While these images are more than 100 years old, they still make me think of Scotland’s coast. This is where I grew up and it has always been a place that inspires wonderment in anyone who visits. It was my home for 10 years until the family moved to Canada when I was 11 but this pictures have stuck with me ever since then because they remind me of what made childhood so wonderful there: fresh air and simplicity.,
The “Sutherland spaceport location” is a village that dreams of space. The village has a small airport and the Sutherland Spaceport, which is where NASA plans to launch its next rocket.
Scotland’s A’ MHOINE — Dorothy Pritchard and her neighbors had not intended to host a spaceport from the start.
The retired schoolteacher lives on the shore of Scotland’s mainland’s A’ Mhoine peninsula, in the Flow Country, a region of wind-scoured peat fields. For years, aristocratic landowners in England leased small groups of crofters portions of land here to cultivate as best they could. North Sea oil and gas helped create employment in Aberdeen, 180 miles distant, enabling some residents to remain close by and come home on weekends. Before it was shut, a neighboring nuclear power facility did the same.
However, once the site was donated to the local community, some residents saw a chance to join the ranks of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos in the space industry, in the hopes of slowing the continuous flow of young people departing to seek employment elsewhere.
“It won’t be Cape Canaveral,” says Ms. Pritchard, president of the local crofters’ organization, which has sponsored a government-funded plans to establish a small 13-acre launch site here. “We don’t have to be millionaires to be successful.”
At first, the concept seemed absurd. Except for golden heather and mist-wrapped mountains, there isn’t much here. The population is aging, as it is in many towns on Europe’s outskirts; the local primary school across the causeway in Tongue has just 18 students, half the amount a decade before. The region is likely most renowned for its dramatic scenery, which makes it a highlight of the North Coast 500, a circular route that runs around Scotland’s north and west coasts. Rumors abound about buried Jacobite wealth, which was hidden hundreds of years ago to fund Bonnie Prince Charlie’s claim to the throne of the United Kingdom.
On Scotland’s far north shore, a tiny town near the projected spaceport.
Advances in space technology are allowing new participants into the market who do not need opulent launch locations.
However, advancements in space technology, such as lightweight, fuel-efficient rockets and small, shoebox-sized cubesats, are allowing new entrants into the business who don’t need elaborate launch facilities.
A’ Mhoine, which means “the peat” in Gaelic, is located at the ideal latitude for fast launching tiny satellites into polar orbit over the North Atlantic. Many of the locations trying to service the burgeoning European market, like as Kazakhstan or New Zealand, are simpler to reach than Space Hub Sutherland. Sweden intends to conduct research at a remote location near the Arctic Circle. Towing rockets out to launch from barges moored in the choppy seas of the North Sea is part of a German endeavor. Another proposal in the Shetland Islands, farther north in Scotland, is seeking planning authorization for a new rocket launch site.
Nearby, there is a burgeoning support industry. Orbex Express Launch Ltd., situated 100 miles away in Inverness, is producing the rockets. Many of the satellites will most certainly be manufactured in Glasgow, which now produces more than any other European city. The project is set to start in the spring and is projected to cost £17 million ($23 million). If all goes according to plan, the station might begin delivering payloads into space later this year, giving crofters with a continuous stream of royalties to fund the construction of piers and other infrastructure.
Orbex, a rocket manufacturer, uses this equipment.
“With the exception of service sectors and tourism, we have an aging population here with very few opportunities for young people,” Ms. Pritchard explains. “This is our opportunity to make a difference.”
Others in the neighborhood are encouraging. “I’m all for it,” adds James Beattie, a guesthouse manager. “We need something other than tourism.”
A retired joiner, William MacLeod, agrees. “I had to work all over the place—London, New York, and so on.” While on his way to the post office, he comments, “It would be nice if not everyone had to do that.” “Anyway, it’s constantly blowing a gale up there.” “Are you going to do anything else with it?”
Some residents are concerned about the possible noise and damage on eagles and other animals, as well as the area’s peat bogs, which are one of Europe’s greatest carbon reservoirs, storing more than twice the amount of carbon contained in all of the UK’s woods. The initiative has become a lightning rod for a larger discussion over whether people’s futures should take priority over the environment in many aspects.
“Other than blasting rockets into space, there are other methods to create sustainable employment,” says Alistair Gow, a 75-year-old former physics teacher who relocated to the neighborhood some years ago and now lives a few doors down from Ms. Pritchard. “We’re not sure whether it’ll work financially.” What if it fails and we’re left with a scar on the landscape that scares visitors away?”
