How did you turn this rural airport in the UK into a spaceport?

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (CNN) — As Virgin Orbit launched its latest space mission last week – the space exploration company’s sixth – conditions were a little different than usual.

The 747 jumbo “Cosmic Girl”, effectively as a missile launcher, took off from the runway at Newquay Airport, Cornwall, towards the far southwest point of the United Kingdom, then headed into the Atlantic Ocean south of Ireland, before launching the missile called “LauncherOne” from under its left wing. .

However, the company declared the launch a failure, as the rocket failed to reach orbit.

The company blamed an “anomaly that terminated the task prematurely,” but has not yet identified the exact type of problem.

However, something important emerged that night, namely, the success of turning this rural English airport into a space launch site, or what is known as a spaceport.

How did you turn this rural airport in the UK into a spaceport?
The site is unique due to its proximity to the ocean and the lack of habitation around it, plain_textCredit: Spaceport Cornwall

Newquay is the 29th busiest airport in the UK and is among the 40 largest airports in the country, according to CAA statistics for 2021.

The airport was famous for its scenic beauty, with planes flying from its runway over green fields full of sheep, and across Cornwall’s beautiful Atlantic coast.

In November 2020, the airport temporarily suspended its operations after being severely affected by the Corona pandemic.

Currently, during the winter of 2023, the airport is operating flights to just five destinations: London, Gatwick, Heathrow, Manchester, Dublin and Alicante.

The airport, which dates back to 1934, was a military airport for decades and became a civilian one in 1962.

How did you turn this rural airport in the UK into a spaceport?
The main work was to build an integrated space systems facility, primarily an aircraft hangar ., plain_textCredit: Spaceport Cornwall

Cornwall County Council – which manages the UK’s southwesternmost region – took over operations of the airport in 2007.

And with 422 miles of coastline, Cornwall is one of the UK’s most popular holiday destinations – but a network of slow trains and no motorway means it’s relatively remote.

And of course, what makes it such a difficult place to live also makes it the perfect location to launch a rocket into orbit.

And in 2014, when the UK government announced that it was looking at proposed spaceport sites, the airport’s bosses saw an opportunity to shine.

“The location has unique advantages: low population density, uncrowded airspace and a very long runway that can handle a 747,” says Sam O’Dwyer, the airport’s managing director.

The runway at Newquay Airport is among the longest in the UK, and thanks to its cliff-top location, it ends at the Atlantic Ocean, meaning planes take off without any accommodation underneath.

With the climate crisis on everyone’s mind, infrastructure reuse plays an important role in reducing emissions in the construction industry.

And with an entire airport at hand, it took very little effort to turn it into a spaceport.

Indeed, Melissa Thorpe, president of Cornwall Spaceport, described what they did as “forward-checking” rather than building.

How did you turn this rural airport in the UK into a spaceport?
Newquay was better equipped to accommodate smaller aircraft, such as those used on domestic flights., plain_textCredit: Cornwall Airport

Newquay Airport had to do some modernization to host the G7 conference in Cornwall, which will be held near the airport in 2021.

O’Dwyer explained that the runway underwent a process of “expansion and rehabilitation”, while the taxiways were renovated to make them suitable for the many stops of the “jumbo” planes that arrived with delegations of scholarships on board.

She added, “The runway could already support the weight of a 747, but it did not have the capacity to support the weight of 32 long-haul aircraft parked at one time.”

This means that renovating the site for the satellite launch in 2022 required very little effort.

Thrupe said they extended some of the taxi lanes at the site so the 747 could “maneuver around the end of the runway.”

How did you turn this rural airport in the UK into a spaceport?
The airport got some updates to host world leaders for the G7 conference., plain_textCredit: Peter Nicholls/AFP/Getty Images

The main work was to build an integrated space systems facility, essentially an aircraft hangar with space for two missiles, and load them onto the 747.

Starting from an integrated airport also meant being able to leverage its assets, not just the infrastructure, but its staff as well.

The airport is already equipped with air traffic control and emergency response services, and 12 firefighters were needed during the refueling of the Launcher One missile.

As for the rest of the work, it was related to obtaining an operating license.

There are nine levels of the airport licensing system of the Civil Aviation Authority, and the spaceport is in the ninth category, while Newquay Airport was in the seventh category.

To obtain the license, the team needed to devise new security and operational protocols.

Although they started from a good point, given the airport’s location right by the sea, with sparsely populated areas around it, there was a lot of work to do.

How did you turn this rural airport in the UK into a spaceport?
Smaller planes parked at the airport saw the 747 take first place on the day of its rocket launch on January 9, plain_textCredit: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

O’Dwyer explained that they had to ensure a safe area, given the seriousness of the missile fueling process, so they had to make sure that no one was in that area.

She noted that the ability to take off directly across the Atlantic was an advantage.

Of course, there are downsides to launching rockets from the airport, as two out of 16 flights were canceled on the day of the launch, in order to have a “more secure safety zone,” according to O’Dwyer, who explained that the reason is that it is the first space launch, and it should not be the cancellation of flights necessary in the future.

“The commercial airport can run its operation alongside the commercial spaceport,” she added.

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