I suspect in the past we should have taken a larger position in the European Space Agency and had more say in it. Still looking at and investing in new technologies is something a British government should encourage and also do itself. What strikes me as missing in the post is here.

    Now we can’t undo the damage that has already been done to British industry.

    Maybe Jonathan is right and we can’t undo the damage, although I would like to think we could make a little bit of a repair. But what needs to be studied is what wrong last time. At what point did we give up on our industries to supply innovation. Germany still does so well with  its skilled engineering workforce. Why did we allow ours to disappear. I was bought up in a period when five year apprenticeships still existed and the skilled unions like the engineers and electricians protected those skills.

    Find out what went wrong under successive governments since the seventies and we may be able to get back on the right track. And yes I do think it was political decisions that created the problems.

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas


    I don’t want to decry the underlying concept you propose (ie let’s invest in space), but there’s little point in proposing a space port in the UK.  We are too far from the equator to make orbital or long distance sub-orbital launches commercially viable.  There’s a reason the other space nations have launch facilities as close as they can get them to the equator.  It’s physics.

    It simply takes more fuel and heavier components the further away from the equator you are, and much greater acceleration to achieve required velocities as the relative speed of rotation lessens as you get further from the equator.  All of that increases the technical risk, and increases the cost of operations.

    Long-distance sub-orbital flight becomes very expensive as you go further north.  At our latitude, we are optimised for sub-orbital launches of a maximum of about 5,500 miles ( less than one quarter of the circumference of the earth, the south coast of the UK being at about 50 degrees north and so over one half of the way between the equator and the north pole).  You can guarantee that Mr Branson will build his spaceport in southern Spain or Italy, where he will be able to launch space flights much further and much cheaper.  He will of course offer the conventional “spoke” to other countries in Europe using normal jets.

    I am sure that someone will declare this all to be a Lib Dem or tory plot to deprive the north of investment, but it is not.

    To try to be positive, there are British ex-colonies in many parts of the world that may be interested in partnering, and there is of course a huge amount of UK-based engineering work that could be done.  It is the space-port and launches from the UK that would be hugely costly and prone to failure, because we are not close to the equator.

    •  Jaime, when talking of conventional rockets you’re absolutely right.  But we’re no longer talking about conventional technologies.  Skylon uses SABRE engine designs that reduce the cost of delivering a payload into space from £15,ooo per kg to just £650 per kg.  And it can do it all at Mach 25.  So cost and distance aren’t the massive barriers they once were.

      For this reason, America are building spaceports at far higher latitudes than the equator, on similar latitudes to southern Europe (you rightly identify southern Spain and Italy as alternatives).  But with cost being lowered so significantly, and they will be further reduced as both technology develops and a space-market develops, we can be competitive if we get in there first.

      • jaime taurosangastre candelas


        maybe you are more optimistic than me.  Having looked at your example of Skylon, it appears to me to be:

        1.  Still in design.
        2.  Not proven to do anything that is claimed for it.
        3.  Still subject to the laws of physics.

        Let us fast forward in time to when it is designed and developed (points 1 and 2) and works exactly as the company says.  It will still be unable to avoid the laws of physics.  So to that end, launches from the UK would be about 33% more challenging than from the south of Spain to achieve sub-orbital flight, and require more than 33% more fuel, heavier components to withstand the stresses of greater acceleration, and achieve 33% less distance unless boosted continually which will add to both the weight and cost.  It will also be more technically risky, which will not be a good sales advertisement for the passengers.

        Note that I do not say these flights will be impossible, simply that because of physics they will always be more expensive, difficult and risky than flights from further south.  You cannot ignore those factors.

        So, your concept (90% of which I think is a good idea in terms of research and engineering work) needs in addition to overcome the approximately 33% increased cost and risk factor if you wish to have a space port in the UK.  I am not an engineer, but I enjoy the subject.  I think the biggest challenge will be to persuade investors, when the Spanish and Italians can offer cheaper and less risky locations.

        • Where did you get your 33% from? I’d genuinely be interested.  When you look at the designs of Skylon the material is extremely strong, and the fuel is only hydrogen and oxygen, some liquid and some ‘breathed in’ from the atmosphere.

          The designs were submitted to the ESA who backed it in full, hence why it is now in development.

          • jaime taurosangastre candelas

            The UK is 33% further away from the equator than southern Europe.

            A Skylon flight from the south coast of the UK will have to overcome a 33% disadvantage – relative to a Skylon launch from southern Spain in terms of rotational speed as experienced at the launch latitude.  So – and this is not proper engineering calculation – to achieve the same distance, a 33% increase in acceleration, which translates to faster fuel burn, and a vicious cycle of strengthened components and thus weight.  In reality, I suspect the factors to be compounding rather than in series calculations with only the most egregious counting.

            My sister is a proper engineer (she is one of very few women Engineering Directors in Chile, of an aerospace company, of which I am very proud of her), and she would be able to work it all out.  Her university course was much more complex than mine.  She told me of a joke in the engineering community that goes:

            Rocket science is easy.  It is only the application of Newton’s three laws.  Rocket engineering is tricky”.  So there you have it, rocket scientists may not be the last word in intelligence, you need to find rocket engineers.

      • jaime taurosangastre candelas

        I have now read the IoD report ( ).  It is notable that the author makes no connection at all with his observation that America is building spaceports and looking at a map.  They are all about as far south as you can get in the USA, and considerably further south than the UK is.

