On the Scottish Haunting Coast, a village dreams of space

A’ MHOINE, Scotland – Dorothy Pritchard and her neighbors hadn’t always planned to host a spaceport.

The retired schoolteacher lives along the coast of the A’ Mhoine Peninsula, an area of ​​wind-eroded bog known as Flow Country, at the tip of the Scottish mainland. For generations, distant aristocratic landowners in England leased plots of land here to small groups of crofters to farm as best they could. North Sea oil and gas has helped provide jobs about 180 miles away in Aberdeen, allowing some people to stay reasonably close and return home at weekends. The same was true for a neighboring nuclear power plant before it was decommissioned.

But after the land was bequeathed to the local community, some people here felt the opportunity to follow Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos into the space sector and, they hope, slow the steady stream of young people leaving to find work. work elsewhere.

“It won’t be Cape Canaveral, but we can do it,” says Ms Pritchard, head of the local crofters’ association, which has backed a government-backed project to build a modest 13-foot launch site here. acres. . “We don’t have to be billionaires.”

The idea seems far-fetched at first. There is little here except golden heather and mist-shrouded mountains. The population is ageing, like many places on the fringes of Europe; there are only 18 children at the local primary school across the road in Tongue village, half the number ten years ago. The area is perhaps best known for its striking scenery, making it a highlight on the North Coast 500, a loop road that hugs the north and west coasts of Scotland. Rumors still swirl about buried Jacobite gold, hidden hundreds of years ago to fund Bonnie Prince Charlie’s claim to the British throne.

A small settlement near the proposed spaceport on the north coast of Scotland.

Advances in space technology are opening up the industry to new entrants who don’t need lavish launch sites.

But advances in space technology, from lightweight, fuel-efficient rockets to tiny shoebox-sized cubesats, are opening up the industry to new entrants who don’t need lavish launch sites.

A’ Mhoine, or “the peat” in Gaelic, is at exactly the right latitude to quickly launch small satellites over the North Atlantic into polar orbit. Space Hub Sutherland is easier to get to than most sites vying to serve the growing European market instead of places like Kazakhstan or New Zealand. Sweden plans to use a remote research facility in the heart of the Arctic Circle. A German initiative involves towing rockets to launch them from barges anchored in the stormy waters of the North Sea. Further north in Scotland, another project is awaiting planning permission for another rocket launch site in the Shetland Islands.

There is a growing support industry nearby. The rockets are made by Orbex Express Launch Ltd., based 160km near Inverness. Many satellites are likely to be built in Glasgow, which now produces more than any other site in Europe. Construction is due to start in the spring and is expected to cost £17m, or $23m. If all goes well, the site could start sending payloads into space later this year, providing crofters with a steady stream of royalties to build piers and other infrastructure.

Equipment used by Orbex, which manufactures rockets.


Photo:

Orbex

“We have an older population here with very few opportunities for young people outside of the service industries and tourism,” Ms. Pritchard says. “This is our chance to do something about it.”

Other residents are supportive. “I totally agree,” says James Beattie, who helps run a guest house. “We need something more than tourism.”

William MacLeod, a retired carpenter, agrees. “I had to work everywhere – London, all sorts of places. wind up there anyway. What else are you going to do with it?

Some who have settled in the area worry about the potential noise and impact on eagles and other wildlife, as well as the area’s peatlands, one of Europe’s largest carbon reservoirs, containing more than double the amount stored in all forests. in the UK In many ways, the project has become the lightning rod for a wider debate about whether people’s futures should take precedence over the environment.

“There are other ways to create sustainable jobs than launching rockets into space,” says Alistair Gow, a 75-year-old former science teacher who moved to the area several years ago and now lives in a few doors from Mrs. Pritchard. “We don’t know if it will work out financially. And if that fails and we are left with this scar on the landscape that could put off tourists?

Alistair Gow, 75, a retired teacher who opposes the spaceport project.

