Spaceport Scotland – Scotland’s Great Opportunity

Spaceport Scotland – Scotland’s Great Opportunity

Beginning with at least some online presence, the Scottish spaceport website quite rightly calls it ‘Scotland’s Great Opportunity’. That’s a massive understatement potentially, depending on the development of the spaceport, and the potential for commercial users in the UK.

spaceport-head-animated-3Scotland, again like Wales but even more so one might imagine, has the backing of a devolved government. It just seems way ahead in all honesty…The Scottish sites have a great deal going for them in terms of most of the criteria set out by the UK Space Agency, and again my questions about the suitability turn to more mundane every day commercial considerations such as access. The UK is so incredibly ‘bottom heavy’, with the south of England containing most of the population and wealth. As such, it’s hard for me to imagine that any government would approve potentially the most important economic decision with a bearing on the future which saw the resultant spaceport situated as far away from the south of England as possible. Often decisions (certainly political decisions) have unexpected outcomes that appear to fly in the face of the evidence, simple because political imperatives outweigh evidence, and so don’t expect the front-runner Prestwick site to win, simply because it’s the best location for the given criteria.

Photos from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre launch site in India showing the preparation of the DMC3 spacecraft for launch on board PSLV-XL.   Photo credit Surrey Satellites.
Photos from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre launch site in India showing the preparation of the DMC3 spacecraft for launch on board PSLV-XL. Photo credit Surrey Satellites.

To state the massively obvious – what if Scotland becomes independent? Only this week, Alex Salmond, former First Minister of Scotland declared that a 2nd referendum on Scotland’s independence was ‘inevitable’ With rhetoric like that going on, the Scottish sites could be the best by miles, but there would be a public outcry if such an important UK site was to be built at great expense in a location that may soon cease to be in the UK – why not build the UK spaceport in France, it’s closer to the density of population in the UK, and closer to Surrey Satellites, now one of the world leaders in satellites.

Scotland has great reasons to be considered however, and while we’re on the topic of satellites, Clyde Space is also an extremely interesting growing satellite company, said to be expected to turn over in excess of £20 million over the next 3 years – not to be taken lightly! Clyde Space is a pretty exciting company actually, allowing organisations, academic institutions companies (and even individuals) to purchase cubesats (small satellites) for a wide range of applications.

The Prestwick site seems to have it all, owned by the Scottish government (where there is the will to make this happen) not far from Glasgow, a major city, and with better transport links than to most of the other officially shortlisted sites.

Iain Cochrane, Chief Executive of Glasgow Prestwick Airport, said: “Prestwick Airport has been a pioneer of the UK aerospace industry and aviation since its foundation in 1935. I believe Prestwick offers the perfect conditions for space launches and our extensive developed concrete airfield and 3km runway provide the facilities needed for all types of re-usable spacecraft in development.”

So Prestwick is kind of a no-brainer really, the right site, close to the right places but not too close, by the coast…but then again, so is northern France…

Beginning the focus on UK Spaceport Sites – Wales part 1

Beginning the focus on UK Spaceport Sites – Wales part 1

We’d like to write about each of the proposed spaceport sites in the UK, and generate some debate about the options, so we’d be glad to hear from people with interests and experiences. In the initial stages of carrying out research into the Llanbedr airport side, sadly for Wales, one of the top ranked Google search listings is this rather angry blog post

Some fairly strong opinions voiced in this blog. Can anyone else shed any light on this?
Some fairly strong opinions voiced in this blog. Can anyone else shed any light on this?

The Llanbedr site could have a lot going for it in terms of geographical location, but someone trying to establish a business there had some pretty damning things to say about the company that owns the Llanbedr airport site. It’s very hard to say what that could mean for a spaceport at this stage. The plan certainly has the backing of the Welsh government, but there’s certainly no slick online presence for this planned site, as there was for the Liverpool proposal we discussed previously.

Someone out there must know more, please feel free to get in touch.

