‘Galactic Britain’: how Cornwall is winning the European space race

After last week’s publication of the national space strategy, photojournalist Jonny Weeks explores how the south-west is primed for the first launch of a satellite-bearing rocket from UK soil

“When we first started, people would laugh at us,” says Melissa Thorpe as she guides a group of visitors around an exhibition in a vast hangar at Newquay airport. “But now look, we’re only a matter of months from launch.” Sweeping around a tall black curtain, she reveals a 21-metre space rocket glimmering under red spot lights. Children’s eyes widen and the adults in the group are agog.

Next year, a rocket like this will be launched into space from the runway outside. Suspended beneath the wing of a modified 747 aeroplane during a horizontal takeoff, it will be propelled into lower Earth orbit carrying government, academic and commercial satellites. “It’s incredible to think this is happening in Cornwall,” says one visitor. “I thought it was just tourism and pasties round here,” says another, only half joking.

Spaceport Cornwall is one of the cornerstones of the government’s national space strategy, unveiled last month, in which Boris Johnson called for “global Britain” to become “galactic Britain”. Seven spaceports are slated around the UK as the government looks to create one of the most “innovative and attractive space economies in the world”.

Black Arrow was the first UK-designed and manufactured satellite-bearing rocket in Earth’s orbit in 1971 – but that was launched from Australian soil. Now, under Thorpe’s management, Spaceport Cornwall is the frontrunner in a hotly contested European space race. Construction is under way on an 18,500 sq metre hangar at Newquay airport where satellites will be loaded into the rocket, while Virgin Orbit – the rocket’s owner – has proven its launch capability from the Mojave desert in the US. All that remains is for Thorpe and her team to finalise a licence for takeoff next summer.