        He does mention polar orbits (which work much better for northern latitude launches), but does not then go on to think at all why polar orbits are used for specialist purposes such as imaging satellites which have to cover the whole of the globe’s surface on a serial orbit basis.  A typical polar orbit takes around 45 minutes according to Wolfram Alpha, so the combination of a polar launch, the earth’s rotation in 45 minutes and the latitude of Scotland would have an unboosted (and your Skylon proposal is only single stage) landing area about 2000 miles to the north-east of Japan.  It will be wet. Even if the range is boosted, sub-orbital flights on a polar orbit launched from Scotland have the choice of Antarctica, or Western Africa to land in, one 3 times further than unbolted, the other 5 times further and 5/6ths of the cost of full orbital flight.

        Does no-one learn any physics in the UK?  All of the newspaper reports of the IOD report talk only in terms of economic benefits.  Even the “Science Editor” of the Daily Telegraph fails to ask the report writer of this obvious omission.

        • Jaime with respect I think you’re playing a little fast and loose here, and including a stack of things that aren’t strictly relevant.  The reason why conventional rockets have been launched near to the equator is because they have traditionally needed a boost from the fact that the earth’s rotational speed is faster at the equator (it’s also why you normally see space shuttles lurch eastwards shortly after take off).  In the UK our surface speed is slower than at the equator, so you would need to make that speed up somehow, which would take money and more fuel, further limited by weight.  But that is with traditional rockets.  If you have a lighter, faster, more powerful and more fuel efficient craft, the difference in surface speed can be overcome.  And that is what Skylon is doing.  This isn’t about breaking the laws of physics, it’s about meeting reachable challenges.  And this is my whole point, if we can meet those challenges first, we can be the ones who benefit.

          • jaime taurosangastre candelas


            you are misunderstanding me.  I am not saying the challenges cannot be overcome, simply that they will be more difficult to overcome than that would be if the space port was closer to the equator.

            So, can we meet those challenges first?  It is possible, but is it likely?  What is in the way to achieving this milestone:

            1.  Geography – we are where we are.
            2.  Other nations (US, Russia, India, China) and agencies (ESA) are further along the track than we are.  
            3.  Skylon works more easily from the equator than it does from the UK (if it works at all – remember, it is still only a design).
            4.  Investment risk – given the challenges, do you believe we can attract investors to a UK space port over one in say Guyane?

            None of these are insurmountable, but collectively they to me indicate that a UK space port is not likely to either attract investment and even if it does, will result in significantly more expensive launches per kilo than can be achieved elsewhere.

            I honestly believe that the other 90% of your proposal (R and D, engineering work, etc) is worth pursuing.  But to place your hopes on a UK space port using an unused army airfield is to me a fool’s errand.

          • Peter Barnard

            @ Jonathan R (latitude question … and a bit more),

            I believe the launch pad for Sputnik (back in 1957 and an event that caused US policymakers to have attacks of the heebie-jeebies, bigtime) was well into northern latitudes.

            I also believe that the same northern latitudes have not prevented many successful Russian space launches since that time. The “latitude problem” has demonstrably already been overcome.

            No pun intended, but don’t you think that we have one or two more down-to-earth problems to solve in the next twenty years or so?

            (i) ONS is estimating a population increase of 18% between now and 2035, two thirds of which are the “direct and indirect consequences of immigration.” The politics around this estimate will be, shall we say, “vigorous”  – about five million more houses to build, an 18% increase in food production – unless the balance of payments is going to go haywire. Competition for land for agricultural, housing and commercial/industrial use will be enormous and a relaxation of the planning laws will be inevitable. The politics around that will also be vigorous …

            (ii) an increase of about five million of pensionable age folk, with all the attendant care needs to be found and resourced. The politics around this will be (you guessed it) … vigorous …

          •  Peter – your first point is well made.

            The second point is that this is not just about the great adventure of progress.  For us to have an economy in the future, that can sustain the people of the country with jobs, public services and a decent standard of living, we must be thinking of what the world will look like in the future, identify emerging industries and get into the forefront of them now so those new jobs and that new money is here in this country.  If we don’t have a strong, world-leading economy in the future how do you propose we find the money to build those houses and pay older people their pensions? 

            If we have learnt anything these past years it’s that money does not grow on trees.  We have to create it.  We have to innovate and create new industries – otherwise we will be left behind and our people will suffer far greater problems than they do now.

          • Peter Barnard

            Thanks, Jonathan.

            You won’t be surprised (!) to read that I disagree with your second point which, if I read you correctly, is the old argument that “the private sector pays for the public sector.”

            Economic activity is economic activity, and we choose what kind of economic activity we wish to pursue to improve the condition of the people. To my mind, taking care of the elderly is one of the finest forms of economic (and definitely socially advantageous) activities that I can think of. It’s the difference between spending money on bottled water and spending money on compassion.

            The choosing at the moment (and has been, for the last thirty years) is dominated by neo-liberal “markets” nonsense. These so-called markets know the price of everything and the value of nothing – hence £4 million a year footballers like Joe Barton.

          • Hi Peter.  I’m sorry I’m not sure I understand.  In whatever set of principles and ideologies you have, to provide a public service (such as taking care of the elderly), you have to find a way to pay for it.  To pay for it, you need people to have jobs to pay their taxes to provide the revenue that funds those services.  I’m highlighting a sector that is growing that could potentially provide some of those new jobs we will need.

            What other way is there of paying for public services in the real world? By the way, I did highlight how more public investment could help grow this sector – so it is possible it could in some way be socialised like it used to be in the USA, which I assume may appeal to you a bit more! 🙂

            I’d have to be convinced that it should, but hey this is a debating site afterall!

          • Peter Barnard

            Jonathan R,

            To provide any good or service – whether public or private – means have to be found to pay for it.