In addition to the Welsh government, QinetiQ seem to be the partners, and the Welsh Economy Minister Edwina Hart has said that “officials would work with Llanbedr Airfield Estates and QinetiQ – who already have a teaming agreement in place – as well as all relevant stakeholders and partners in the private and public sector to take the proposals forward.”

“The Welsh Government is fully committed to helping the UK realise its vision to host Europe’s first Space Port and delighted Llanbedr has been selected as a potential site with the prospective opportunities this could present for Wales.”

Ok, well good luck and let’s see what the coming months bring.

UK Strategy and Spaceports – where’s the government’s Northern Powerhouse now?

The UK Space Agency, the relatively new ‘muscular’ agency, just a few years old, is setting the pace when it comes to showing how governments can enable growth in the space sector. Below is the updated report from the agency which sets out clear goals for growth. But what does it say about their UK strategy as a whole.


With this extra impetus, energy and success will come greater scrutiny. One area of note appears to be the lack of any connection between this strategy and the so called Northern Powerhouse. While Wales launched it’s own space strategy plans at the UK Space Conference last month, Scotland was also very prominent; Scotland contains 5 of the 7 sites shortlisted for a UK spaceport, and is the home to the very successful Clyde Space company, expected to turnover at least £20 million over the next 3 years. But what of England itself? I’m willing to bet that even thought the conference took place in Liverpool, that there was barely any representation between Birmingham and Glasgow.

What has become of Liverpool’s own proposals for a spaceport? Their plans, despite having the advantage of infrastructure, coastal location and potentially big backers, was thrown out early in the process. In terms of re-balancing the economy, why are all the facilities relating to UK space development sited in the south of the UK? The ESA facility, partly a result of a £60 million annual increase in funding for ESA from the UK  and the satellite Catapult – but what of the North, with it’s successful Universities’ science departments such as Manchester. Yes, there’s graphene, but it looks like there’s a big focus on the south of the country when it comes to space investment.

What’s become of the Liverpool spaceport bid now? An extract from the government’s report on spaceport locations reads

“The Government is not convinced that the other locations proposed by respondents are likely to be viable propositions for sub-orbital spaceplane operations. However, this does not preclude other locations submitting a detailed proposal if they believe they can fulfil the requirements in the technical specification.”

If the UK is only interested in spaceplanes and not rockets, then it seems we’re not very interested in putting satellites in space anymore, which is a shame because that’s the area of space the UK currently excels in, and where government funding is greatest. Still, it seems it’s still open for Liverpool if they’re interested in the long game. They still seem to have an active website, but without any named members of the team supporting it. Are we really going to have to go to have to struggle through the terrible roads leading to the tip of Cornwall, or the edge of Scotland to reach Spaceport UK, or can we connect to it by plane and train to the west coast of England, with the huge economic benefits if would bring that region…come on George Osborne, take notice.

Reboot the Suit – crowdfunding backing for Neil Armstrong’s Spacesuit

Reboot the Suit – crowdfunding backing for Neil Armstrong’s Spacesuit

You can help preserve a little bit of space history by supporting the Smithsonian’s campaign regarding Neil Armstrong’s Apollo spacesuit. Fun and incredible ‘rewards’ for donating include things from mission patches, space ice-cream to exclusive events in Washington DC. Check it out, and support another space fundraiser if you don’t support this one!

Does the NASA Gemini program live on today in the UK?

Does the NASA Gemini program live on today in the UK?

So, you can’t go back in time and watch NASA develop their early space program, but bizarrely you can see some of it re-created, even perhaps taking a trip along an avenue that NASA never fully developed. UK company Starchaser Industries is based in Manchester, with facilities in New Mexico.Starchaser were serious contenders for the X prize at one point, the activity of which produced this footage of a manned drop-test of an experimental capsule.

 It’s fun to watch, but read below, and then watch it again, and you’ll see it in a very different light!

