Wednesday briefing: Does failure to launch spell the end of the UK’s space ambitions?

In today’s newsletter: The first rocket mission from the UK didn’t reach orbit, but industry leaders explain why the burgeoning field is ready for liftoff – and what comes next

Good morning. There were two awkward misfires arising from the UK’s pioneering space launch on Monday, and this newsletter isn’t about Grant Shapps’s dodgy Photoshop job.

After a Virgin Orbit Boeing 747 took off from Cornwall at 10pm, carrying what would have been the first satellites to get into space from anywhere in western Europe, spectators at the launch site outside Newquay did a conga. The rocket carrying the satellites was released at 35,000 feet an hour later – and briefly made it into space. But then came “an anomaly that has prevented us from reaching orbit”, and mission failure. Now UK air accident investigators are trying to work out what went wrong.

Melissa Thorpe, the head of Spaceport Cornwall, called the news “absolutely devastating”. But Virgin Orbit will try again – and all over the UK, a burgeoning space industry is watching with interest. Today’s newsletter, with the intrepid operations director of a spaceport in – get this – SHETLAND, is about what it would mean to get there. Here are the headlines.

PS One other intergalactic innovation: from today, we’re adding the Guardian’s new Wordiply game to the puzzle links at the end of the email. I scored 100% yesterday with DOWNHEARTEDLY, and will be dining out on it all week.

Five big stories

  1. Strikes | The government’s standoff with public sector workers has escalated with plans for a coordinated “day of action” by unions, who have reacted furiously to proposed legislation they say could let ministers in effect ban strikes in some areas.

  2. Environment | Twelve European countries broke monthly temperature records last year, as the continent had its hottest summer on record, new analysis of EU data by the Guardian has found.

  3. Ukraine | The head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group has claimed his forces have completed the takeover of the Ukrainian town of Soledar in the country’s east. If confirmed it would mark Moscow’s first major battlefield success since last summer.

  4. Prince Harry | Prince Harry’s autobiography has become the UK’s fastest-selling nonfiction book ever, recording figures of 400,000 on its first day on sale. His publisher said the only books to have sold more copies were “those starring the other Harry [Potter]”.

  5. Golden Globes | Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin and TV shows House of the Dragon and the White Lotus were among the winners at the Golden Globes. The ceremony was an awkward return for the awards after the 2022 TV broadcast was cancelled over a lack of diversity in the judging panel.

In depth: ‘Space is hard. But failure is part of the business’

A Boeing 747 aircraft carrying Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket takes off from Spaceport Cornwall.
A Boeing 747 aircraft carrying Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket takes off from Spaceport Cornwall on Monday. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

The Shetland Islands boast 150,000 sheep, close to 25,000 people, and one half-finished spaceport. When a retired RAF flight lieutenant proposed repurposing a former airbase as a satellite launch site on the island of Unst in 2017, the community council thought it was an April fool’s joke; six years later, it has a completed launch pad and hopes to send rockets into orbit this year.

“The pace of change in this business is incredible,” said Scott Hammond, deputy CEO and operations director of SaxaVord Spaceport UK. He was speaking from an office a few kilometres from the Unst launch site. “Ten years ago, it was a dream. But as we move towards it being a reality, the excitement builds.”

Shetland and Cornwall are not the only sites in the UK, although along with one in Sutherland, they are the most advanced: further spaceports are under construction in Argyll, Prestwick, Snowdonia and the Outer Hebrides. The UK Space Agency estimates that the wider industry generated £16.5bn in income in 2019/20 and employs about 47,000 people. So how did space get so massive – and how much of a setback is Monday’s failure?


What went wrong with the Cornwall launch?

That is still under investigation – but Virgin Orbit said the problems occurred “during the firing of the rocket’s second stage engine”. The company said that it had failed to reach the 17,000 mph it needed to gain the correct altitude and said that one possibility is that it was slowed down because the rocket’s casing did not fall away as it should have.

This isn’t a total shock: documents submitted (PDF) to the Civil Aviation Authority before the launch estimated the chance of failure at 27%. Matt Archer, the director of commercial space flight at the UK Space Agency, said that there had been tears when the news came through, but added: “We achieved a launch. A lot of positives have been achieved. Space is hard.”

“It’s easy to feel down about it,” Hammond said. “But failure is part of the business. However much computer testing you do, until you light the blue touchpaper, you never really know. And you often learn more from failure than success. They didn’t get satellites into orbit, but I think they’ve achieved 90% of their tick list.” The markets took a less philosophical view: Virgin Orbit’s shares finished 14% down on the Nasdaq stock exchange.