            It does not matter – in an accounting sense – whether those means are voluntary, ie paying for  a bottle of water  – or involuntary (but democratically consented) taxes. We are all in the business of exchanging goods and services.

          •  Ah OK. I think we’ve had this battle before and neither of us would change our mind haha so perhaps we leave it there.

            But on the original point, I just wanted to write a piece for LL that wasn’t stuck in rigid ideology and just (like I have done several other times) put forward an idea that might help.  If this site could be more about debating practical ideas rather than debating who is the most/least Labour and how evil the other parties are I think it’d provide a greater contribution to politics as a whole.  Good idea/bad idea, I don’t care, we just need more ideas! And those ideas are only limited by our own ambition as a country.

          • Peter Barnard

            Indeed, JR, and I do say, “Thank you,” for taking the time to think about, and then write, an article for LL.

          • JoeDM

            In economic terms the difference is huge.

          • jaime taurosangastre candelas


            Sputnik was launched from Baikonur, well into the south of the old USSR.  It is about 45 degrees north, so about the same as Bordeaux.  Other launches from further north were into Molniya orbits, and those are designed to be  highly elliptical so that imaging and weather satellites can be programmed to allow them to pass over the same part of earth each day at the same time, so build up data over a period of time based on similar sun angles.  I do not believe anyone would pay money to be a tourist on a Molniya orbit if they knew what it involved.  Goodbye to the world, for example, as the spacecraft cannot be recovered and eventually spins off into space. The spacecraft also are subject to high G forces when turning around the earth, for periods of over one hour at a time, so not suitable for humans (a Russian dog died to prove that predictable factor).

            The Russians tried repeatedly to obtain launch rights from equatorial bases throughout the Cold War, mostly unsuccessfully.

            So, a northern launch does not overcome the problems that the vast majority of launches are faced with, it overcomes some problems for some specific types of orbit.

            I do sometimes feel like banging my head against the wall at the general level of ignorance of physics or biology or chemistry that is displayed by many in the UK, including organisations like the IOD who you may expect to hire a writer who knows something of physics if the purpose is to write about space matters.  Perhaps 40 years of being a service economy has collectively addled the British brain.  Certainly, my daughter’s science and mathematics teachers appear to be semi-trained ignorants teaching because they cannot get a proper engineering job, and the curriculum worse than that. 

            There are some islands of great engineering in the UK – the Rolls Royce engine people, and Cambridge University and UMIST.  But the general population has an appreciation of science that would disgrace a dog.

            Were you not an engineer?  I seem to recall you were.  It must have been very different in your training.

          •  Jaime, I do find your repeated anti-British comments on this site most distasteful.  Documentaries on natural science (Attenborough) and physics (Brian Cox) are amongst the most watched programmes on TV in recent years, showing the public has great appetite for science.  And we have a scientific community that is the envy of the world.  Perhaps the reason why the (world-leading) physics community in the UK has not reacted badly to the IoD report is simply because they do not believe the challenges are as great as you are saying. 

          • jaime taurosangastre candelas


            your first two points do not mean that we do not have a general population in significant ignorance of basic science, as well as a cadre of well-informed people.  Co-existence is possible.

            Look at Britain’s standing in the world in education in the sciences:  low, slipping, and with acceleration.  Elsewhere on this thread I give credit to certain British institutions which contribute to a national capability, but I draw distinctions between them and the general population.

            anyone who has seen Brian Cox’s excellent programmes (we have all 15 on the Sky+, and my daughter and I have worked through them all) should not be expected to be so ignorant of physics as to write a whole report advocating a space port on economic competition grounds without also looking into the physics. Physics is a real world subject, hard reality. If someone has watched a Brian cox programme and still cannot work it out, then there is a real problem in our educational system. Which there is.

            As for anti-British, I would disagree.  I have chosen to make my life here.  There was a thread on LL (several actually – a fault of mine among many is that I repeat myself) in which I told of my joy in hearing of Argentina’s defeat in the Falklands in 1982.  One of our fellow commentators from Liverpool took some exception to that and declared support for Las Malvinas, so I ask you to consider that.

            I am anti-ignorance, certainly, and caustic of low academic standards.  You may not see it that way.

          •  Jaime, I think that article was the one I wrote a few months ago on Obama’s attitude to the Falklands – and I respect your attitude towards the Falklands.  If your anti-ignorance stance means you take on the gentleman from Liverpool I’m all for it.  He is ignorance personified!

          • jaime taurosangastre candelas

            I wasn’t “English” then, being a 16 year old Chilean in possession of an British passport.  something little appreciated in the UK is that for 5 years before the Falklands War, Argentina had been threatening Chile (they have had territorial ambitions on Chile’s sovereign territory for nearly 200 years).  We absolutely loved it when Britain beat Argentina in the Falklands, not just because the Argentines were humiliated, but because it took pressure off Chile.  That is not to say anyone celebrated the deaths.

            And to this day, my passion for the Falklands being and remaining British increases.  I now live in Britain, my wife is British as are my children, my wife’s brother fought in the Falklands as a young Royal Marine in 45 Commando Regiment, and he and I are firm friends.  I have also got a professional connection with Birmingham Selly Oak hospital where so many young men come back from Afghanistan with great trauma, but always laugh and joke.

          • TomFairfax

             Oh dear. Is that really your idea of science and technology the BBC mass audience, keep it simple, stuff.

            Please don’t tell me you think the Shoreditch nontrepreneur community is your idea of high tech business as well.

