In an exclusive interview with The Independent, published on 2 January 2016, Sir Richard Branson announced that "Virgin Galactic very much hopes to be one of the principal operators [of a future spaceport in Britain]. We are a contender to operate Virgin Galactic out of the British Spaceport once it's chosen."
The Independent interview has inspired a number of other articles claiming that Virgin Galactic is "building" a UK spaceport, including this piece in Gizmodo, How Many Taxpayer-Funded Spaceports Does Richard Branson Need?. However, this not actually the case. If you read these article backwards, they actually makes more sense. The truth is that the UK has been working on plans to build a spaceport for the past few years. They're moving ahead with these plans, with or without Virgin Galactic, and have already downselected to just a few potential locations. Now the are actively working to secure tenants. Virgin Galactic is not "building" a UK Spaceport, rather, they will be a much-needed tenant for a facility that is already going to be built. Indeed, later in the Independent article Sir Richard states that "Virgin Galactic has put in a bid to operate space planes from the spaceport."
While I am happy to see the UK Spaceport plan getting more attention, I believe it is important to keep in mind that the UK spaceport plan is going ahead because of the expected economic benefits of such a facility, which includes more than simply space tourism. I worked with a team that authored the economic case for a UK spaceport, which we published in mid-2014. Here is a summary of the report's findings:
Spaceport UK: A pillar of growth for the UK and European space industry, enabling lower cost access to space, and creating economic benefit far beyond its perimeter fence. A spaceport will unlock economic growth and jobs in existing UK industries and regions, while positioning the UK to take advantage of emerging demand for commercial human spaceflight, small satellite launch, microgravity research, parabolic flights, near-space balloon tourism, and eventually high-speed point-to-point travel. Without a specific site selected and looking at the economic impact of a spaceport generically, this report expects the spaceport to deliver approximately £2.5bn and 8,000 jobs to the broader UK economy over 10 years.
In regards to the challenges that other spaceports are experiencing in these early days of commercial space travel, there are already many lessons, primarily about diversification, to be learned from our collective human experience. The UK spaceport team have been very proactive about meeting with leaders at spaceports across the world, in order to learn from past mistakes and develop a robust and sustainable plan going forward.
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