The spaceport at the edge of the world

What about people’s safety? Gordon McEwan, whose home is near the proposed launch site, is concerned about falling missiles. In a meeting with Orbex and other crofters, he shared his concern that the launch exclusion zone was too small. When the rocket takes off, the zone has a radius of less than 2 kilometers. Orbex’s answer was to trust the regulators. “You can’t just randomly launch this stuff,” Chris Larmour, Orbex’s CEO, told me. “We are a highly regulated industry.” However, a Highlands newspaper reported that he admitted at a space industry event in 2021 that he wouldn’t want one in his backyard either.

According to Orbex and the development council, the economic benefits will outweigh these risks. They expect the spaceport to create about 40 jobs – from security and engineering positions to marketing positions – in an area of ​​a few hundred residents. Some workers, they believe, will commute from the larger north coast towns, but others may settle in the Melness area, driving up school lists. A report commissioned by the Development Board predicted that the spaceport would add several million dollars in gross value to Melness and Tongue’s economy during its first two years of operation and attract thousands of visitors – a major boost to tourism.

However, spaceports are rarely a solution to the problems faced by marginalized areas, and they have a history of leaving local communities in the dust. They need sparsely populated land, usually near the equator, to take advantage of the higher speed of the Earth’s rotation at equatorial latitudes, or in the extreme north or south, for easy access to polar orbits. As a result, they tend to be in places such as the Highlands – places that have long been considered peripheral and where the land has a fraught history of marginalization, oppression and colonization.

But for the crofters, the spaceport has come to represent their independence. Melness will need some development to survive. Faced with the choice between another land-owning capitalist and a spaceport, the crofters gravitate toward the spaceport side.

Despite their differences with Povlsen, many residents I spoke to felt deep sympathy for him when he and his family were among the victims of a bomb attack at the Shangri-La Hotel in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday 2019. Three of Povlsen’s four children were killed. The church in Tongue held a special service and the townspeople came out to mourn.

In August 2019, Pritchard and the crofters reached an agreement with the development council: 12 launches a year, for £70,000 (approximately $85,000) a year in base rent. The objections began to pour in. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds spoke out against the project, as did 1,075 signatories to a petition against the spaceport. Povlsen also expressed his disapproval. His 62-page report argued that the spaceport could disrupt bird breeding seasons and damage everything from water quality to the appearance of the land. It said that another proposed spaceport was in a better location, that the spaceport would harm peatlands, that the economic benefits were exaggerated. In the end, the Highland Council planning committee unanimously granted permission for the spaceport, but Pritchard did not celebrate. She may have felt that the fight against Povlsen had only just begun.

Povlsen quickly filed a lawsuit asking the Scottish Court of Session to withdraw the permission, and paid the legal fees of three crofters in another legal challenge. “Shouldn’t we have developments along the north coast unless they have permission from Mr. Povlsen?” Pritchard wrote on a Facebook page. “It’s inexcusable to take that kind of opportunity away from our young people.”

Subsequently, in November 2020, Povlsen invested £1.43 million in a competing spaceport project in the Shetland Islands. That area is not surrounded by peat, but the farmers were outraged. “If it’s really an environmental issue,” Pritchard said, “why did he start building a much bigger spaceport with three launch pads and bigger rockets?”

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