            If you want technology businesses that work, head up to Cambridge. ARM easily outstrip Intel now in the ubiquity and range of application of their microprocessor technology, but you wouldn’t guess it from our press or politicians.

          •  And I was just thinking how nice it was that Jaime, Peter and I were having a largely civilised debate, speaking respectfully to each other despite the occasional misunderstanding and disagreement, and actually learning something.  Not something that happens very often on the aggressive polemic that is the LL comments section.  Sigh. Welcome to the debate Tom.

            No, I was highlighting how the popularity of science-based television gives an indication that the country as a whole takes an interest in learning about science.  I think that’s a reasonable point.  Not everyone can be Einstein, and those that are very scientific will get their stimuli from elsewhere, but it’s great that such programming draws in tens of millions of viewers.

            And for the record, I don’t fit into Shoreditch.  I’ve never owned skinny jeans let alone a pair of black rimmed glasses.

          • TomFairfax

             Right answer about Shoreditch.

            However,  your article above is full of errors misconceptions, and  untruths, that frankly leave me amazed that anyone professing an interest in engineering or manufacturing can write them, so yes I am in angry mode at the moment.

            I really suggest you do some proper research before writing this type of rubbish again, especially about what I work on.

            It belittles everybody who works in those industries and shows a complete disregard for the facts.

          •  and yet you choose not to explain what the weaknesses are.  Making it just another empty rant that would be more suited to another LL article where the  vacuous comments say no more than ‘i know more than you but I’m not going to explain the detail, instead I’m just going to behave in an insulting manner’ .

            You’d probably fit better into one of those discussions Tom. 

          • TomFairfax

             Maybe you should read all the comments first.

            It’s fairly clear from those what the weaknesses are.

            I look forward to seeing the replies to them.

          • Peter Barnard


            I took “A” level Physics and “A” level Mathematics back in 1962 (when some people say that was when an “A” level really was an “A” level”) and I can honestly say that escape velocities and so on were definitely not part of the syllabus.

            I went on to take a degree in civil engineering and I can also say that escape velocities were not part of a degree course in that engineering discipline, either.

            Yep, we did Sir Isaac Newton’s three laws but not the application that is now under discussion so it is a little unfair to castigate the British population for being ignorant of “basic physics.”

            Now, let’s get onto this 33 per cent business :

            if the diameter of the earth at the equator (round figures) is 8,000 miles, then the velocity of rotation at the equator is about 1,100 mph ; at Marbella in southern Spain (latitude 36 degrees), the velocity of rotation is 80 per cent (sin 54 = 0.8) of the equatorial velocity = about 900 mph ; in Cornwall, at 50 degrees latitude, the velocity of rotation is about 700 mph (similar calculation ; sin 40 = 0.64).

            If the escape velocity (to go into orbit) is 25,000 mph, then for an object travelling east to west, the required velocity is 23,900 mph at the equator, 24,100 mph at Marbella and 24,300 mph in Cornwall.

            In other words, on escape velocity alone, you need about 1.6% more in Cornwall than you do at the equator.

            Or, have I missed something?

          •  Fascinating post! These are the debates I like, where I actually learn something!

          • Peter Barnard

            Thanks, Jonathan R : I am reminded of what an old hand in the motorway construction business said to me back in the late 1960s, when I was green site engineer, “Stick around with me, kid, and you’ll soon be fit to travel …”

            Now, all I need to do is to wean you off this “private sector pays for the public sector” idea …

          •  haha, well I wish we could have that discussion over a pint – think it might be fun!

          • jaime taurosangastre candelas

            Yes.  Apart from anything, it’s west to east (typos / Saturday night accepted).  So  you are taking off with a metaphorical tailwind, not into a metaphorical headwind.  The further south you are in the northern hemisphere, the higher the advantage.  Ditto for the Chileans and Australians, except upside down.

            You are also trying to benchmark against escape velocity, which is demonstrably not orbital velocity.  Orbit velocity is about 30% less for low earth orbit.

            For comparative measurements of two latitudes of fixed distance below 45 degrees, there is a gradually increasing logarithmic difference.  For two latitudes of fixed difference above 45 degrees, there is a rapidly diminishing logarithmic difference.  It is a sine curve, in other words, from trough to rollover peak.  The areas of greatest value difference are in the middle of the curve (i.e. 30 to 60 degrees), which explains why launch stations as far north of the equator as 30 degrees are much more efficient than those at 60 degrees, which themselves are more efficient than those at 90 degrees, but not by much.

            Rotational speed differences are not uniform with each mile travelled north, is what I am trying to say.  You can go as far north as 30 degrees without much slowing down, from there to 60 degrees you slow down a lot, from 60 degrees to 90 degrees you keep slowing down, but not as quickly as in the middle section.

            I am sorry if this does not immediately jump out with clarity.  This is one area of English that I never really had to learn (i.e. maths / logs etc).  I have tried to make my explanation as clear as I can.  I also do not know how to post the formulae in html.

          • Peter Barnard


            It has nothing to do with logarithms and everything to do with basic trigonometry.

            Now, from where does your 33 per cent arise – that’s the real point?

          • jaime taurosangastre candelas


            the love of numbers is that there are several routes to the answer.

            I prefer logarithms, but sines, cosines and tangents are also valid.

            I have looked in my old school book, and the formula I would choose is cosines, not sines.  But it can be the same.

            Using cosines, I get the following values for the parallels of latitude as follows (assuming equator value of 25,000):

            Marbella:  20,000
            Cornwall:  16,000
            Scotland:  13,500

            Given the distance from Marbella to Cornwall is about double than from Cornwall to Scotland, I believe my point is proven about increasing latitudes  rapidly decreasing rotational velocity.

