Building a Spaceport
Building a Spaceport by Dr. John Paffett – Founder and Managing Director – KISPE.
January 2023 saw a landmark event in the UK's space strategy, the first small satellite launch from the United Kingdom, with the flight of the Virgin Orbit LauncherOne system from Spaceport Cornwall. While focus has been on the launch system and launch event itself, post launch has provided time to reflect on what an amazing achievement building the spaceport itself has been, pulling in expertise from across the UK to develop a world leading facility, with limited budget, short timescales, and delivered during a global pandemic.
At KISPE, our motto is "Turning ideas into reality" and our involvement in Spaceport Cornwall is a clear demonstration of what we do. Working with Cornwall Council, Cornwall Airport Limited, Virgin Orbit and others, the team has led the conversion of parts of a former RAF airfield into the UK's first Spaceport; a multi-user facility for aerospace and hi-tech related activities, and demonstrated the integration of spaceflight activities within a civilian aerodrome and with commercial airport operations.
KISPE's involvement with Spaceport Cornwall began in 2018 in supporting Virgin Orbit secure grant funding from the UK Space Agency to enable the establishment of LauncherOne operations in the UK. As a programme and systems engineering company, with a team with many years experience in the design, manufacture, launch and operations of small satellite systems, we are well versed in working with international stakeholders - stimulating and delivering complex programmes.
In 2021, KISPE was contracted by Cornwall Council to manage the design and implementation of the spaceport development, overseeing the upgrades to the airport and construction of the facilities required to support small satellite launch operations from Spaceport Cornwall. With significant first-hand knowledge and practical experience in conducting small satellite launches around the world, the KISPE team bought those lessons learnt to the design of the Spaceport Cornwall facilities - optimising the design, layout, and workflow to enable efficient and responsive launch operations, while also being focused on minimising development and operating costs.
The project transitioned from the initial idea of the spaceport facilities, through to completion in a little over fourteen months, opening in September 2022 - an achievement that is truly astonishing and an incredible feat for the team that came together to help turn this into a reality, especially given the global environment in which the programme was delivered.
The project entailed rejuvenating an area of the Cornwall Airport Newquay that was once home to the RAF St Mawgan Air Traffic Control Tower and fire station, clearing derelict buildings and preparing the site for redevelopment, a gift that kept on giving!
Image: RAF St Mawgan Air Traffic Control Tower (Credit: ATCHistory)
With the site cleared, work commenced on the construction, fitout and commissioning of a facility that supports satellite integration, launch vehicle preparation and check out, and launch system integration activities. If building a Spaceport within the timescales needed to support the first launch wasn't challenge enough, it was done at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, with significant pressures on finance, and major supply chain and resource issues that resulted from the crisis. Who would have known that procuring steel and plaster board would be such an ordeal.
We've always said that you're only as good as your team, and that's something else that has been demonstrated on this programme. A project of this magnitude is very much a team affair, and we were able to bring together and work alongside some incredibly talented teams from organisations across the UK. The project would not have been possible without the support of companies and organisations such as AECOM, Bassaire, BT Openreach, Cornwall Airport, Cornwall Council, CORMAC, CORSEV, Dodds, Enverveo, Keir, Logical Choice, Microcomms, MWJV, NVO, Voicepath, Waldons, Wernick, Willmot Dixon and many others. Without this collaborative effort, there would have been a very different outcome. After all, no man or business is an island, and we couldn't have been able to achieve all we did without the assistance of these highly-competent entities and the phenomenal teams within them.
KISPE were privileged to have been given the opportunity to support Cornwall Council in turning the idea of establishing a spaceport into a reality, in designing and implementing the facilities that can now be used to support launches from the UK. A true testament to what has been achieved, was a statement from Virgin Orbit during one of the final UK Space Agency milestone reviews prior to launch, where it was commented that the integration facility was one of the best and well thought out facilities that members of the team had ever had the pleasure of working in, from their many years of experience of working across facilities in the United States and elsewhere.
What has been developed at Cornwall Airport Newquay is not tied solely to one launch operator and related activities. Thought was given to how the Spaceport Cornwall facilities would be used for a range of small satellite launch activities, and the site stands ready to support the next launch and future launch operators. Significant thought was also given to how the facilities could be used for future aerospace related activities, providing a world class infrastructure that can support a broad range of different applications. While the KISPE team were excited to be involved in the development of the spaceport, and the first launch from the UK, we're also eager to see how the foundations that have been put in place will enable future growth and development, and what amazing things will take place from the Spaceport and airport in the years to come.