Why does it matter?

Adrian Grint, dressed as an alien, was one of the visitors at Spaceport’s inaugural Virgin Orbit rocket launch from Newquay Airport in Cornwall.
Adrian Grint, dressed as an alien, was one of the visitors at Spaceport’s inaugural Virgin Orbit rocket launch from Newquay Airport in Cornwall. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian

Way back in 2021 before Grant Shapps erased him from a publicity photo, Boris Johnson declared his aim of creating a “Galactic Britain”. You may view this as empty cheerleading – and going to space might seem a fairly marginal concern in a time of deepening earthbound crises. But Hammond insists that there is vast commercial potential. “The global appetite for space data is incredible,” he said. “And the UK is very well placed to capitalise on it.”

This isn’t about Apollo-style tilts at the moon, but more modest low-orbit commercial launches of small satellites, which have applications from high-speed broadband to climate monitoring. The UK already has significant expertise in their manufacture – which accounts for the size of the industry already.

Once they are built, though, they are shipped abroad – and there is not a single working launch site anywhere in Europe. “We have clients from Germany, France, Turkey – this isn’t just about British satellites,” Hammond said. “The UK is in an ideal position to get that business.”


Why the UK?

Other European countries are also trying to get into the game: Hammond mentions Norway as a particular competitor, and Sweden is also close to a launch. But because of its long coastline and island location, the UK has many potential sites without the risks that come with doing so near built-up areas.

Hammond points to another advantage at a northerly site like his: “If you’re trying to get to the moon, you want to be as near to the equator as possible, to take advantage of the Earth’s spin. If you want to get into polar orbit [that is, travelling past the Earth from north to south] you want the opposite.” That means less fuel, and more payload – and with customers paying a ballpark $10,000 per kg aboard a rocket, that is enormously valuable over time.


Why did I see a jumbo jet instead of a rocket take off in Cornwall?

A mock-up of a launch at the SaxaVord Spaceport in Unst, Shetland.
A mock-up of a launch at the SaxaVord Spaceport in Unst, Shetland. Photograph: SaxaVord UK Spaceport/PA

There are two fairly self-explanatory launch types: horizontal and vertical. Horizontal launches like the one in Cornwall see a jet take a rocket off the ground before releasing it in the upper atmosphere. Vertical launches just go straight up without the assistance of an aeroplane. (See the mock-up of a launch at the Shetland site above.)

The Cornwall site is in the minority – about 90% of launches are vertical – but it has advantages: each launch uses less fuel, and it’s easier to set up a site at an existing airport. “They also say weather has less impact,” said Hammond. “But the big thing with vertical launches is that they’re much better understood, you know what satellites need to be able to withstand.” Of course, as he also cheerfully notes, he’s biased.


What happens next?

If you’re hoping that the answer to this is your own shot at space tourism, you may be disappointed: while there are occasional noises about sub-orbital trips for paying customers in the UK, it’s likely to remain the preserve of the not-totally-relatable likes of Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk for a while yet.

Hammond is sufficiently excited about the satellite business to make up for it. “There’s so much potential,” he says. “Two thousand people went to see a 747 get airborne in Cornwall – but it’s not quite as sexy as a rocket going up, is it?” The Shetlands are quite a remote spot for casual observers, I say, but he is undeterred. “When people go to Florida they go to Cape Canaveral – we fully expect to have people coming here.”

“I would love it to get to the point where the 9.30 launch from Shetland is just as normal as the 9.30 flight from Heathrow to New York,” he added. “100 years ago, it would have been unbelievable - now it’s just mundane. That’s where we want to get to.”

