Dressed in an oversized orange spacesuit and equally large white helmet, the initials CCCP stamped in red across the front, an unknown Russian air force pilot prepared to make history.
It was the morning of 12 April 12, 1961, and moments earlier Yuri Gagarin had said his farewells to the gathered dignitaries and made the brief bus journey across the tarmac. Ahead of him, rising from the flat landscape of the Kazakhstan steppes, was a towering, shining rocket.
Gagarin had only learned that he had been selected to become the first human being to orbit the earth three days earlier – even his wife and young family did not know what lay ahead.
But Gagarin’s broad smile as he headed towards the launchpad confirmed – Russian cosmonauts did not do ‘nerves’.
Strapped into his pilot’s seat on board his spacecraft Vostok 1 – Russian for ‘East’ – Gagarin’s body shook as the rockets roared. “Poyekhali!”, he bellowed into his headset, “Let’s go!”.
His daring flight 60 years ago propelled him into orbit where he travelled at a staggering 17,600 mph for a breath-taking 108 minutes. “I see Earth,” he reported back. “It is so beautiful”.
Vostok 1 hurtled above the Pacific Ocean, passed through night and day in the blink of an eye and crossed continents in minutes. But if getting up had required nerves of steel, getting down safely was surely even more nail biting.
Gagarin, pinned to his seat by astonishing gravitational forces as his craft plunged towards the town of Engels in the Saratov region, flicked the ejection switch at 23,000 ft. The craft went one way, he went the other, gracefully floating down to earth thanks to his parachute, and into the path of a very surprised farmer and his young daughter.
Roy Kirk was just three years old at the time. If Gagarin’s historic flight did not quite register on his young radar, events nine years later certainly did.
“I remember being in school and watching the first man on the moon,” says Kirk. “I remember Saturn V and the Apollo missions. I would never have imagined that I would be involved in anything to do with space.
“I’m fortunate,” he continues. “My surname is Kirk, I was in the Territorial Army for many years and reached the exalted rank of Captain, and I work with Highlands and Islands Enterprise.”
You might, he agrees, suggest it was in the stars that he would one day be at the very frontier of thrusting Scotland into a modern space race – quite something for a nation which has yet to produce a single homegrown astronaut other than Star Trek’s Scottie.
And yet he is project director for Space Hub Sutherland, a £17.3 million plan to hurl an area of peat bog and crofters’ estate into orbit to become one of Scotland’s 21st century space centres.
By the end of 2022, the Sutherland vertical launch site at Melness near Tongue hopes to have sent its first satellite carrying rockets into the atmosphere, helping to support a booming Scottish space industry which it is expected will be worth £4bn by 2030 and which, thanks to a vibrant satellite and data technology sector, already houses around 20% of all the UK’s space-related jobs.
Named as the UK’s first spaceport, the Sutherland hub won planning permission from Highland Council for the site at the Melness Crofters Estate last year.
However, it is just one of five space station projects currently being developed in Scotland. From Shetland to Prestwick via Machrihanish and the Western Isles, all are in the midst of their own space race, albeit some of them larger than others.
With the UK hoping to launch 2000 small satellites by 2030 to aid telecommunications, internet connectivity, scientific research, and Earth observation – many of which are being made in Glasgow – Scotland appears to be engaging its turbo pumps and getting ready to blast off.
“We are making a lot of progress,” agrees Kirk. “We have a great relationship with the crofters and landowners.
“When we started working on this five and half years ago and told people that we were looking at a space hub in Sutherland, they were thinking it would be like Saturn V, with a massive launch vehicle. But that’s not the case.”
Instead, he points out environmental considerations mean the hub will carry out only a dozen launches a year, limited to 500kg satellite payloads, run from an operation control centre designed to blend in with the surrounding heath.
“I believe it will be the greenest space port in the world,” he adds.
Indeed, Forres-based orbital launch services company Orbex, is currently developing its Prime vehicle which will launch small satellites from Space Hub Sutherland in 2023.
Fuelled by bio-propane, a clean, renewable fuel which reduces CO2 emissions by 90% compared to kerosene-based fuels, Prime is being designed to leave zero waste as it orbits the earth.
The firm currently employs 40 people and plans to take on more as it expands. While the Sutherland space centre will bring its own jobs boost and help support jobs around the country.