            The measurement you object to is my figure of 33%.  So my working:

            V Rot  at 
             Equator = 25,000.

            V Rot at Marbella = 20,000 (= -20%)

            V Rot at Cornwall = 16,000 (= -44% on Equator, – 20% on Marbella)

            V Rot in Scotland = 13,500 (= -44% on Equator, -32.5% on Marbella, -16% on Cornwall)

            So my head maths of earlier was in fact the difference between Scotland and Marbella.  Not exactly precise, but as I said elsewhere, not proper engineering calculations (as indeed these are not, but closer than Pass 1).

          • Peter Barnard

            Correction : should be “object travelling west to east.”

          • jaime taurosangastre candelas


            I am not surprised that your Civil Engineering degree did not include escape velocities.  I hope – and am sure – that you were instead studying things like loading stresses on bridge designs, and the capacity of soil types to support weight when dry and wet.  I would not want to drive over a bridge built by an astro-physicist, but would assume that I could drive with total safety over a bridge built by a civil engineer.

            Engineering and the many sub-disciplines is greatly under-valued in our modern world (I would say Britain which is what I perceive but Johnathan will accuse me of a lack of patriotism).  Instead the respect is accorded to celebrities.  I would be very proud if either of my children become engineers.

          • TomFairfax

             Actually twenty years after Peter’s A levels we did cover geostationary orbits, escape velocities, etc. ? But it wasn’t half as useful as radio waves and RADAR.

            Even then not so many people took the subject because it was deemed a hard A level option.

            The situation has sadly continued to worsen.

            Unfortunately I think most people are at the Hollywood science level these days.

    • PaulHalsall

      I have to say that I am keen on investment in space exploration and technology, and hence (surprisingly perhaps) support some of  Jonathan’s arguments. I don’t really think private enterprise can bring it off though – far too few companies are now run on terms of short financial gains rather than long term investment.

      The reason the US was able to spend such a lot on space in the 1960-1980s was the Cold War and the fact that a good proportion of the American elite were prepared to accept the appropriate levels of taxation.   Since Reagan that has all gone, and now many of the richest Americans will give up their citizenship rather than pay the rather low taxes the US demands from its rich citizens.

      To make public investment like this work, we need to face a threat that justifies the taxation necessary. (You only have to understand a moderate amount of economics to grasp that the amount pumped through public expenditure was what lead to huge annual growth rates in the 1950s-mid-1970s in the US, and elsewhere).

      There are two threats that might induce public support.  

      One is the quite real threat of a comet or asteroid impact.  The problem is that although this threat is real (and in fact will happen), it is not clear it will occur with any likelihood during the existence of the human race.

      Another, much more immediate threat is that real limits to growth will soon set in on earth.  Expanding the economy to space and nearby planets/moons could allow for a continued increase in human economic activity.

      All that being said, Jaime is quite right about the advantages of equatorial launches of space bound objects.

  • Given that Japan and Germany have both forsworn nuclear power, and current concerns with climate change, wouldn’t investment in renewable energy technology be a more worthwhile priority?

    It could deliver crucial benefits to the whole world rather than only to holidaymakers hoping to clock-up a few more hours of suntanning on far-flung beaches.

    •  why can’t we do both?

      This is a rapidly developing industry and we should be leading it – there will always be Negative Nancy’s who want to moan and dismiss, but if we want to succeed in industries of the future, we need to be part of it from the off. And it takes a rather profound lack of vision to say such investment will only benefit holiday makers wanting a better suntan.

      • Dave Postles

        Have you been talking to Mark Shuttleworth again? 

  • LaurenceB

    Anyone who knows anything about the cost and problems associated with Britain’s Blue Streak missile or the Ariane project would give this idea the thumb’s down before it left the gate so to speak. Besides I’m willing to bet you that within ten to twenty years most satellite and similar will be placed in Clarke orbits using Chinese or Indian built launch vehicles.

  • TomFairfax


    A few points:

    1) Our once world-beating manufacturing and engineering industries suffer
    permanent competition from the Far East who make things cheaper and
    faster than we do.

    Still are world beating in a lot of areas, and actually our factories are no less efficient given the will to make them so. It’s infuriating how often the politically inclined write complete tosh about this subject.

    The only thing manufacturing suffers from in this country is being smothered in government imposed regulations, and woefully inconsistent industrial policy, whilst the financial sector is always let off of such things because it’s bad for competition. Doh! Obviously!

    2) Spaceport: Generally it’s accepted there has to be at least one destination as well as a departure point, and the two need to be readily accessible to enough customers wanting to journey between them to make both viable. So no point in putting any public money into anything without a clearly costed business plan. Anything else is empty rhetoric followed by waste of public funds.

    3) Some of us with longer memories remember HOTOL. What’s different?

    • Peter Barnard

      @ Thomas F,

      Not sure about a smothering of governement regulations, TF. Although I don’t work in manufacturing, logic would lead me to believe that the regulations apply to all manufacturers, and some companies are demonstrably successful …

      If you cast your mind back a little, in the retail sector J Sainsbury had more sales than Tesco in 1995. Both companies had the same market. As near as dammit is to swearing, conditions were identical for both companies.

      By 2005, Tesco had left J Sainsbury trailing in its wake. Now, Tesco may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but they obviously had something that J Sainsbury didn’t have : a far better management.

      Agree with what you say about BBC science programmes – I watched one a few days ago (some dude on a stage with a bunch of children as an audience) and it was so execrable that I just could not watch it after just five minutes.

      • TomFairfax

         Hi Peter,
        In a closed market your example works. I’m not going to nip over to French stores to buy my groceries.

