Cornwall’s dream of joining the space race could finally be realised – and without too much longer to wait.

Spring 2022 when it is hoped the first launch will take off from Spaceport Cornwall.

The idea of Cornwall playing a key role in the global space industry was, until a few years ago, nothing but a pipedream.

But with Virgin Orbit – a key partner in Spaceport Cornwall – finally completing its first test launch at the weekend it is now something which is within touching distance.

For Melissa Thorpe, the new head of Spaceport Cornwall, her focus is now on next spring and that first launch into orbit.

Spaceport Cornwall will be a horizontal launch site where modified aeroplanes will be used to launch small satellites into orbit above the Earth.

And Melissa, who has been working at Spaceport Cornwall since its inception in 2014, the chance to lead the project is a dream come true.

“I grew up in very rural Canada. I was always inspired by the stars, when I went to school and told a teacher I wanted to go into astronomy I was told there was no way of learning that in school.

“My dad was a pilot and I loved aircraft. I really wanted to be a pilot but had shocking eyesight.

“But I was always fascinated by the different places you can go to and travel and when I got into economics I wanted to get into the market side of it and how technology can support rural economies.

“The opportunity to have a spaceport come into this rural area is just a huge opportunity that I am so excited to take part of," she said.

Falmouth Packet: Melissa Thorpe, the new head of Spaceport Cornwall (Image provided by Spaceport Cornwall - free to use by LDRS partners)Melissa Thorpe, the new head of Spaceport Cornwall (Image provided by Spaceport Cornwall - free to use by LDRS partners)

Melissa Thorpe, the new head of Spaceport Cornwall

Melissa is also one of the first female leaders of a spaceport in the world, and she said she hopes that she might be an inspiration to future generations.

“From me being a little girl in the middle of nowhere in Canada, if I heard a female come into school and tell me that they are heading up a spaceport I would be inspired.

“I love going into schools and working with girls and working with the girls on tech programme.”

Melissa said that while she wanted to inspire she also wanted to show that she hadn’t just got the post as she is a woman.

“I am here and worked really hard to get here, there are lots of females in top jobs. I have a five-year-old daughter and it is important for her to see that women can do anything they want to do.”

Like almost everything else in the world some of the progress on Spaceport Cornwall coming to fruition has been impacted by the global pandemic.

But Melissa explained that while there had not been much to see physically happening at Cornwall Airport Newquay, where the spaceport will be based, there had been a lot of work behind the scenes.

She said: “It is the transition time now from planning over the last few years to delivery mode.

“The pandemic has had an impact, the real big impact has been on the delay on the regulations and legislation from the Government that we need to operate the spaceport.

“We knew from the outset that was going to be an issue – there has also been an impact on the launch by Virgin Orbit.

“But while it has been quiet on the surface we have been busy behind the scenes preparing for the work needed for the infrastructure for the spaceport.

“We have also been working a lot on outreach – we have had online sessions with schools.”

Falmouth Packet: The Virgin Orbit craft which could fly from Spaceport Cornwall in futureThe Virgin Orbit craft which could fly from Spaceport Cornwall in future

The Virgin Orbit craft which could fly from Spaceport Cornwall in future

The first launch from Spaceport Cornwall had originally been earmarked for October this year but the various delays and the pandemic mean that it is now set for spring 2022.

The regulatory components and legislation are expected to go through Parliament in the summer which will enable Spaceport Cornwall to apply for the licences required to operate as a spaceport while Virgin Orbit will be able to apply for the licences needed to launch from the site.

One of the biggest milestones for Spaceport Cornwall occurred last weekend when Virgin Orbit successfully deployed its LauncherOne system from the US.

The system – which uses a modified 747 aeroplane – successfully launched small satellites into orbit.

Dan Hart, CEO of Virgin Orbit, said: “That LauncherOne was able to successfully reach orbit is a testament to this team’s talent, precision, drive, and ingenuity. Even in the face of a global pandemic, we’ve maintained a laser focus on fully demonstrating every element of this revolutionary launch system. That effort paid off today with a beautifully executed mission, and we couldn’t be happier.”

So, what happens now? Melissa explained there are four main strands to the project in the near future.

The first is to install the infrastructure needed at the airport so that it can operate as a spaceport – this is being funded by Cornwall Council, which owns the airport, through funding previously agreed.

Secondly is the continuing work on the previously mentioned regulatory side of the project.

Thirdly, Spaceport Cornwall is focusing on the impact the project may have on the environment and climate change, with Melissa saying they want to have a high level of transparency.

An updated carbon assessment is set to be published in the next few weeks and Melissa said that it was a crucial part of the project for her.

She said that she wants Spaceport Cornwall to be the most sustainable spaceport in the world and be used as an example for others.

Lastly the spaceport outreach programme will continue with an aim to engage with every primary and secondary school in Cornwall in the next 18 months.

One of the major benefits which have been highlighted by supporters of the spaceport is the opportunity it provides for businesses in Cornwall as well as the opportunity to attract new businesses and investment into Cornwall.

Melissa said that this was a key part of the project and said that work was being done to ensure that Cornish businesses can play a part in the supply chain to the spaceport and for any operators.

Spaceport Cornwall is also working with the University of Exeter and with Truro and Penwith College and Cornwall College to get training and courses in place for those who might want to follow a career in the space industry and those related to it.

Melissa said: “We are not naive in any way, we know the challenges that we face to bring space launch to Cornwall.

“We are so close to it happening now that we can only look forward."