“We believe there would be around 40 local jobs for local people in Sutherland and about 200 other jobs in Highlands and Islands,” says Kirk.
“In Glasgow there are amazing companies doing great things building satellites. We believe and hope that having ability to launch from Scotland as opposed to them going to Kazakhstan or Siberia or America will bring savings and make their job of putting satellites into orbit easier, cheaper and faster.
“There is also great work being done in Edinburgh around data analysis. Being able to launch from your own country means some of their work will be easier.”
It sounds like countdown has begun, however there are still bumps to overcome before the first satellite carrying rocket jets off from the Sutherland peatland.
They include a Scottish Land Court hearing next month – required by law – and, more challenging, perhaps, a judicial review in the Court of Session further ahead.
Ironically, the petition has been lodged by site neighbours Wildland Ltd, run by Danish billionaires Anders and Anne Holch Polvers, who have a £1.43million investment in what is seen as being Scotland’s most significant space hub project, the Shetland Space Centre.
On the island of Unst, 150 miles off the tip of the mainland and with 600 residents – and thousands more seabirds – its location may seem an unlikely spot for a high-tech space hub.
However, its high latitude means it offers a clear route to space, with no flight route overhead and no communities to pass over below. Satellites passing overhead as they make their 90-minute circumnavigation of the globe are likely to be visible for longer – a distinct advantage for those on the ground.
Plus, there’s an established oil and gas industry in the area with infrastructure to serve a major hub, and the spaceport’s location, at Lamba Ness and Saxa Vord, are on former Ministry of Defence sites which once brought prosperity to the small island.
Not surprising, The bulk of the community of Unst appears delighted to be at the heart of a space mission which it’s said will bring 140 jobs by 2024, with a further 210 created across Shetland and an additional in Scotland.
British rocket firm Skyrora is working with Shetland Space Centre, while aerospace giant Lockheed Martin recently shifted its focus from Sutherland to Shetland for its space launches.
Again, it’s not entirely a case of ‘all systems go’. Scotland’s historic watchdog, Historic Environment Scotland recently threw a spanner in the works with an unexpected rejection of the proposed development, arguing that it would interfere with what was once a Second World War radar station.
Shetland Space Centre chief executive Frank Strang has vowed to vigorously contest the decision.
While the Shetland and Sutherland hubs intend to become bases for ‘vertical’ launches, others are focused on ‘horizontal’ take offs.
In November, Prestwick Airport entered the running to become a horizontal base, with proposals to send passengers hurtling into space from an airport which for years was something of a white elephant.
Around £80 million is to be poured into the Spacesport plans, with new infrastructure built under Ayrshire Growth Deal funding. The base will offer passengers the chance to indulge in space tourism, while there will also be satellite launches – despatched from the rear of a plane as opposed to rocket launches – and gravity free flying.
While Machrihanish airbase is also at the centre of a bid to establish spaceflight services.
Last August a Raptor Aerospace Kestrel-100LD rocket was successfully launched from the base – the first ever rocket launch from the site. Machrihanish Airbase Community Company has received almost £500,000 of UK Space Agency funding to help it explore horizontal spaceport development services and spaceflight related activities.
And in North Uist, moves are underway to develop a temporary test launch facility for ‘sounding rockets’, which typically carry instruments for data gathering, research and scientific experiments on shorter duration sub-orbital flights.
Based at Scolpaig on the north west coast, the Spaceport 1 project is being developed by a consortium led by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council) and includes defence contractor Qinetiq, which operates the MOD Hebrides missile range on behalf of the Ministry of Defence.
However, if it seems that a space race is underway in Scotland, the real competition comes from beyond our borders.
Frank Strang, CEO of Shetland Space Centre, said: “The UK is in a space race with other countries in Europe and beyond, such as Norway, Sweden and New Zealand, to supply payload space in a rapidly growing international market, and we intend to exploit our favourable geographical position to meet this demand.
“The benefits for Shetland, Scotland and the UK of Pathfinder and the additional launch projects that we are actively working on, in terms of skilled jobs, are evident. As well as launch, we aim to offer a full range of services, including telemetry, tracking and navigation, space situational awareness and data download and storage.
“This is a significant moment, and we intend to succeed in this new space race. The sky is no longer the limit.”
This Article firstly Publish on www.heraldscotland.com