The notion of a space mission being launched from a nondescript corner of a Cornish airport – next to the bus depot actually – has attracted its fair share of scepticism over the years.
But the impressive touchdown in north Cornwall this week of a Boeing 747 converted to carry a rocket primed to propel satellites into space may have silenced even the most hardened doubters.
Within a few weeks the 747 is due to take off from Spaceport Cornwall, soar to 35,000ft and release the rocket that will whiz nine satellites into orbit – the first satellite launch from UK soil.
“Yes – it’s really happening,” said Flt Lt Matthew “Stanny” Stannard, an RAF test pilot seconded to the Virgin Orbit mission, as he stretched after flying the 747 from the Mojave desert in California to the rather chillier Cornwall airport Newquay.
“It was a nice trip. It gave us a chance to think about what we’re involved in. We’re not just a 747. We’re the first stage of a rocket launch system.”
He pointed to the Spaceport Cornwall hangar. “There are satellites in there. We’ve got a rocket turning up here on Friday. In a couple of weeks this area will be a launchpad that will put something into orbit.”
Between now and then there will be a training flight, tests on the rocket and a little time for the Americans in the crew to sample the delights of Cornwall, perhaps even compare its surfing beaches to those in California. For the next few weeks, the area around the spaceport will be officially designated US territory. Security has been stepped up.
Then the Start Me Up flight (named after the Rolling Stones song) will launch. The rocket will be fixed to the underside of one of the wings of the 747 – called Cosmic Girl after the 1996 funk hit from Jamiroquai – and Stannard and his crew will take off.
Once they get to the correct altitude and position there will be a countdown and Stannard will hit a button releasing the rocket before banking away as it ignites, a moment that would be queasy for all but the toughest crew. The rocket will take the satellites into orbit.
The advantages of this system are that the smaller satellites, the size of a washing machine, can be deployed more quickly and simply from more places. Satellites being launched by Cosmic Girl include assets owned by the UK Ministry of Defence and a reusable one developed by Space Forge in Wales.
There were tears of joy from the Spaceport team as the 747 landed.
“This is the moment we have been waiting eight years for,” said Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall. “I’m massively emotional. After the pandemic and all the turbulence, to have something that is hopeful and exciting and inspirational means a lot. We believe in this for Cornwall. We’re doing this for Cornwall.”
Matt Archer, the director of commercial spaceflight at the UK Space Agency, which has part-funded the project, said he had goosebumps as Cosmic Girl touched down. He said it was a “really big moment” for the agency, with the launch a key ambition of the UK government’s national space strategy.
There are now hundreds of jobs connected to space in Newquay and over at Goonhilly Earth Station on the other side of the Cornish peninsula. But more than that, says Archer, the Start Me Up mission is a statement about how serious the government is about developing the space sector.
Louis Gardner, the Cornwall councillor for Newquay Central and Pentire, said it was incredible to see the project come to fruition.
“Children will be able to look from the local school and see the take-off and landing of a rocket into space.” He said that sometimes Cornish people were criticised for not having vision or dreaming. “What more vision can you have than sending a rocket into space from Cornwall?”
The MP for St Austell and Cornwall, Steve Double, said there had been ups and downs, twists and turns on the way. “But this is great for Cornwall. Loads of people told me it will never happen but here it is.
“For me it’s always been about inspiring Cornish young people. Most of my contemporaries who wanted a career in engineering or electronics had to leave. Now we are creating those kind of jobs here.”
The Cosmic Girl launch engineer Dayle Alexander, from Atlanta, Georgia, shivered a little on the runway but said she was just pleased it wasn’t raining. “I’d been warned to expect that.”
She explained the checks and drills that would take place, all monitored in a mission control set up in the stripped-out first-class cabin. “Then we put the rocket on and it’s time to fly. We can’t wait.”