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24 March 2009
UK 'waking up quite fast' to space prospects

The UK is waking up quite fast to the new opportunities in space and Lossiemouth is a significant factor.

That's the latest assessment from the Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn, in an audio interview with Rob Coppinger on the Flight International website.

Mr Whitehorn said the Lossiemouth involvement went back to the visit he made to the RAF base Lossiemouth in 2007 at the invitation of the then station commander.

'It's got the most flying days of any of the RAF bases in the UK. It's got the clear air space over the Moray Firth, it's got a fantastic view down you see a really good Britain from there, and you can also see across the North Sea to Norway.

'It's actually got a good launch location for polar trajectories and all of those kind of applications. It's got a long runway. It's the kind of place that could be a good location and I think that that has sparked a lot of interest in Scotland and nationally in the UK.'

A regulatory framework

Mr Whitehorn spoke of the significance of the recent initiative taken by Moray MP Angus Robertson to meet the Science Minister Lord Drayson. The UK Government needed to engage in several issues, he said. First of all, there was the question of what system of regulation to use, and whether to adopt the model developed by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) in the US.

'The US now has a regime – it's in its infancy. It's going to take the private operator working with the FAA to take it to fruition and begin commercial space flight in America, but at least we have a process now.

'In Europe it depends entirely on where you are. Sweden believe that they can do a process because they have Kiruna, because they have legislation for sounding rockets, and they've a space treaty with the US.

'Sweden we identified as the easiest place to go to in Europe. It also is very near the Pole, so if you wanted to do other scientific missions in the future, it's a very good location to consider.

'It's also completely different to New Mexico, which is great from a  customer perspective in the future. If somebody wants to repeat the experience, they can head to Sweden and fly through the aurora and look down on the Pole.

Britain in space

A second big issue for the UK to engage in, said Mr Whitehorn, was the question of its own role in space.

'Does Britain want to be a player in space again, given that we have a very successful industry, the kind of industry which is probably going to continue to grow, during the difficult economic circumstances of the next few years?'

Britain was a logical place to be interested in applications of the Virgin Galactic system, said Mr Whitehorn, because it had companies which were amongst the world leaders in small satellites, such as EADS Astrium and Surrey Satellite Technology.

'Therefore the idea of having a launch capability in the UK, or the UK developing one to take advantage of this technology that's already been built, is of interest.'

The Flight International website has Rob Coppinger's interview with Will Whitehorn. It's the fifth of a series of five podcasts that together make up a longer interview recorded in Virgin Galactic's London offices on 4 March.

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