Britain’s failed attempt to put satellites into orbit was a “disaster” and MPs are being called on to redirect funding to hospitals, with the country now considered “toxic” for future launches.
Senior executives at Welsh company Space Forge, which lost a satellite when Virgin Orbit’s Start Me Up mission failed to reach orbit, said a “seismic shift” was needed for the UK to appeal to space missions.
Long delays from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), as well as a failed launch, had left Space Forge six months behind its competition in the race to be the first company to return a satellite to Earth when six months had passed . previously, the science and technology committee heard.
Patrick McCall, non-executive director at Space Forge, said: “CAA is taking a different approach to risk, and a bit to process and timing as well. But I think that unless there is, without wanting to be too dramatic, a seismic shift in that approach, the UK will not be competitive from a launch point of view.
“I think the conclusion I’ve come to is that right now it’s not a good use of money because our regulatory framework is not competitive.”
He added that the UK should consider spending the money it has invested in launch capabilities in other areas, such as hospitals.
Joshua Western, the firm’s chief executive, described the portal for applications and email correspondence as taking up to six weeks, suggesting there was a lack of engagement with UK authorities.
He compared it to Portugal, where he said someone from the government or from the regulator was in touch more or less on a weekly basis.
“Frankly, it costs us more to license our satellite for launch than it does to launch it,” Western told the committee.
A dislodged fuel filter was the cause of the failure of the first attempt to launch satellites into orbit from Cornwall, Virgin Orbit said.
The thrust of the LauncherOne rocket had a premature shutdown, causing the rocket components and payload to fall into the Atlantic.
Greg Clarke, the commission’s chairman, said it was a “disaster” that an attempt to show what the UK was capable of had become “toxic for a private launch”.
“We’ve had the first launch attempt, but the result is that you as a space investor are saying there’s no way investors are going to support another launch from the UK under the current regulatory conditions.”
Dan Hart, the chief executive of Virgin Orbit, told MPs he had expected the CAA to operate more similarly to the Federal Aviation Authority in the US, but found the UK regulator more conservative.
The company has since ended its contract with Spaceport Cornwall at Newquay Airport, but said it still hoped to launch from the site in the future.
Sir Stephen Hillier, chairman of the CAA, said: “Our primary task is to ensure that space activity in the UK is carried out safely. CAA was licensed before technical readiness.”