Few people will have realised that the new BBC Scandi-noir mini-series ‘The Investigation’, has a bizarre Scottish connection. The gripping plot follows Copenhagen Police Chief Jens Møller, as he tries to solve the 2017 murder of Swedish journalist Kim Wall on board a homemade submarine. One of the key people now bidding to mastermind Scotland’s first rocket launch from a controversial spaceport in Sutherland, was originally the business partner of Peter Madsen, the Danish inventor and entrepreneur, now serving a life sentence for Kim Wall’s brutal murder. Madsen, a boyhood amateur rocket enthusiast, co-founded Copenhagen Suborbitals with Danish architect Kristian Von Bengston in 2008.
It appears that by the time of the Kim Wall murder trial a decade later, Von Bengston had left Madsen long behind and gone into partnership with Chris Larmour, a German-based marketing expert. In 2015 the pair founded a company called Orbex to raise funds in Denmark for a moon-rocket. According to an account published by UK space news magazine ‘Orbital Today’ they failed to drum up government investment in Denmark and turned instead to Britain because of our government's more relaxed approach to "proper due diligence". That judgment may be unfair to all concerned, but what is certain is that the aftermath had the flavour of a ‘goldrush’, as companies and public authorities sought to win the race into space.
Together with Lockheed Martin, Orbex quickly established that land owned by Melness crofters’ estate, at the remote A’Mhoine peninsula, near the village of Tongue on the north coast of Sutherland, might be suitable for future launches. They were welcomed by the Scottish Government’s own economic development agency, HIE, who provided an interest free loan of £675,000 and took forward detailed development plans for the site. An equity deal between Orbex and Spanish satellite company Elecnor Deimos provided the necessary reassurance that the UK government was looking for that the project had long term viability. Orbex duly landed a pledge of £2.5m from the UK Space Agency (UKSA) as a contribution toward the £17.3m space hub project.
All seemed well until a full planning application for the space port received some 457 objections and caused significant divisions in the local community. Granted, a majority of local crofters favoured HIE's and Orbex's promise of new high-tech jobs for the rural community, though a significant minority disagreed over a range of worries, including the concern that it could harm the bid to achieve UNESCO World Heritage status for the area. The Scottish Government nonetheless opted not to 'call in' the planning decision and allowed Highland Council to decide. Approval was readily provided by councillors but is subject to 33 conditions that the developers need to fulfil before they can launch rockets - an exceptionally high number which strongly suggests the plans weren't remotely 'oven ready' before councillors signed them off. This has only compounded fears that the spaceport will threaten protected birds and mammals, overwhelm local transport infrastructure and do irreparable damage to a valuable section of natural peat bog, releasing tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Not a good look in the year Scotland touts its eco credentials hosting the COP26 climate conference.
Opposition sprang up from environmental groups including Extinction Rebellion, RSPB and the APRS. Nearby landowner, billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen, owner of Wildland Ltd, also strongly opposed the Sutherland space hub on ecological grounds and has lodged a petition with the Court of Session for a judicial review of Highland Council’s decision. A full hearing is set for later this year. Meanwhile, seeing the economic potential of the sector for Scotland, but recognising that this can't come regardless of environmental consequence, Povlsen has invested £1.43m in an alternative spaceport on the Island of Unst in Shetland.
Similar considerations had previously led Lockheed Martin, the lynchpin of the Sutherland spaceport's commercial operational viability, to transfer its £23.5m spaceflight programme to Unst. There, planning consent is still awaited, but given the site's use as a former RAF base on the UK's northernmost island, there are expected to be few barriers. In contrast to the controversy over the A’Mhoine space hub, it is understood that the local landowner and crofters have given the Unst project their backing, as has the 600-strong island community.
Now the focus has turned on the UK and Scottish governments. Everyone wants the prize of 'first mover advantage' in being home to Europe's first satellite launch base. Unst seems to be a natural fit because it ticks all the right boxes, including accessibility for personnel and logistical supplies, more limited scope for environmental impact and - crucially - a northern location that allows rockets to be launched economically by avoiding the need for a fuel-busting 'dogleg' flight path to avoid risks to people, aircraft and shipping. Sutherland has none of these benefits and planning restrictions have limited any launches from the site to a maximum of 12 a year. Shetland can handle double that number. Big questions therefore remain over the Sutherland hub's long-term viability if built. Yet recent correspondence obtained by the Press and Journal newspaper under Freedom of Information laws shows clearly that the Scottish Government is pushing hard to persuade the UK Government to help it remove "all remaining barriers" to the Mhoine site. Strikingly, no such assistance was sought for Shetland.
Why is the government playing favourites? Surely all serious, viable ventures in the north of Scotland should have equal support from the Scottish government to succeed? Could it be that the Sutherland space port proposal, backed with £3.5m-£4m and counting in public subsidy by HIE, is getting too costly to back out of without embarrassing ministers, even if it's in the wrong place? Could it be that they've learnt nothing from their disastrous part in backing other state aid industrial failures in Scotland, from BiFab to Ferguson Marine?
It took months of painstakingly intricate detective work before Copenhagen Police Chief Jens Møller was finally able to bring Peter Madsen, the original Danish rocket man, to justice for murder. Perhaps it will be a more prosaic examination by the Scottish Parliament or Audit Scotland that finally uncovers whether or not different decisions could or should have been made for this hugely promising industrial sector.