Mr. Hart said the payload on the Virgin Orbit rocket, which included commercial satellites as well as devices sponsored by Britain’s Ministry of Defense and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, was an “excellent model” for the combined funding sources needed to sustain the expense of a full-service space program.
Now that the British authorities have had a run-through on the regulatory and other work necessary for a space launch in densely populated Western Europe, the process should be smoother next time.
“We’ve had to work very closely with Portugal, with Spain and Ireland,” because the Virgin plane “will fly through their controlled airspace,” said Ian Annett, deputy chief executive of the U.K. Space Agency, which helped finance the launch. He said commercial airlines would have to reroute flights to stay out of the way.
Working out such arrangements led to delays. “Clearly the first launch was an expensive undertaking,” Mr. Hart said. Virgin Orbit had to keep its launch team in Britain since October, making the exercise far more costly than expected, although the company said precisely how much more would be hard to estimate.
Virgin Orbit usually charges around $12 million for a launch, although the fees can vary.
Britain already has a sizable satellite industry and has been one of the leaders in designing and making the shoe-box-size, relatively cheap devices that are becoming increasingly important for communications, surveillance and other purposes.
The government expects that having the ability to send these satellites into orbit will give Britain a further edge. With modest funding, the government has encouraged receptive local authorities, like the one in Cornwall and others in Scotland, to develop sites suitable to have either vertical rocket launches or jumbo jets used as launch platforms.
Ms. Jones of RHEA Group said the prospect of having launch sites in Britain had encouraged her employer, a private Belgian company, to have its device built at Harwell, near Oxford, where there is a cluster of space companies.