Space tourists could soon be blasting off from Scotland

The British government wishes Richard Branson would build his spaceport closer to home, rather than in New Mexico.
The British government wishes Richard Branson would build his spaceport closer to home, rather than in New Mexico.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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The first commercial space flights from anywhere outside of the United States could be taking off from Scotland. The British government is planning to launch a port for commercial space flights by 2018, and six out of the eight potential sites in the UK are in Scotland. “Spaceports will be key to us opening up the final frontier of commercial space travel,” said UK treasury minister Danny Alexander.

Details of what private and government entities would be involved in the planned venture remain unclear, but the spaceport would likely also facilitate rocket and satellite launches. Still, the mention of commercial space travel fuels optimism that space tourism will take off (sorry) in Europe.

The UK wants Sir Richard Branson to build the port in Scotland—though the UK’s £300 million of government funding to the space sector is minuscule compared with the US’s $35.6 billion. Branson’s space tourism operation Virgin Galactic is building its Norman Foster-designed hub in the New Mexico desert, and is currently the only one of the nine spaceports in the US built and designed specifically to ferry passengers back and forth for sub-orbital flights. In January, Virgin Galactic completed its third test flight:

Alexander’s announcement comes just weeks before Scotland votes on whether to become an independent nation—and the fast-growing space sector is featuring in the economic debate. Dr Malcolm Macdonald, of the Strathclyde Space Institute in Glasgow, said in a recently released report that independence could bring as much as £100 million to the Scottish space sector from the European Space Agency and the private sector in the long term.

A potential European hub for private space flights is a boost to the global commercial space sector. On Friday, the US Federal Aviation Administration gave the greenlight to Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket company to build its own privately-owned launch site in Brownsville, Texas, near the Mexican border. The earth’s upper atmosphere may soon see a whole lot more traffic.