Britain Is Getting Ready for Its Space Race

Cornwall, in England’s far southwest, is known for antique fishing villages and snug, cliff-lined beaches. Soon it may be the scene of something very different: a small but growing space industry.

One day in a year or two, a modified Boeing 747 is expected to lift off from the long runway at the region’s airport, head out over the Atlantic Ocean and soar into the stratosphere. There, a rocket will drop from below a wing, fire its engines and ferry a load of small satellites into orbit, while the plane returns to the airport.

After six years of planning and fund-raising, construction of a bare-bones spaceport, budgeted at about 22 million pounds ($28 million), is beginning this month at the airport in Newquay.

While Britain has participated in prestigious space activities like making a Mars rover for an upcoming European-Russian mission, it has catching up to do. Still, space experts say the direction the industry is moving could play to its advantage.

Among the neighbors are clients like Lacuna Space, which plans to deploy satellites for a range of uses like tracking cattle on vast Latin American ranches, and potential suppliers like Oxford Space Systems, which builds satellite-mounted antennas that unfurl once in orbit to send data to ground receivers.

“It is a small ecosystem; everybody knows each other,” said Rafel Jordá Siquier, the 31-year-old founder of Open Cosmos.

But not all the companies are start-ups. Airbus, the giant French maker of commercial aircraft, is also a major manufacturer of satellites and employs 3,500 people doing space work in Britain.

The company had been nervous about Brexit’s implications for those operations, but the government’s move into OneWeb offered some reassurance.

“The investment in OneWeb and focus of the U.K. on space is actually making Airbus go, ‘Look, the U.K. is a really good place to invest,’” said Richard Franklin, head of space and defense for Britain at Airbus.

That said, Britain’s ambitions face large unknowns and risks.

The launch technologies it is counting on are unproven. Virgin Orbit’s first test this year in the United States sputtered when the main rocket engine shut down. And the coronavirus pandemic has put huge financial strain on Mr. Branson’s empire, including the flagship, Virgin Atlantic. To help bolster the finances of the airline and other companies, the entrepreneur sold around $500 million of shares in Virgin Galactic, a space tourism business.

But Will Pomerantz, Virgin Orbit’s vice president for special projects, said the 747 would come to Cornwall “when they are ready and they need us.”

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