        However, despite the British designed and built Qashqai  (JR take note) being Nissan’s most profitable, we still have regulations imposed on the manufacturing plant here, that are not applied in South Korea, USA, Japan, Mexico, India, etc. (All sources for vehicles sold here).

        Some regs actually force manufacturers to follow what are accepted as best practice and should not limit efficiency. That’s good.
        Others do reduce efficiency, and are country specific to the UK. Those are my concern.

        ‘Smothering’ is admittedly overblown, but I do resent someone sharing his received wisdom, with a British engineer who designs parts for his companies cars produced globally, that we just stick stuff out of a made in Japan parts bin together.

        • Peter Barnard

          Thanks, TF – I understand.

          Re lack of regulations overseas – there was a photograph in a newspaper recently of Indian workers (about twelve of them) carrying  a piece of plate steel in a ship-breaking facility and you just would not believe the amount of debris strewn on the ground – a tripping/stumbling accident just waiting to happen.

          Come to think of, I guess you would believe it.

          Good news at Ellesmere Port/Vauxhall – John Fetherston, the Unite convenor at the plant (and a member of City of Chester CLP) spoke very well on TV and radio. He’s a good bloke.

          • TomFairfax

            Yes, good news in the short term, but I have to say I worry about GM Europe’s parlous financial state in the mid-term.

             One thing people overlook about the car industry is that this success in the UK is within a heavily unionised, private sector industry, where the terms and conditions are very good, but where the profits still come rolling in for those making what people want, at the price they’ll pay.

            There’s a lesson there for those who continually treat unions as the enemies of sound business, and can’t differenciate between cost and value.

            Unite by the way have a single union deal at Nissan and a no strike agreement, employee representativs  elected to a company council. Single status terms and conditions for all employees, preferential lease schemes available from shop floor to SVP, and better final salary schemes than anything in the public sector for those in them.

            Realistically, I doubt if much of this would have happened without a strong union influence in the past.

      • AlanGiles

        Peter (and anybody else interested ) TV trivializes everything (as an aside several times last week I head some over-excited woman promoting a BBC TV talent contest – “these are LIVE rounds!” she squealed – pity they didn’t hand somebody a rifle).

        There is an excellent Radio 4 series called “The Material World” broadcast on Thursdays 1630-1700, with a repeat on Mondays 2102-2130 (also available  as a podcast. This is an ongoing series and the slightly flippant presenting style of Quentin Cooper doesn’t disguise grate or distract from the seriousness of the items and they are put over in an interesting non-condescending manner by experts in their field. 

        I often feel radio is better than TV simply because they are not chasing the ratings – BBC Bristol handle radio natural history in programmes like “The Living World” and “Open Country” with much more insight and sensitivity.

        * Freddie Green (1911-1981)

    • TomFairfax

      And another thing:
      ‘ Britain still hosts plants belonging mainly to American and Japanese
      firms, where we diligently assemble the parts like skilled Ikea
      shoppers, but making cars from scratch is a dying British tradition.’

      Do you really think it’s cheaper to buy components paid for in the stratospheric Yen to assemble half way round the world?

      For your information, the highest volume produced car in this country, built in the largest car plant, admittedly Franco-Japanese owned, was designed from the ground up here in the UK, in Paddington and Cranfield?

      Did you know we design components here, to go to Japan (and three of the so called BRIC countries as well), so they can assemble them to their cars?

      Instead of slagging off British industry in ignorance it might be useful if you bothered to find out what it is, and does first.

      We have Ministers talking about potential standpipes in London next year, a city adjacent to an infinite water supply, a solution for which requires less investment than the pitiful amount spent fixing leaks in the water network currently,  and you’re suggesting pouring money into Spaceports as a priority. 

      I think, like the Civil Service and Minsters you should consider learning how to do basic maths, ask ‘Why?’ more often, and prioritise, before rushing to advertise your support for the latest shiny, pretty, sparkly, idea, that crosses your path.

      People need water. They need Spaceports like they need gateau.

      • you are a depressingly rude and angry man Tom.  You’ll fit in very well here. Another good Labour List debate ruined by people who don’t want to debate, they just want to shout.  You’ll be churning out the ‘you’re just a Tory’ nonsense next.

        I was bemoaning the decline of industry in this country, and offering a suggestion of something we could look to in the future.  The contribution made by manufacturing in this country to jobs and GDP has been in decline since the 1960s, leaving many people who would have found skilled work in these sectors scraping for something else to do. 

        But sorry, you were ranting…

        • TomFairfax

          So let’s get this right. You’re answer to me pointing out your factual inaccuracies about the industry I work in is that  I’m ranting.

          You’re answer to basic questions a junior engineering manager, I hope still asks, about a project proposal is a rant.

          Yes, I am angry, but that’s because you’ve just written off a British car industry that has been resurgent for a couple of years as a non-entity. An ‘IKEA’ kit construction industry. Have you considered how insulting that is to the tens of thousands in car plants not to mention the greater numbers in supplier companies in the UK.

          The country’s in recession, but my firm publicly announced sales growth targets for the coming year of 10%, on the back of 15% growth last year. JLR is in similarly good shape.

          For your information, we in the UK, just in my team, design in car IT systems, including Navigation functions, which incidentally do rely on Einstein’s theories to function, and they are installed in cars built all over the world, not just the ones we do here.

          On a larger scale the Qashqai, Britain’s highest volume vehicle was styled in London and engineered in Bedfordshire.

          I would really like to see you go to the Sunderland plant and tell the guys they construct IKEA kits from Japan. I would be happy to help arrange that just to see the look on your face at their reaction.