Alistair Gow, a 75-year-old retired teacher who opposes the planned spaceport.
Each side has created Facebook sites to put forth their arguments, which are often so vehement that they must be taken down. “It’s a really sensitive issue.” “There’s a lot of space between them,” one lady observes. The conflict has been dubbed “Star Wars” in Scottish publications.
Then there’s the spaceport’s most well-known foe, Danish fast-fashion entrepreneur Anders Povlsen, the brains behind Bestseller A/S, one of China’s most successful Western businesses.
Mr. Povlsen has enlarged his landholdings in Scotland to span around 230,000 acres, including territories bordering A’ Mhoine, after three of his children were murdered in a terrorist explosion during a family vacation in Sri Lanka in 2019. This makes him the country’s biggest individual landowner.
His principal goal is to return his landholdings to their natural state. It’s a 200-year undertaking. Many of his properties have since been restored to their original form before people started cutting trees from the slopes and valleys, sometimes returning long-extinct species, other times culling deer bred for hunting and enabling woods to develop.
Tourism in northern Scotland has been ascribed to the rewilding initiative. Wildland Ltd., one of Mr. Povlsen’s firms, operates a variety of specialty hotels, including Lundies House near A’ Mhoine. The Scandinavian-inspired property’s full room and board begins at £455 a night for two people. Others have followed suit, purchasing and renovating hotels and guesthouses.
The area’s beautiful landscapes are undoubtedly its most well-known feature.
Moine House, near the planned spaceport’s site.
Wildland has filed a number of legal challenges against the spaceport, and the industrialist has raised some eyebrows by spending about £1.5 million in one of the competing launch-site ideas in the Shetlands, which is well out to sea. In the autumn, the court suits were dismissed. Wildland said it would keep a careful eye on the project to ensure it complies with the local government’s environmental regulations.
Scrutiny will most likely be rigorous. When Scotland’s Highlands and Islands Enterprise Development Agency first proposed a spaceport, Chris Larmour, the chief executive of Orbex, the rocket company that will be the spaceport’s primary customer, was among those who questioned why Ms. Pritchard and her neighbors wanted to risk going ahead with it.
During his first visit in 2017, he recalled saying, “It’s extremely gorgeous.” “Can I just ask, why would you want a spaceport?” I replied. Then they gave me the complete tale of how the population and school enrollment were declining, how there were more retirees and no families with children, or at least fewer families with children. Their main issue was that the whole neighborhood was effectively a dead end.”
To make the project work, the crofters and their partners have concentrated on reducing the initiative’s environmental impact as much as possible.
Ms. Pritchard spoke at the recent COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, explaining how peat excavated for the launchpad and control center would be used to rebuild some of the deep gouges locals had made into the terrain for fuel.
Ms. Pritchard adds, ‘It won’t be Cape Canaveral, but we can do it.’
Mr. Larmour claims that Orbex’s rockets employ a biopropane and liquid oxygen combination that reduces emissions to a tenth of those of typical kerosene-fueled rockets. They’re made using 3-D printing to save weight and fuel, and they may be transported to the launch location on A’ Mhoine in standard shipping containers. The initial component of the 150-kilogram payload—enough to launch a dozen or more satellites—is meant to be reused after it lands on Earth and is pulled out of the ocean.
On re-entry, a second piece that propelled them into orbit will burn up, and if it veers off track, a fail-safe mechanism will limit power to the engines. A single wildfire raged for over a week on peat soil two and a half years ago, releasing six days’ worth of Scotland’s total carbon emissions, and some inhabitants are concerned about what would happen if there is another disaster.
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But it’s the jobs that are the most appealing. Orbex claims that its first six launches have sold out, and David Oxley, the development agency’s head of strategic projects, expects that the site will initially produce 40 jobs, attracting more people to the neighborhood.
“A rocket scientist at the spaceport isn’t necessary—maybe one or two,” he adds. “However, we need personnel who can manage the facilities.” We need engineering expertise. We need marketing and administrative assistance. We need financial resources, as well as protection and safety. We’ll require a wide range of abilities.”
All of this will be revealed after the winter winds have died down. Apart from the remnants of an ancient home, the only item on the site right now is a little sign planted in the bog and covered in a flapping blue tarpaulin, ready to be uncovered.
James Hookway can be reached at [email protected]
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The “sutherland spaceport jobs” is a village that dreams of space. The village has been the site of many scientific and technological advancements, such as the first powered flight in history, and the first transatlantic flight.
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