Cornish climate proves challenging for US space crew

American crew and technicians in UK for historic mission find persistent rain and wind ‘interesting but fun’

They are used to operating in extreme temperatures at their home base in the Mojave desert but American crew and technicians who are in the UK for a historic space mission are facing a very different challenge – the persistence of the Cornish rain and wind.

Asked what the issues were in organising a space adventure from the far south-west of Britain, launch director Deenah Sanchez immediately flagged up the Cornish climate. “Honestly, getting used to the weather. In southern California we have extreme heat. Our systems are designed to take heat, humidity. Here it’s different. It’s mostly personnel getting used to the weather.”

Sanchez said staff were working hard to get used to the weather and extra checks on equipment were being done. “Plus there’s a lot of things on wheels that have to be tethered down. It’s been interesting but fun.”

Within the next few weeks – if all goes to plan and a suitable weather window emerges – a Boeing 747 called Cosmic Girl converted to carry a rocket primed to propel satellites into space will take off from the state of the art Spaceport Cornwall facility near Newquay. The plane will soar to 35,000ft (10,700 metres) and release the rocket that will whiz nine satellites into orbit – completing the first-ever satellite launch from UK soil.

At a VIP and press day on Tuesday, visitors were allowed to peer into the clean room where the satellites are being prepped and a hangar where they will be loaded on to the rocket. Outside, Cosmic Girl sat on an apron being battered by the wind and showers but, at one point, illuminated by a rainbow.

Behind the scenes where the rocket is being prepped with satellites.
Behind the scenes where the rocket is being prepped with satellites. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian

The weather is not the only stumbling block. The mission – codenamed operation Start Me Up after the Rolling Stones hit – is still waiting for the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to grant the licence that will allow it to fly with the rocket and satellites. It had been hoped the flight would take place in the summer, then the autumn, but it is now looking likely that the mission will not go ahead until December.

Asked if it was definitely going to happen, Ian Annett, the deputy CEO of the UK Space Agency, replied: “Of course.” He said the licensing process was “immensely complex” as this was something that was being done for the first time in the UK but insisted: “We’re on track to deliver a launch in 2022, which has always been our objective.”

Dan Hart, the CEO of Virgin Orbit, the company leading the mission, said it was about providing a service to the customers who want their satellites in orbit but also about opening up a “gateway to space” in Cornwall. Hart said the company was “anxious” for the flight to go ahead as soon as it could. “We’re in a little bit of a tricky spot right now but we’re progressing.”

Hart said the British space sector had been a vibrant community for decades, and a leader in the development of small satellites – the sort that this mission will send into space. “This is the beginning of a huge push forward,” he added.

Lucy Edge, the chief operating officer of the Satellite Applications Catapult, which works to grow the UK space ecosystem, said: “We’re really good at building small satellites, testing them and we’re pretty good at operating them and working with the data. But we’ve not have the ability to launch them before. This closes out the supply chain.”

Launch engineer at Virgin Orbit, Dayle Alexander.
The lead launch engineer at Virgin Orbit, Dayle Alexander. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian

While they wait for the licensing, the crew continue to carry out tests and train. Dayle Alexander, 29, from Atlanta, Georgia, the lead launch engineer on the flight, also brought up the weather. “The rain has been a challenge. We’re not used to working in the rain. Some of our equipment was not as waterproof as it needed to be.”

She also cited a problem that other visitors from the US can encounter in the UK. “In America we use a different voltage. It was a harder problem than we anticipated.”

Meanwhile, crew members have been sightseeing, surfing and sampling the delights of Newquay’s pubs, which are more plentiful than in the California desert. “There’s been a variety of stuff to do. In Mojave there’s nothing to do,” she said.

Alexander is looking forward to the flight, even the stomach-turning moment when the rocket is released and the plane banks sharply away. “At that point we almost hit weightlessness. We’ve thrown water bottles back and forth and they float over. You’re weightless for 30 seconds or so. It’s fun.”

• This article was amended on 11 November 2022. An additional quote from Deenah Sanchez was inserted to provide further detail of the impact of the weather on spaceport operations and make clear that additional checks being carried out are discretionary.


Steven Morris

The GuardianTramp

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