        • TomFairfax

           Rude and Angry: You’ve never seen me in a meeting with a supplier that’s failed to deliver. That’s rude and angry, though in a controlled way. One of my colleagues has described one as being like watching people being whipped for two hours in public.

        • AlanGiles

          Good morning Jon. I am so ancient that when you say “Skylon” all it conjurs up for me is a strange erection (I suppose they would call it an “installation” today) at the 1951 Festival of Britain. 

          Like yourself, I am keen on Britain becoming a manufacturing nation again – I truly believe it would be key to a better more consistent future for this country than relying on the service sector, but, with all due respect, I think we have to walk before we can run.

          I think something more prosaic would be preferable, but I know so little about space I couldn’t usefully comment on your article

          * Lester Young (1909-1959)

  • derek

    If it takes 8 minutes for a shuttle to reach outer space and 90 minutes to orbit earth, how long will it take to re-enter earth and land in your chosen destination? using your guide UK to Sydney.

    • jaime taurosangastre candelas


      Your baseline statistics are not correct.  The flight would be suborbital, but without detailed specifications you cannot work out the length of time to reach sub-orbital trajectory.  Transit time would be about 21.5 minutes based on shuttle LEO velocity, but the return to jet performance is also unknown.All up, about 2 hours is feasible.

      I was thinking of you earlier.  Did you know that every time you take your bus along Princes Street eastbound, you are travelling at about 13,500 mph?  That’s got to be worth a ticket, but in your defence you could also state – quite correctly – that the speed camera is itself doing 13,470 mph, and it has clearly not been calibrated for that speed.

      Anyway, here’s one for you.  There’s several more astro-worthy tracks from him:

      Here’s one that’s even better, although I had to choose the video carefully.  It was a rare occasion when their main dancer Stacia did not take all of her clothes off on stage.

      • derek

        To be honest Jaime, it’s all a bit over my head but I’d envisage it would only be suitable for travel points such as the UK to Sydney or Uk to Japan, you’d probably get to western Europe faster in a train or a bus and wouldn’t such an endeavour cause even more hazards in space? I think I read somewhere that there’s a litany of rubbish   floating around our atmosphere and how would you price such a journey?

        If the law of averages comes in to it? who would have thought that the jam tarts would have put 5 past the Hibees today.Any way, first major comp took place today, boys got a sixth place, top six get the prizes, Dumbarton can be a cruel place to play where weather condition change rapidly, so drone reeds and chanters need adjusted to suit, if you get a bit of sunshines then pitch is sharper but if sun gets overcast the pitch can flatten, it’s the same for all bands, after final tuning there;s no going back but still a place in a major is still extremely good.

        Why can’t we extract the methane gas from the cows and use it as a source of energy! LoL!

  • treborc1

    We are dreaming here, when the new jets are build and they are tested and  once we know it’s working then you build not before , otherwise we have the next folly, perhaps that will make some money 

  • Thanks to the author for providing fertile grounds for a fascinating debate.  As a student of a slightly tangential science (MChem, rather than MPhys), while I love the idea of advancing space travel, I would personally like to see greater short term emphasis (and hence for any government funds which might be earmarked to assist development allocated as a higher priority) on two other important technologies which I believe have the capacity for greater medium-term return: firstly, perfecting renewable energy storage (or “artificial photosynthesis”, if you will), and secondly, serious research into the possibilities of modular offshore living environments (“sea towns”), which together could help alleviate the energy and spacing concerns we have, and would be very disruptive technology.

    On the latter, I believe it is important particularly that the UK government considers the legal implications of extra-judicial living (i.e. the potential for people to live in international waters and commute to work every day) and becomes a leading voice in any international negotiations on the consistent treatment of such people.

  • Monkeybot5000

    Space is currently worth £8bn to the UK economy, yet only receives £310m in public investment

    £7bn of that is “downstream” services – mainly Sky TV who buy their satellites from abroad and use them to deliver media services here. I’m all for investing in UK manufacturing, but you’ve got to be careful how you define “space technology” or any extra funding will be wasted.

    A UK firm is manufacturing technology (‘Skylon’) to deliver payloads
    into space via a reusable system that can take off every 48 hours.

    You may be getting ahead of yourself here, the company that designed Skylon (Reaction Engines) reckon they still need about $12bn of development work to get it flying.

    It’s a great design though and I think we might actually be better off focussing on being an exporter of space aircraft rather than as a centre for actually putting things in to orbit. If sub-orbital passenger flights become a reality, there will need to be fleets of aircraft across the world and I’d rather see Reaction Engines become the next Boeing than another SpaceX.

    You want to create a new industry for the UK, but throwing things at the sky is already an existing industry. On the other hand, manufacturing sub-orbital engines for export is an entirely new industry and would be a logical extension of what Rolls Royce do with aircraft engines.

    You’d need to build something like Skylon to prove the technology first, but the real benefit to Britain would come from all the hi-tech manufacturing jobs you’d create by selling SABRE engines Skylon-type aircraft around the world.

    • Bill Lockhart

       I hope SABRE and Skylon are developed. If the system proves to be practical, the vehicle will not be operated from anywhere in the UK. The noise and risk involved in the routine operation of any conceivable air-breathing/cryogenic hybrid will necessarily mean that the runway and downrange are far from major centers of population.  North America, Russia, China,  North Africa and Australia have the required empty space, we don’t.

      • jaime taurosangastre candelas

        You are correct.  It will be for reasonably stable countries in the tropics, such as Columbia, Nigeria, India and the Phillipines who have both the land at the right latitudes, downrange oceans (not for Nigeria, but a large desert downrange), and increasingly educated populations to provide skilled workforces.