NASA’s Gemini program was a successful precursor to the Apollo program, initially lagging behind the Soviet efforts, but laying the groundwork that would see the US win the so called space-race. If you were to begin to look at a successful suborbital flight program, this is where you’d perhaps begin.

For now let’s look at one amazing and curious aspect of the US space program that never was – the paraglider landing. Below are extracts from an article by the space historian Amy Shira Teitel, originally from her blog Vintage Space Her work can be followed here at Popular Science.

This sets the scene with an introduction to the Gemini landing programs and Rogallo system. Compare the video of Starchaser Industries manned drop-test and landing of their experimental capsule. If you’re geek like me, you’ll love this!

Amy Shira Teitel
Amy Shira Teitel

Amy Shira Teitel writes:

I’ve previously discussed NASA’s invention of a landing system for the Mercury program – with little time and almost no prior experience, engineers determined that splashdowns were the simplest and least risky method to bring an astronaut home. But, as I’ve also previously discussed, splashdowns were far from an ideal landing method; inherently dangerous to both astronaut and capsule alike.

A half-scale Rogallo wing mated to a half-scale Gemini spacecraft. NASA Archives/
A half-scale Rogallo wing mated to a half-scale Gemini spacecraft. NASA Archives/

(Left, a half-scale Rogallo wing mated to a half-scale Gemini spacecraft. NASA Archives.)

NASA’s second-generation Gemini program opened the door for a change in landing methods. Though incepted in early 1962, work on the program began late in 1961 when the end-of-decade lunar landing goal was seemingly far away. Gemini, then, had a more open schedule at the outset, allowing engineers to undertake some major design changes. One of the first aspects of Mercury to go was splashdown. The original goals for Gemini stated that a pilot-controlled land landing was paramount. So the program began seeking an answer to the question of how to invent a land landing system.

Land landings from space weren’t entirely unheard of when Gemini planners began considering different systems for the program. Mercury planners had briefly considered land landing systems in the initial planning stages before time constraints took over. Across the ocean, the Soviets had been landing exclusively on land from the beginning. How hard could it be?

When the initial landing system proposals came to NASA for Mercury, only one focussing on land landings – a proposal from the research group at Langley Air Force Base for a deployable wing that could turn the capsule into a controllable gliding vehicle. The proposal was known as the paraglider, or the Rogallo wing after its inventor.

The idea was the brainchild of engineer and amateur kite-flyer Francis M. Rogallo (left, with his wife) who had been working on flexible wing designs since 1948. Rogallo was confident that if he were able to develop a means of storing and deploying such a wing, the device could eventually replace parachutes and rigid wings alike as an all-around landing system. In 1958, Rogallo presented his design to the Research Committee at Langley and was promptly given a lab in which to pursue his work on the paraglider concept.

Within months of Rogallo’s partnership with Langley, the latter saw sufficient potential in the paraglider idea to present the wing to NASA as their bid for the Mercury landing contract – the final design they presented to NASA was a two-lobe, single-curvature, suspension-load wing that combined the benefits of a parachute with the rigid flexiblily common in airplane wings. The budding space race, it seemed, was providing Rogallo with a perfect environment to prove his concept.

The method was, for the inaugural Mercury program, to complicated. At least in the first stages of US spaceflight, developing a reliable way to leave the Earth was much more important than how the astronaut came back. Splashdowns won the Mercury bid by default.

The Rogallo wing, however, was an interesting and promising system, even if it was impractical for Mercury. NASA Administrator Robert Gilruth (right), firmly convinced that the design would have a future in spaceflight, approved research on the paraglider in 1960. It was not assigned to any program in particular, but had a home within NASA. When Gemini began moving away from splashdowns, the Rogallo wing was already on the table. But it certainly wasn’t the only method up for consideration.

NASA considered a number of landing options. Some were closer to the ballistic capsule exemplified by Mercury splashdowns while other proposals were closer to the aerodynamic gliding landing used in the X-15 program. Four proposals eventually reached the final round of testing.

