How to build a spaceport

Around 250 kilometres off the north coast of Scotland, the Shetland isle of Unst undergoing a dramatic renovation.

On a peninsula flanked by giant cliffs and open ocean, builders are constructing a spaceport. They call the project SaxaVord. They say it could host the first-ever vertical rocket launches from Western Europe.

It’s a bold objective that welcomes auspicious signs. One was discovered just this summer; another was already known when the team laid their founding stone. 

“It’s going from the Bronze Age to the Space Age.

Over 1,000 years ago, the locals say, Unst became the first footfall of the Vikings in the North Atlantic. Staff at SaxaVord would joke that they were exchanging longships for spaceships. They hoped to inherit the Norse spirit of exploration.

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The second harbinger revealed an even older heritage. While excavating the site, workers unearthed an ancient burial ground. The discovery suggests the site has over 4,000 years of human activity — three millennia longer than the Viking heritage. SaxaVord sensed another good omen — and a cute new slogan.

“It’s going from the Bronze Age to the Space Age. That’s how we see it,” Scott Hammond, the spaceport’s operations director and deputy CEO, tells TNW. “We also think there’s a stone circle, which would have been aligned with the stars. It just goes to show, doesn’t it? If it was a good location in the Bronze Age, it’s a good location now.”

It’s a good location for several reasons — but more on that later. It’s also a location with a powerful pull for Europe’s burgeoning spacetech sector.

View of SaxaVord Spaceport from the sea
The launch site and ground station are being assembled on Unst’s Lamba Ness peninsula. SaxaVord takes its name from the hill’s largest hill. Credit: SaxaVord

Declining costs, rapid innovation, and growing commercialisation are democratising access to space. In 2022, an estimated 6,905 active satellites were orbiting Earth — 2,105 more than in the previous year. 

Back on our home planet, the demand for rocket launch sites is rising. Dr Christoph Baumeister, who scouts spacectech investments for VC firm Possible Ventures, says the sector is searching for new locations for lift-offs. 

“They definitely are looking for options because you don’t want to be dependent on one country or one company,” he says. “If you look at the spaceports that we have at the moment, they will not be enough to cater for the launches that are projected to happen and that are being planned.”

The surge in launches will also bring benefits down to Earth. From GPS and weather forecasting to solar cells and medical treatments, space delivers countless real-world benefits. As the number of spaceports increases, the breakthroughs could proliferate.

Hammond envisions SaxaVord at the forefront of the innovations. He compares the spaceport’s potential to the canals and railways built during the Industrial Revolution. Once that infrastructure was in place, a boom period began for scientific, technological, and economic development.

“That’s effectively what we are: an infrastructure,” he says. “We will be an enabler for everything else.”

At least, that’s the plan. But building a spaceport isn’t your average construction project. At SaxaVord, the plan comprised a unique series of steps.

1. Find a location

Western Europe has a dearth of suitable sites for spaceports. At present, the region’s only orbital launch complex is the Guiana Space Centre in, err, South America. On the mainland, a combination of densely populated nations, heavy air traffic, and limited easterly expanses of water have left few favourable locations for rocket launches.

Unst is a rare exception. The 120 km2 island is remotely located, surrounded by ocean, and home to only 600 people. It also has a low volume of both sea and air traffic. 

In the north of Unst, satellite launchers can get a clear, unobstructed route into orbit. In addition, the isle already had decent transport links, which were built for the nearby North Sea oil and gas fields.

The SaxaVord team is also confident about the weather conditions. They estimate that 95% of days from spring to autumn will have three hours of suitable winds. During winter, that will drop to around one day in three.

View from the sea of the land in Unst that is being used for SaxaVord Spaceport
Lamba Ness’ open land and proximity to the sea fulfilled two key requirements for the spaceport. Credit: SaxaVord

The British government shares SaxaVord’s optimism. In 2017, the UK Space Agency identified the location as its preferred site for satellite launches. 

“The site offering the maximum payload mass to orbit is SaxaVord in the Shetlands, from where direct launch is possible to both SSO [sun-synchronous orbits] and polar orbits,” the report reads.

It’s a compelling package for a spaceport. But Unst’s natural attractions also created problems.

2. Study your environment

The location and environment of the Shetland Islands make the peninsula a wildlife haven. The archipelago is home to nearly a million seabirds — the largest colony of its kind on this side of the Atlantic. 

As the northernmost point of the British Isles and home of the Hermaness nature reserve, Unst has a particularly powerful appeal to migrating birds. A new spaceport could threaten their habitat.

It’s a repercussion that’s caused controversy for Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The company’s rocket launches in Texas were blamed for the decline of an endangered bird species, which threatened plans to expand the spaceport.

