Spaceport at the end of the world

11 months ago
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What about human security? Gordon McEwan, whose home is near the proposed launch site, is worried about incoming missiles. In a meeting with Orbex and other cultivators, he shared his concern that the launch exclusion zone is too small. When the rocket takes off, the zone will have a radius of less than 2 kilometers. Orbex’s response was to trust the regulators. “You can’t run stuff like this randomly,” Chris Larmor, CEO of Orbex, told me. “We are a heavily regulated industry.” However, the Highland newspaper reported that at a space industry event in 2021, he admitted that he would not want it in his backyard.

According to Orbex and the development board, the economic benefits will outweigh these risks. They expect the spaceport to create about 40 jobs – from security and engineers to marketing specialists – in an area with a population of several hundred people. Some workers, they believe, will commute from major cities on the north coast, but others may settle in the Melness area, adding to the school roll. A report commissioned by the development board predicted that within its first two years of operation, the spaceport would add several million dollars in gross value to the economies of Melness and Tonga and attract thousands of visitors – a big boost to tourism.

However, spaceports are rarely the solution to the problems faced by marginalized areas, and they have a history of leaving local communities in the dust. They require sparsely populated land, usually near the equator, to benefit from the Earth’s higher rotation rate at equatorial latitudes, or in the far north or south, for easy access to polar orbits. As such, they tend to be located in places like the Highlands, places that have long been considered peripheral and where the land carries a heavy history of marginalization, oppression, and colonization.

However, for the farmers, the spaceport has become a symbol of their independence. Melness will need some development to survive. Faced with a choice between another capitalist landowner and a spaceport, farmers tend to side with the spaceport.

Despite their disagreements with Povlsen, many residents I spoke to felt deep sympathy for him when, on Easter Sunday 2019, he and his family were among the victims of the Shangri-La hotel bombing in Sri Lanka. Three of Povlsen’s four children were killed. A special service was held in the church in Language, and the townspeople went out to mourn.

In August 2019, Pritchard and the Crofters reached an agreement with the development board: 12 launches per year at a base rent of £70,000 (about US$85,000) per year. Objections began to come in. The project was opposed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, as well as 1,075 people who signed a petition against the spaceport. Povlsen also expressed his disapproval. Its 62-page report claimed that the spaceport could disrupt the bird breeding season and damage everything from water quality to the appearance of land. It said that the other proposed spaceport was in a better location, that the spaceport would cause damage to the peatlands, that the economic benefits were exaggerated. Eventually the Highland Council’s planning committee unanimously approved the construction of the spaceport, but Pritchard did not celebrate. Perhaps she felt that the fight with Povlsen was just beginning.

Povlsen quickly filed suit, asking the Scottish Court of Session to vacate the permit and paid the legal fees of three farmers in another lawsuit. “Aren’t we going to build up along the north coast without Mr. Povlsen’s permission?” Pritchard wrote about this on his Facebook page. “Depriving our youth of such an opportunity is unforgivable.”

Then, in November 2020, Povlsen invested £1.43 million in a competing spaceport project in Shetland. This site is not surrounded by a peat bog, but farmers were outraged. “If this is really an environmental issue,” Pritchard said, “why did he go and build a much bigger spaceport with three launch pads and bigger rockets?”

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