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From earth to orbit: Cornwall Airport Newquay’s epic transformation into the UK’s first Spaceport

As the UK’s efforts to claim their ‘place in space’ ramp up, Cornwall Airport Newquay (CAN) reveals its journey to becoming a key player in Virgin Orbit and Spaceport Cornwall’s upcoming horizontal rocket launch – the first ever from UK soil.

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The perfect location. The perfect launchpad.

A Spaceport transformation requires two things: the right facilities and legislation. Cornwall Airport Newquay now meets every need. As a commercially regulated aerodrome CAN already had many of the relevant facilities and infrastructure in place: a 2,744 x 45 metre long runway with surveillance systems and a secure perimeter to facilitate safe horizontal satellite launches, navigation aids, fuel storage and runway lighting.There were minimal infrastructure changes needed to make the site fully operational for space activity.

And with Spaceport’s sustainability values at the heart of their activities, CAN’s location made it the perfect contender for “the world’s responsible launch” site, offering uncongested airspace and low residential density. Its direct access to the Atlantic Ocean and segregated airspace, as well as the close proximity to world-leading satellite communications provider Goonhilly Earth Station (25 miles south) made this the ultimate launchpad for the UK’s newest space ventures. 

Ian Jones, CEO of Goonhilly Earth Station, believes Cornwall is the perfect place to propel the UK Space scene towards global renown: “we’re on a peninsula, surrounded by the ocean with the ability to get into, and communicate, with space. It's like living on our own little spaceship here. It’s also the sort of environment that makes our services exportable to the rest of the world. Like we exported mining over 200 years ago, we’re now exporting highly effective communications and that is the way forward.”

A rocket fuelled metamorphosis…

CAN’s transformation from a regional passenger airport to the UK's first licensed Space and Air port was no easy feat. There were some key operational measures and procedures needed to get the project off the ground (and into space!) – the most challenging and integral being legislation and the CAA licensing. 

The team were involved in multiple aspects of the UK Civil Aviation Authority’s licensing process. Operationally, they prepared Echo Apron for the upcoming launch activities, provided the specialist Ground servicing equipment, handled the inbound Cosmic Girl (a modified Boeing 747) carrying the equipment for launch preparations, as well as handling and offloading the Launcher One rocket upon its arrival from the United States. 

Thanks to their teams’ aerodrome support, marshalling, guidance, security and air traffic control provision, both the Echo Apron and the Space Systems Integration Facility are ready for launch. With safety underpinning all launch preparations, Cornwall Airport Newquay has received the UK CAA’s approval. – On 16th November 2022 they reached a new frontier, becoming the UK’s very first airport to hold a Spaceport licence. 

Speaking about the transformation, Managing Director of Cornwall Airport Newquay, Sam O’Dwyer says: “We are incredibly proud to be involved in this innovative project to enable space launch from Cornwall Airport Newquay with Spaceport Cornwall and Virgin Orbit. The team effort that has gone into developing a fully licensed Spaceport facility which will deliver safe and secure space operations for the UK’s first ever space launch has been simply inspiring and I’d like to say a massive well done to my team.”

Delivering twice as much.

CAN says the aerodrome will continue to provide quality commercial airport services, after their teams worked hard across the business to develop safe Spaceport facilities alongside a busy summer schedule. The fantastic display of teamwork ensured business targets were met – with a wide range of flight destinations on offer this summer. With 7 new destinations and 3 further airline partnerships on the way – Bringing their offering up to a huge 21 destinations, with 10 airlines in total for 2023. – CAN’s significant network expansion is a solid foundation on which they hope to build successes far exceeding their pre-pandemic status. 

A symbiotic relationship borne to benefit life on Earth:

Underlining the importance of deep collaboration, communication and trust when it comes to delivering such an ambitious project. CAN worked with a number of key stakeholders within the Spaceport Cornwall consortium, whilst keeping much of their activity in-house – 

a distinctive feature of the organisation’s operational processes across the board. CAN is proud to be so self-sufficient and says this unique framework reduces their need to subcontract, thus increasing work efficiency and speed.

A training plan was developed for all Air Traffic Controllers (ATC) to ensure new terminologies (for types of fuel, new roles, responsibilities and regulations) were clearly understood. The Rescue & Fire Fighting Service (RFFS) also supported Spaceport activities throughout, managing staffing levels and fire appliances in preparation for the arrival of Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl and Californian colleagues. Various in-house teams also revised the Spaceport Cornwall Safety Case for CAA licensing requirements and developed the Launch Day Airspace Plan. – Alongside updating the Hazardous Operations Procedures & Checklists, Spaceport Manual, Aerodrome Manual and Emergency Response.

Melissa Thorpe, Head of Spaceport Cornwall added, ‘Working with our partners at Cornwall Airport Newquay is key to the success of this mission. The collaborative spirit between our teams and the sharing of expertise will result in history being made, and we couldn't be more proud!’  

Looking to the future – what happens once we’ve claimed our place in space?

Access to Space for all, commercial small satellite launch activities, and sub-orbital spaceflight operations define the UK’s National Space Strategy. Working in tandem with Spaceport Cornwall and Virgin Orbit, it’s hoped that Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly (CIoS) Space Enterprise Zone will lead the way, exploiting “physical, digital and intellectual assets and using satellite data to overcome local and global challenges such as the impact of climate change.” According to CIoS LEP, the region will have “contributed to an additional £1 billion of economic value for CIoS through increased productivity, jobs, and turnover” by 2030.

Spaceport Cornwall has the power to propel socio-economic benefits into infinity and beyond…

Valued at £16.5 billion, the innovative space sector already supports 47,000 jobs and it’s not going to stop there. From inspiring young people, tackling the digital skills gap and enhancing academic research, to monitoring climate change, attracting further investment and supporting the county beyond seasonal tourism, the projected socio-economic impacts are bountiful. Here’s to a new and exciting chapter in Cornwall Airport Newquay’s 88 years of operations! And most importantly, here’s to Cornwall, home of the nation’s first Spaceport.