SaxaVord is obligated to mitigate such risks. To launch rockets into space, every British operator must be licensed by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Part of the licence application is an environmental assessment.

“We are the most real of all the UK’s spaceports.

In SaxaVord’s application, the spaceport proposed a maximum of 30 launches per year, some of which would occur during the bird breeding season.

RSPB Scotland, a conservation charity, had initially opposed the plans. But the organisation withdrew its objection when SaxaVord pledged to avoid launches between mid-May and the end of June — a key period for bird mating.

As part of the assessments, the spaceport took two years of bird counts on the land. The results not only guided the project, but also shone new light on another threat to avians: bird flu.

“Over on Hermanes, puffins are down by 90%,” says Hammond.

A puffin in Unst
Around 25,000 pairs of Puffins make Hermaness their summer home. Credit: Pikist

Unst’s environmental protections extend to human habitations. On the land of the spaceport lies a historical monument site — an old radar base for Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) during the Second World War. 

It’s a landmark that was pivotal to the spaceport’s origins. SaxaVord is the brainchild of Frank and Debbie Strang, a married couple who met while serving at the RAF. After discovering the old military site was for sale, the couple bought the land with plans to develop an ecotourism business. 

In 2008, they made a dramatic change of direction. When the UK Space Agency nominated Unst for a spaceport, the Strangs decided to bring the vision to reality. But their origin story had a troublesome subplot. 

Conservationists were concerned about SaxAvord’s threat to the monument. In 2021, an environmental agency made a potentially fatal intervention. 

Historic Environment Scotland said the spaceport would have an “extensive and adverse impact on the cultural significance” of the radar station. The organisation rejected the construction application. But after a year of negotiations and reassurances from SaxaVord, the objection was withdrawn.

As the regulatory barriers lifted, the development moved forward.

3. Design your spaceport

A spaceport is a uniquely challenging design project — particularly in a country that’s never had one before.

As the UK had no specific guidance for rocket launches, Hammond sought direction from US regulations.

“They come under something called CFR 420, which specifies how you need to approach the design of a spaceport,” he says. “And the first focus is always safety.” 

Upon review of the rules, SaxaVord fine-tuned its safety guidelines. Among the final requirements were specific distances from populated areas, proximities to roads, and circumventions of flight paths or busy seas.

“It’s providing a one-stop shop for space.

On the site, the guidance steered the positioning of launch pads, rockets, fuel load, and hangars. The pads, for instance, needed a certain space between them to avoid any explosions spreading fires across the spaceport. A similar concern guided the rocket hanger locations.

“I want my hangars to be as close as possible because bringing a rocket in and out takes time and there’s risk involved with that process,” Hammond says. “But equally, I don’t want it so close that an explosion on the pad would destroy my hangar.” 

SaxaVord Spaceport Deputy CEO Scott Hammond (left) and COO Debbie Strang at the launch site stool base.
Hammond (left), an ex-RAF fighter pilot, was hired by Paul and Debbie Strang (right), to guide plans for the launch site. Credit: SaxaVord

Another crucial part of the plan is the launch schedule.

SaxaVord has applied for up to 30 vertical rocket launches a year. To squeeze in all those lift-offs, the spaceport will operate like a commercial airport. Launches will be scheduled across regular timeslots, with a busier timetable during the summer, when travel conditions are more favourable.

It’s a model that’s attractive to the satellite companies. According to spacetech investor Baumeister, startups want to show clients that they have multiple takeoff options.

“It’s about the speed that they can offer customers,” he says. “If they can have possibilities to launch in Northern America, in Europe, and in Asia… they’re well positioned.”

Once the plans were finalised, the construction could commence. 

4. Start building

SaxaVord elected to build three launch pads, each of which is linked to a set of hangars. The pads will fire rockets of up to 30 metres in length, with maximum payloads of 1,500 kg. They will then fly into sun-synchronous, polar and high-inclination orbits, as well as suborbital trajectories.

To make that happen, SaxaVord has set up facilities for satellite monitoring, fuel storage, launch vehicle preparation, and payload processing. Connectivity will be provided by a ground station network of 1.5m to 3.7m antennas.

All of that requires extensive support infrastructure. To protect the spaceport, security fences have been erected around the perimeter. Access to the site is being improved by extensive upgrades to approach roads, which need to accommodate lorries carrying rockets from the mainland. SaxaVord has also leased an airfield close to the site.

To monitor the launches, on-site tracking and telemetry systems have been installed. The project is also getting flight termination systems — in a case a rocket soars in the wrong direction and disappears.