As barrier costs to space continue to fall with increasingly commercial launch options and reduced insurance premiums, the small and medium enterprises in the space sector are set to blast off.
The Government rightly identified the growth of the UK space sector in its announcement to find a horizontal launch facility in the UK to take advantage of new launch systems and space tourism. West Cumbria with its history of nuclear energy and decommissioning is a well-suited but overlooked option for new growth in the space sector.
The space sector could transform the region from a generally mono-industrial region into a bustling and dynamic cluster of industries working together on space and nuclear energy.
The West Cumbria region is uniquely positioned to be one of the global industry leaders in nuclear decommissioning and waste disposal. This has led to a position in which the work-force of West Cumbria has a deep and rich expertise in STEM and a world-class attention to high-quality engineering products. Payloads that go into space must be made to last for the duration of service life, and sometimes beyond that due to the fact it is very expensive and logistically difficult to repair payloads once they are in orbit. For payloads designed to leave the Earth’s orbit, there is no ‘second chance’.
Part of the nuclear waste processing process is the production of americium – a radioactive isotope that has little commercial value outside small quantities used in smoke detectors. That might be about to change, research from the National Nuclear Laboratory has indicated that it could be used in batteries for space-bound payloads while during mission. This could be a game changer for the industry and West Cumbria with its experience in production and handling of americium would be well-placed to host industries dedicated to space batteries.
West Cumbria has significant but not insurmountable challenges – the space sector is a highly integrated industry and rail links to the rest of the UK would need to be improved to allow the movement of goods and people that would come with a space cluster. These issues could be tackled by a Labour Government working with the local LEP and Councils on a long-term plan. Something that is not new to West Cumbria with the multi-generational project of the Sellafield Decommissioning.
Along with the logistical challenges come the challenge of attracting international capital and talent to West Cumbria to take advantage of the skills, climate and business friendliness of the region. I personally strongly believe capital and talent will naturally flow to the regions with the best talent, skills, business climate and opportunities to create new businesses. With the high-skilled, open, long-term focused attitude of the workforce, local authorities and business partners – West Cumbria is an overlooked opportunity for Spaceport UK.
Brodie Houlette is the Events & Communication Officer for Labour Finance and Industry Group; he is also working to set up a Labour Party Space Network