Reach for the stars: The UK’s post-Brexit race to space

Reach for the stars: The UK’s post-Brexit race to space

The OneWeb executives watched nervously from mission control as their rocket blazed into the grey skies above Kourou, French Guiana.

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Nestled inside the Soyuz ST-B’s bulbous fairing were six of the company’s satellites, the first of 648 it planned to launch into low Earth orbit. Together they would form a constellation capable of providing high-speed internet anywhere on the planet below, at costs competitive enough to render terrestrial connection alternatives obsolete.

Just over a year later, OneWeb filed for bankruptcy protection in a New York courtroom. By then, the company had successfully launched 74 satellites into orbit. Financing, however, had proven difficult to secure, a situation that worsened with the onset of the pandemic. Eager to sell, OneWeb’s executives began knocking on the doors of as many buyers as they could. One of them belonged to the British government.

“We said, we have a global asset that would put Britain on the map, give you the connectivity you need going forward,” OneWeb’s head of government relations Chris McLaughlin would later tell Sky News. “Are you going to wake up one morning and discover it has been bought by the US, Canada, China or [the] EU?”

McLaughlin and his team may not have realised they were preaching to the choir. OneWeb’s proposal meshed perfectly with the UK government’s broader strategy for nurturing the country’s space sector, and likely appealed to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Periclean penchant for expensive infrastructure projects. OneWeb obtained not only a £400m bailout but also Johnson’s personal assistance in securing additional funding from India’s Bharti Enterprises.

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A OneWeb rocket carrying 36 satellites being prepared for launch in Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia. (Photo by Sergei Savostyanov/TASS via Getty Images)
uk space strategy

The future site of the SaxaVord Space Port on the Isle of Unst, in the Shetland Islands. At least two suborbital launches are planned for later this year, along with one orbital mission. (Photo courtesy of SaxaVord)
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