One proposal was for a parachute-controlled descent. The spacecraft would be slowed in its initial descent using parachutes, and retro rockets would fire in the final moments to before touchdown to complete a gentle landing. But the method was more complicated than it seemed. Part of the problem was the weight of this system. The Gemini spacecraft was only slightly bigger than Mercury and the Titan launch vehicle only slightly more powerful than the Atlas used in Mercury orbital flights. It was impossible for NASA to lift a spacecraft with the requisite fuel and rocket system into orbit.

A variation on this method was ejection, the same system used by the Soviet cosmonauts. For Gemini, ejection would use the same parachute to slow the spacecraft, but the astronaut would eject just prior to impact. His final return to earth would be by an individual parachute.

Another proposal centred on a manoeuvrable parachute or parasail. The parasail would function like a parachute in the early stages of the descent, giving the astronaut increased directional control of the spacecraft as the atmosphere thickened. The problem with this method was the limited control the astronaut would have. While he would be able to manoeuvre the spacecraft to avoid local objects, the parasail was really more of a controlled fall than a truly pilotable landing.

The limited control meant that the astronaut still needed a very controlled landing zone for a safe touchdown. Furthermore, the parasail system employed no additional brakes, no directional stability during descent, and was not inherently stable upon landing. A strong wind could easily catch the sail and cause the spacecraft to tumble.

With both the parachute and parasail landing methods, there was no means to incorporate backup safety measures. Furthermore, there were dangers associated with a hot spacecraft landing on land. The ablative heat shield used in Mercury and included in the Gemini design absorbed the heat produced from friction with the atmosphere before burning off, thus protecting the astronaut inside. But the spacecraft would still hot when it landed. There was a very real danger of prairie or forest fires, hardly the safe environment NASA wanted for its astronauts.

A third possible landing method used the aerodynamic properties of the spacecraft to affect a controlled land landing, otherwise known as the lifting body proposal (three styles of which are pictured). An aerodynamically designed wingless spacecraft produces sufficient lift, enabling the astronaut a fair bit of control through the descent and landing stages. By virtue of its design, the spacecraft essentially becomes a glider. This landing method was similar to the X-15, adding significant control to descent and stability in landing with no risk of tumbling upon landing. A gust of wind was unlikely to be able to displace a solid body spacecraft.

A final proposal was the Rogallo wing – the exact system proposed for the Mercury program the Langley research group, which was at the time under development for some as-of-yet undeveloped project. The wing offered enough manoeuvrability to negate the need for a controlled landing area while also being sufficiently lightweight to be easily incorporated into the Mercury-inspired Gemini spacecraft. Because it was designed to land like an airplane, landing gear was necessary for a safe and directionally stable landing.

Increasing testing gradually narrowed the list of finalists. Ejection was one of the first to go; it was unpopular with the astronauts despite its success with their Soviet counterparts. As test pilots, parachutes were associated with a failed landing or a disaster. No pilot-turned-astronaut wanted to be separated from his craft, return to earth at the mercy of the winds, and have no possible way to control his landing position.  It was far from ideal.

Parachute-controlled descent, too, was an unpopular option despite their proven reliability in splashdowns. The stigma of parachutes was equally present with a land landing, even if the astronaut remained inside the spacecraft.

The lifting bodies method was also quickly dismissed. In a chart outlining and comparing the performance, cost, and test results of the four previously mentioned landing methods, head of the Gemini Program Office Jim Chamberlin made his disapproval of the method clear. Hw didn’t bother comparing lifting bodies with the other three methods. Instead, he described the weight penalty simply as “large” and the cost as “high”.