Each side has launched Facebook pages laying out their arguments, often so forcefully that the posts have to be deleted. “It’s a very delicate subject. There is a lot of distance between them,” said one woman. Scottish newspapers began to describe the dispute as “Star Wars”.

Then there’s the spaceport’s best-known adversary, Danish fast-fashion billionaire Anders Povlsen, the brains behind privately held Bestseller A/S, one of China’s most successful Western retailers.

After three of his children were killed in a bomb attack during a family holiday in Sri Lanka in 2019, Mr Povlsen expanded his land holdings in Scotland to cover some 230,000 acres, including areas adjoining A ‘Mhoine, making him the largest individual landowner in the country. .

His main goal is to return his land holdings to the wild. It is a 200 year project. Many of its estates have now been restored to how they looked before humans began cutting down trees from the hills and valleys, sometimes reintroducing long-extinct wildlife, at other times slaughtering deer that had been bred for hunting and allowing forests to grow.

The rewilding effort has been credited with helping to reinvigorate tourism in northern Scotland. One of Mr Povlsen’s companies, Wildland Ltd., runs a number of niche hotels, including Lundies House, near A’ Mhoine. Full room and board at the Scandinavian-inspired property starts at £455 a night for two. Others have followed his lead, investing in hotels and bed and breakfasts and upgrading them.

The region is perhaps best known for its striking landscapes.

Monk House, near proposed spaceport location.

Wildland has filed a series of legal objections to the spaceport, while the businessman has raised some eyebrows by investing nearly £1.5million in one of the rival launch site projects, far in sea ​​in Shetlands. The court cases were dismissed in the fall. Wildland says it will closely monitor the project to ensure it meets environmental safeguards set by local government.

The exam will likely be strict. Chris Larmour, chief executive of Orbex, the rocket company that will be the spaceport’s biggest customer, was among those who wondered why Ms Pritchard and her neighbors wanted to risk going ahead with a spaceport when the Scottish development agency Highlands and Islands Enterprise first suggested it. .

“It’s extraordinarily beautiful,” he recalled asking during his first visit, in 2017. “I said, ‘Can I just ask, why would you want a spaceport?’ And then they told me the whole story of population and declining school numbers, retirees and no families with children, or less families with children anyway.Their concern was that the whole community was basically a dead end.

To make the project work, the crofters and their partners focused on minimizing its footprint as much as possible.

Ms Pritchard gave a presentation at the recent COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, where she explained how the peat mined to build the launch pad and control center will be used to restore some of the deep gouges villagers previously had dug into the landscape for fuel.

“It won’t be Cape Canaveral, but we can do it,” Ms Pritchard says.

Orbex’s rockets use a mixture of biopropane and liquid oxygen that reduces their emissions to a tenth of those of conventional kerosene-fueled rockets, says Larmour. They are made using 3D printing to minimize weight and fuel, and can be transported to the launch site on A’ Mhoine in regular shipping containers. The first section carrying the 150 kilogram payload through the atmosphere – enough for a dozen or more satellites – is designed to be reused once it falls back to Earth and is fished out of the ocean.

A second section pushing them into orbit will burn out on re-entry, while a fail-safe measure will cut power to the motors in the event of a deviation. Two and a half years ago a single wildfire burned for almost a week on the bog, releasing six days of total greenhouse gas emissions in Scotland, and some locals are worried about what will happen in the event of an accident.

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The biggest draw, however, is jobs. Orbex says its first six launches have been sold out, and David Oxley, director of strategic projects at the development agency, estimates the site will generate 40 jobs initially, bringing more people to the area.

“We don’t necessarily need a rocket scientist at the spaceport, maybe one or two,” he says. “But we need people who can handle the installation. We need engineering skills. We need marketing, we need administration. We need funding, we need security, we need security. We need a whole range of skills.

That’s all to come, once the winter winds die down. For the moment, there is on the site, apart from the ruins of an old cottage, only a small sign planted in the bog, covered with a floating blue tarp, which waits to be unveiled.

Write to James Hookway at [email protected]

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