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How satellites were (almost) launched into space from Cornwall

CEO of Spaceport Cornwall Melissa Thorpe on January’s failed launch—and her hopes for the British space industry
March 1, 2023

It was a mild January day and rocket scientists were preparing to launch satellites into space from UK soil for the first time. Nine were to be put into orbit, hitching a lift on a modified Boeing 747 dispatched from Cornwall Airport Newquay—the first facility in the country given the badge of a spaceport.

In the days leading up to the launch, dozens of specialist technicians arrived to make final preparations. Among them were a Californian contingent used to being whisked from launch to launch by driver-assisted Teslas; they had to learn that Cornwall doesn’t even have Ubers. “That was very bad news to them,” says Melissa Thorpe, the spaceport leader, with amusement. But they soon settled in: “Some of them got really friendly with local pubs, and the landlords were giving them lifts everywhere.”

Thorpe, who grew up in the wilderness of British Columbia, now lives on Cornwall’s north coast with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys the county’s ruggedness and doesn’t mind being stopped by people who recognise her from the news.

As the Californians discovered, Cornwall is an unorthodox place for a spaceport. When the county won the tender, online wags joked about launching pasties and cream teas into orbit. They didn’t know Cornwall has a thriving scene of space-related study and start-ups. Newquay airport has a long runway—all the better to launch Virgin Orbit’s rocket-bearing 747s. And if the launch screws up, there are worse places for debris to fall than into the Atlantic.

Alas, that’s what happened on 9th January. The rocket launched as planned, but a fuel filter became dislodged and stopped the payload from being released. Into the ocean fell the rocket and its cargo. “It was emotional,” says Thorpe. Late that night, she spoke in front of a scrum of cameras with a clear message: essentially, “This sucks, but it is how this industry goes.” They’d try again, she promised.

True to their word, Thorpe and co are working on a relaunch later in the year. Her goal is not simply to succeed where in January they failed; she hopes also to demonstrate that the space industry can support environmental sustainability. The 747’s horizontal launch, swooping off from a runway, uses much less fuel than a vertical take-off; the first attempt’s cargo included nine satellites, one of which was to monitor kelp forests and pollution levels around Cornwall, helping scientists identify appropriate areas for seagrass restoration. 

Thorpe, a 39-year-old millennial far too young to remember the Apollo missions, is more animated by the idea of protecting the environment than landing on Mars. Rather than throwing kerosene on the climate crisis, she wants to be “part of the solution”. 

Two years ago, getting people to understand that was a challenge. Thorpe was heckled and followed home by environmental protesters: “It was really ugly.” She invited them to discuss their concerns over coffee. Not everyone was convinced, but there were no demonstrations at the launch. One erstwhile protester has even offered Thorpe his patronage. “He says, if I ever have anybody calling me or rushing me or anything, to just let him know.”

Thorpe’s approach to conflict sets her apart from other leaders of the space industry. (Think of Elon Musk’s pugnacity.) Women, Thorpe says, bring “a different way of approaching problems”; “a more maternal mindset”. Hence another of her goals: encouraging girls and women to pursue Stem careers. This, she says, will be good for the industry, as well as fair. “We need all the help we can get.”

Three years from now, Thorpe hopes to welcome a crewed mission back down to Earth. That would make British and Cornish history. A spaceport currently known for the satellites on the Atlantic seabed could instead be responsible for the high-water mark of the British space industry.