Anyone who peered heavenward in late May hoping for a glimpse of the new Falcon 9 heavy rocket passing over Scotland on its way to a rendezvous with the International Space Station, will be aware that an exciting new global industry is thriving – despite the coronavirus pandemic that has largely shuttered Western economies.

As a collaboration between Elon Musk’s SpaceX company and NASA, Falcon 9 showed that the dominant future pathway into space will be through canny collaborations between companies and governments, opening up new possibilities for exploration and the economy. The UK has long been keen to get in on the act and indeed we’re already a global leader in some areas. Our domestic space sector employs 42,000 people and generates £14.8 billion each year for the British economy. Scotland punches above its weight, with more satellites built in Glasgow than anywhere else in the world outside the USA.

It’s getting those home-grown satellites up into orbit quickly and cheaply enough that is the last piece of the puzzle for our home-grown space firms. That’s why, in 2017, the UK Space Agency (UKSA) began offering £10 million in public grants to consortia who could set up the UK’s first domestic vertical and horizontal launch sites with a view to fast tracking development and jumping ahead of rival European sites like the Azores.

What’s been needed is a location that’s handy enough to supply with logistics, personnel and infrastructure, but remote enough from heavily populated areas to avoid visual or noise complaints and the worst effects of any occasional crash landing if a launch doesn’t go to plan.

Sensing an opportunity, the Scottish Government’s own economic development agency Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) thought it was on to a sure thing when it took forward its own plans to site the UK’s first vertical space launch site on the remote, weather-beaten Mhoine peninsula on the north coast of Sutherland.

What could possibly go wrong? Well, this is a Scottish Government agency doing its best to spend millions of pounds in public subsidy, so ‘just about everything’ is the answer, sadly.

HIE lodged a planning application which will be decided by Highland Council later this month in the hope that commercial launches can be fast tracked. Think how welcome such a project would have been in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, bringing inward investment and jobs to an area that has been subject to population decline for decades.

Well it depends who you ask. Before the planning application was submitted it was very clear that the local crofting community was split on whether they wanted rockets in the site proposed. A majority wanted to prioritise jobs and investment while 40 per cent voted to have nothing more to do with HIE’s plans to tear up their land.

On top of splitting the community, it was also obvious that very serious environmental considerations needed to be factored in. The Sutherland spaceport would have a sizeable impact on the Flow Country landscape; one rich in peatland that acts as one of the world’s greatest carbon sinks, surrounded by land protected under national and European designations and rich in protected bird species. Goodness knows what damage it would do to the very exciting and very realistic bid to give the Flow Country UNESCO World Heritage status. 

Of course, the Scottish Government has plenty of form when it comes to ignoring such factors. It has spent years promoting and approving the construction of enormous onshore wind turbine arrays on areas of peatland, destroying these unique carbon-storing resources while industrialising vast swathes of our natural landscapes. 

Thank goodness then that groups like RSPB Scotland, the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland and local landowner Wildland, each objected to the spaceport with detailed evidence of the wanton environmental vandalism it will do to this very special area, loved and increasingly well-known globally as a fixture on the world-famous North Coast 500 tourist route.

Some may argue that in the teeth of a global pandemic, with tourist revenues so uncertain, jobs promised by this development are worth any degree of environmental risk. However, that ignores one simple fact that is the real fly in the ointment for HIE. There have been better alternatives to the Sutherland space port all along, one in the Western Isles and the other in Shetland. 

Back in 2017 the UKSA compared each site and gave them a score out of ten to measure environmental suitability. The Mhoine site came joint last with a score of just four. The clear winner was Unst in Shetland, which received nine out of ten, largely because its developers can reuse an old RAF base and radar station on the northern-most tip of Britain, which is far more suitable for industrial development. Big private sector players like Lockheed Martin and ArianeGroup seem to agree and are exploring opportunities on Unst. 

Another consideration has come to light that should embarrass the Scottish Government further. Safety is an enormous consideration for the space sector and because the role of these facilities is to get satellites into a polar orbit, they need to launch in a northern trajectory that puts land, people, aircraft and shipping out of harm’s way in the event that a piece of rocket falls from the sky. This requires something called a mid-air ‘dogleg’ manoeuvre from Sutherland to take rockets in between the Faroe Islands and Shetland safely. Unst has no such problem, so launches have been assessed to be much easier from there. 

Has HIE consulted with governments in the Faroe Islands and Iceland to ask their views on rockets powering through their airspace? Neither has commented on the Mhoine planning application so this seems uncertain.

Against the odds – and arguably in the face of good sense too – HIE has ploughed on. We can only reliably sustain one strategic facility of this sort so now the Scottish Government has begun issuing ‘call-in notices’ that are likely to mean it has to pick between the competing sites. The industry, the community and conservationists alike can only wait with baited breath to see whether it will do the objective and proper thing by throwing out HIE’s flawed scheme.

Whatever the outcome, the situation is a mess that will delay the further development of the space sector when we need it most for economic recovery.