        To take the positive aspects of Johnathan’s idea, Britain should be looking to partner with one of those or similar countries in research, and to increase our national engineering capacity.

      • JoeDM

         ” The noise and risk involved in the routine operation of any conceivable
        air-breathing/cryogenic hybrid will necessarily mean that the runway
        and downrange are far from major centers of population. ”

        Good argument for Boris Island or similar.

        • Bill Lockhart

           The Channel/North Sea is not wide enough. You would need a couple of hundred miles over which the literally shattering noise and  risk of debris impact could be deemed acceptable.  Benelux and the Ruhr are unlikely to fit that description.

  • Bill Lockhart

    There is some wonderfully rose-tinted hindsight in this article, mirroring the breathless technocratic “tomorrow belongs to me” tone of the argument.

    ” We used to build cars. My God, what cars they were, roaring off midlands-plants onto forecourts the world over. ”

    Unless of course they were built by British Leyland or Rootes in the 70s, in which case they were rather likely to chug from forecourts into not very distant lay-bys.  Wasn’t it around then that the Japanese car industry achieved entirely-deserved market supremacy?

    “What we’ve lost is not the dedicated, ready-and-raring-to-go workforce,
    nor is it the desire to compete.  What we’ve lost is innovation.  We
    simply don’t think as big as we used to.”

    Back to front, I’m afraid. Innovation against the prevailing odds is a continuing British characteristic. Are Airbus 380 wings and powerplants not “big” enough for you?  What we *do* have is a crippling shortage of the kind of qualified, motivated technicians which Korea and China are training in their tens of  millions. This is because state education has been turned into a branch of the entertainment industry rather than a mechanism for inculcating skills and knowledge.
     We also have a political and administrative class (regardless of party) which through upbrining, education and natural inclinination looks down its collective nose at manufacturing in the same way that nobility historically looked down on “trade”. Law and PPE graduate politicians and their  SPADS don’t “get” science and engineering and never will: they actively resent true expertise, favouring the rather less demanding challenges of  a life of sophistry and semantics amongst kindred spirits. That’s why recent politicans gravitate towards Fred Goodwin rather than James Dyson.


    • “We also have a political and administrative class (regardless of party) which through upbrining, education and natural inclinination looks down its collective nose at manufacturing in the same way that nobility historically looked down on “trade”. ”

      Sadly there’s a good deal of truth in this observation and this reality is often attended by compensation reflex: the lazy fore-fronting of technological spectaculars – as if the only worthwhile projects are those that will grab headlines and possibly provide a springboard to the careers of the politicians who, in trying to counter their lack of technological knowledge, back them (there’s a bit of this going on with Hain and the Severn Barrage at the moment). 

      As prioritisation is a fact of life it would best to focus technological know-how and inventiveness  (providing we have sufficient graduates) on more pressing needs. I offer the Honda 90 as an early example of this approach – a marvelous concept, wonderfully engineered and expertly marketed that transformed lifestyles and made significant impacts on economies, particularly in the developing world. And went on to become the most produced motor vehicle in history.

      • Bill Lockhart

         You’re right about the vacuous showboating. Perhaps this isn’t limited to science and manufacturing. PPEs and lawyers sneer at other fields of endeavour too. As Exhibit B, I present the Olympic Games: the political class’s catch-all line-to-take in response to the slow death of participatory school sport, the selling of playing fields,  the demonisation of “élitism”  and the coming pandemic of obesity and diabetes. Cost- unimaginably vast. Beneficiaries- politicians and corporations. Lasting benefits for the subsidising populace- zero.

  • JoeDM

    Excellent article.  

    The spanner in the works is Labour governments  and the Unions.    They have been the biggest agents of decline for the UK economy since WW2.

    • James

      Most people think that globalisation and the industrialisation of other developing nations was to blame rather than politicians and unionists. Besides since WW2 the UK has mostly been governed by Conservative administrations.

  • James

    The United Kingdom can’t even make most of its own missiles, e.g., we currently lease our nuclear missiles cut-price from the Americans who designed, built, service and maintain them; only their warheads are British. 

    Get real folks.

  • As an ex-libertarian and continuing SF geek I well understand where this is coming from. 

    But as SF writer Charles Stross points out the cost of projecting anything larger than a small satellite out of the earth’s gravity well is truly astronomical (sorry…)

    And given the huge costs of getting stuff into even sub-orbital space it will never be ordinary holidaymakers taking these two hour flights to Sydney but the same global elite who were not numerous or vain or time-strapped enough to make Concorde an economic proposition.  

    To resurrect Newman and Baddiel’s line the IoD are clearly people of restricted seriousness (except of course when it comes to grinding the workers faces into the dirt) who have allowed whatever passes for their research department to be colonised by libertarian space cadets who know as little about the laws of physics as they do about economics or politics (£100m to build a spaceport? FFS)

    And if Skylon does literally take off and reduce the cost of boosting a payload into orbit from £15,000 to a mere £650 a kilo then of course the capitalists will build it somewhere to launch from –  but on or near the equator using whatever part of their global slave-class happens to be cheapest.   

  • Dave Postles

    Many future technological developments will depend on embedded Linux/Unix.  The UK probably needs to compete in that arena first, but is hopelessly behind. 

  • Tiptree

    These ideas are like carbon capture for coal fired power stations or lean-burn internal combustion engines for cars – fantastic ideas that will never ever happen in a millennium of Sundays.

  • James Tiberius Kirk

    Beam me up, Scotty!


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