What else we’ve been reading

Vernon Vanriel in Jamaica in 2018.
Vernon Vanriel in Jamaica in 2018. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
  • Simon Hattenstone has a touching interview with Vernon Vanriel (above), a boxer from the Windrush generation who was stopped from returning to the UK because of the government’s hostile environment policy. Hattenstone unravels a story of extraordinary human resilience, as Vanriel talks about everything from his 1970s athletic career to more than a decade spent homeless in Jamaica. Nimo

  • Are white women being banned from buying black hair brands? Of course they’re not, writes Kemi Alemoru, but an increase in demand for hair products which are already hard to get hold of – coupled with the potential dangers of others, such as chemical relaxers – makes this an emotionally charged topic for many. Hannah J Davies, deputy editor, newsletters

  • Sped-up versions of old pop hits seem innocuous. But, like much of the music industry, there is more to this warped-sound trend, writes Alaina Demopoulos. “It’s a murky business that leaves industry-watchers sceptical of potential deals between labels and streaming services.” Nimo

  • Not a reading but a listening pick: if, like me, you’re glued to Happy Valley, the BBC’s Obsessed With… companion pod should keep you going until that big betrayal is explained on Sunday night. Hannah

  • Even if it is out of the grasp of a huge proportion of people my age, we are still told that home ownership is what we should be aiming for. Not necessarily, argues Arwa Mahdawi who, after buying a home in Philadelphia, has spent the last year slowly realising that the grass might not be greener after all. Nimo


Marcus Rashford in Manchester United’s Carabao Cup victory over Charlton Athletic.
Marcus Rashford in Manchester United’s Carabao Cup victory over Charlton Athletic. Photograph: Phil Oldham/Shutterstock

Football | Two late goals from Marcus Rashford (above) were the final nails in the coffin for Charlton Athletic’s Carabao Cup hopes. Manchester United go forward to the semi-final with a comfortable 3-0 win. Elsewhere, Newcastle progressed to their first major cup semi-final in 18 years thanks to a 2-0 win against Leicester in the Carabao quarter-finals.

Football | Qatar Sports Investment, the owners of super-rich PSG, are considering taking a minority stake in Spurs. Under European club rules they cannot own more than one club in Uefa competitions, but there’s nothing to stop them owning a smaller share of the club, with Qatar said to be determined to capitalise on the success of the World Cup by broadening their portfolio to the Premier League.

Cricket | Test cricket isn’t often associated with revolution. But after England’s embrace of “Bazball” – an approach to the long-form game that stresses positivity and freedom for players – led the national team to a nine victories in 10 matches last year, and is now being introduced to the county game by captain Ben Stokes and coach Brendon McCullum.

The front pages

Guardian front page 11 January 2022

A number of papers look at proposed legislation that could lead to an effective ban on strikes in some areas. The Guardian reports that “Angry unions plan day of action over anti-strike bill”. The i says “Millions of workers face new strike ban as ambulance staff walk out”.

The Daily Mail meanwhile headlines, “Labour opposes life-saving law to curb strikes”. The continued pressure on the health system is laid bare in the Times: “1,000 excess deaths each week as the NHS buckles”.

Elsewhere, the Telegraph reports on comments by the head of the US central bank with, “Saving the planet is not our job, says Fed chief”. The Financial Times says “Goldman Sachs launches into biggest cost-cutting drive since financial crisis”.

The Sun has an exclusive story on the “Nuke plot smashed at Heathrow”. And finally the Mirror reports on the former prime minister with, “Johnson living in £20m home for free”.

Today in Focus

Britain’s Prince William, Prince of Wales and Britain’s Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex

Prince Harry’s memoir: why has the ‘spare’ gone rogue?

Even before it was released, Prince Harry’s memoir had unleashed a storm of revelations. Caroline Davies helps Nosheen Iqbal sift the serious from the salacious, while Zoe Williams explains why the treatment of Harry and Meghan by the UK media really matters.

Cartoon of the day | Martin Rowson

Martin Rowson cartoon

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Sean Sherman, founding chef and co-owner of Owamni restaurant.
Sean Sherman, founding chef and co-owner of Owamni restaurant. Photograph: Nate Ryan/The Guardian

Sean Sherman grew up on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, where he lived until he was 13. After leaving the reservation – and with his family strapped for cash – Sherman got a job at a restaurant to help alleviate the financial pressure at home. Fast forward to today and he has developed a formidable reputation as a chef in Minneapolis – his adopted home town – having written a successful cookbook and opened a modern Indigenous restaurant called Owamni that won a James Beard award.

Sherman’s place focuses on reclaiming the culinary traditions of his ancestors. Besides the use of crickets and a smattering of wild game meats, the food at Owamni is primarily plant-based and exceptionally healthy, with gluten-free, dairy-free and sugar-free offerings built into the menu. “Food is such a cultural identifier, and we need to be able to steward and identify our Indigenous foods and reclaim them for the next generations,” he says.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords are here to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Also try out the Guardian’s new daily word game, Wordiply. Until tomorrow.


Archie Bland

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