Part of what killed the lifting bodies proposal – arguably the preferred design for a vehicle returning from space for its control and stability – was the design of the spacecraft. The choice of a landing method was inextricably tied to the size, weight, and shape of the Gemini spacecraft. In keeping with the initial plan of Gemini as a direct follow-up from Mercury (it was initially designated Marcury Mark II), the spacecraft was to be a larger, more sophisticated Mercury capsule built by the same contractor, McDonnell Aircraft. This essentially negated any chance of Gemini being an aerodynamically sound vehicle, but didn’t mean it couldn’t make a soft, controlled land landing. (Pictured is a scale comparison of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft and launch vehicles. Mercury is the smallest of the three with Gemini as the intermediate. Apollo, clearly, dwarfs both.)

The list of possible landing methods was narrowed down to the two most promising designs involving controllable parachute-inspired designs – the parasail and the paraglider. While both methods were determined as roughly equivalent in weight, landing area requirements, speeds, and rate of descent, the paraglider had one key advantage over the parasail: it was significantly more manoeuvrable than the parasail. It could be flown like an airplane, is more controlled by the astronaut than by the wind, and is a design much preferred by the men who would fly it.

The paraglider was also expected to receive a positive public response. Its similarity to an airplane in its control and ability to land on a runway was a recognizable technological achievement. This was especially the case compared to the Soviet method of ejection. If NASA could be seen doing something better than the Soviets, the boon to public pride and support of the space program would be invaluable. Recall that this decision was being made in the early 1960s when the Soviet Space Program had consistently bested the Americans in space. Reclaiming some dominance in the space race was an appealing prospect.

The paraglider was ultimately chosen as the land landing system for the Gemini program. It was deemed the most likely to meet the program goal of a pilot-controlled pinpoint landing on land. Not to mention Gilruth’s previous interest in the design and the existing work on the system made it the simplest method to work into the physical Gemini spacecraft already on the drawing board.

The Rogallo wing wasn’t limited to the Gemini program; it was anticipated to be a long-term solution to the problem of land landings from space. Pending its successful incorporation into the Gemini program, the system was poised to be a fixture in spaceflight for decades to come, both within NASA was well as future military endeavours in space.

Not everyone supported the shift to pilot-controlled land landings. There were many within NASA who felt that if splashdowns weren’t broken they ought not be fixed. As such, splashdowns remained part of Gemini as a backup. In the even that the paraglider couldn’t be completed on schedule or the most problematic event of a malfunction during a mission, slashdowns were a tried and true method desirable in the event of an emergency.

So the two methods were developed for Gemini simultaneously, splashdowns taking a back seat to the new paraglider system. But for all the faith NASA had in its new landing system, it never flew. All the images of returns from space throughout Gemini as well as its successor Apollo depict splashdowns. The story of what went wrong, like the genesis of the Rogallo wing’s initial selection, is best told on its own.

Written by Amy Shira Teitel from

Suggested Reading/Selected Sources

1. Milton Thompson with Curtis Peebles. Flying without Wings. Smithsonian Institution Press. 1999.

2. David Shayler. Gemini: Steps to the Moon. Springer Verlag. 2001.

3. Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom. Gemini: A Personal Account of Man’s Venture into Space. The Macmillan Company. 1969.

4. Hacker and Grimwood. On the Shoulders of Titans: A History of Project Gemini. Washington: NASA. 1977.

5. “The Gemini Program” – The John F. Kennedy Space Center. Revised March 10, 2004. [Accessed October 2, 2009].

6. Francis M. Rogallo. “Paraglider Recovery Systems”. NASA Archives, Washington D.C.

7. Jim Chamberlin “Draft on Gemini Land Landing Systems”. NASA Archives, Washington D.C.

Update on NASA’s Space Launch System Desgin

Update on NASA’s Space Launch System Desgin

You know the feeling of pride and achievement when you’ve worked really hard on a term paper, and finally turn it in? That’s how the critical design review team for NASA’s Space Launch System is feeling this week as the program completed its review.

The in-depth review – the first in almost 40 years for a NASA exploration class vehicle — provides a final look at the design and development of the integrated rocket before full-scale fabrication begins. Throughout the course of 11 weeks, 13 teams – including representatives from several NASA field centers – reviewed more than 1,000 files of data as part of the comprehensive assessment process.

SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built for a new era of exploration to destinations beyond Earth’s orbit. It will launch astronauts in the agency’s Orion spacecraft on missions to an asteroid placed in lunar orbit, and eventually to Mars.

“Now that we’ve completed our review, we will brief NASA leadership, along with the independent review team, about the results and readiness to proceed to the next phase. After that step is complete, we’ll move on to design certification,” said Todd May, SLS program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “Critical design review represents a major commitment by the agency to human exploration, and through these reviews, we ensure the SLS design is on track to being a safe, sustainable and evolvable launch vehicle that will meet the agency’s goals and missions.

“It’s an exciting time for NASA and our nation,” May continued, “as we prepare to go to places in deep space that we’ve never been before.”

The critical design review team.
The critical design review team, including members of the Standing Review Board, listen to presentations during the SLS critical design review. This week, the SLS Program completed its critical design review — a first in almost 40 years for a NASA exploration class vehicle. SLS Program managers will present the results from the critical design review board and Standing Review Board to Marshall’s Center Management Council. After receiving the council’s concurrence, the results then will be briefed to the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. Credits: NASA/MSFC

The critical design review is for the first of three configurations planned for SLS, referred to as SLS Block 1. It will stand 322 feet tall, provide 8.4 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, weigh 5.5 million pounds and carry 70 metric tons or 154,000 pounds of payload, equivalent to approximately 77 one-ton pickup trucks’ worth of cargo. Its first mission — Exploration Mission-1 — will launch an uncrewed Orion spacecraft to demonstrate the integrated system performance of the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft before a crewed flight.

Block 1 requires many critical parts to get it off the ground and safely into space, including twin solid rocket boosters, powerful engines, flight computers, avionics and the core stage. The core stage, towering more than 200 feet tall with a diameter of 27.6 feet, will carry cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that will feed the vehicle’s four RS-25 engines.

The team turned in its work to a Standing Review Board composed of seasoned experts from NASA and industry who are independent of the program. The board will review and assess the program’s readiness and confirm it remains on target to meet the established schedule and cost goals.

“Much of the benefit of this review is what we do to prepare for it because that’s where we really bring things out,” said Jim Reuter, head of the Standing Review Board. “And you can tell it in the spirit of the people here. They are excited about what they’re doing. They can see that this is the review that’s going to make it real.”

Artist concept of the SLS Block 1 configuration.
Artist concept of the SLS Block 1 configuration.
Credits: NASA/MSFC

SLS Program managers will present the results from the critical design review board and Standing Review Board to Marshall’s Center Management Council. After receiving the council’s concurrence, the results then will be briefed to the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters.

Element-level critical design reviews for the SLS core stage, boosters and engines have been completed successfully. The integrated spacecraft and payloads are nearing completion on their critical design review.

The Engineering Directorate at Marshall, where the SLS program is managed, provided the majority of the initial phase CDR documents, including drawings and data.

“A thorough review requires a wide range of engineering skills and experts to assess everything from avionics and software that fly the vehicle to ground transportation and integrated systems testing designs and plans,” said Preston Jones, deputy director of Marshall’s Engineering Directorate. “We have gone through every design interface and rechecked analysis to ensure we are meeting all SLS mission performance and crew safety requirements.”

The Orion Program at Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Ground Systems Development Office at Kennedy Space Center in Florida also will undergo similar reviews this year. After those reviews are done, NASA will set a date for Exploration Mission-1.

“We’ve nailed our review schedules,” said Garry Lyles, chief engineer for the SLS Program Office at the Marshall Center. “The team is performing at a really high level. And I’m unbelievably positive in the structural robustness of this vehicle; it has tremendous performance. We’ve picked the right vehicle for the journey to Mars.”

Original text and images from NASA

Space Launch System Design