Stuart McIntyre, chief executive at Orbital Access
Stuart McIntyre, chief executive at Orbital Access, is creating a space services company that will launch equipment and people into orbit from a global network of spaceports, as BQ Scotland editor Peter Ranscombe finds out.
Ask the average person on the street to picture how a satellite is sent into orbit and they’ll immediately imagine a massive rocket standing on a launch pad. As the countdown reaches zero, a plume of smoke begins to shoot out of the rocket’s boosters before it lifts off the ground and propels its payload through the atmosphere and up into space. But that’s not the only way to get a satellite into orbit. The process can also take place at ‘spaceports’, facilities for sending payloads – and potentially people – into space but from a horizontal instead of a vertical start.
Orbital Access, a space services company set up at Glasgow Prestwick Airport in Ayrshire in November 2015, is developing plans for a service that will launch small payloads into orbit from a global network of horizontal take-off spaceports. The company’s Orbital 500R system will put satellites into space using a McDonnell Douglas MD-11, a wide-body jet airliner based on the familiar three-engine DC-10 model. The MD-11 will take-off from a runway like any conventional aeroplane, carrying a launch vehicle attached to the bottom of its fuselage. When it reaches the right altitude, the launch vehicle will detach and propel the payload into orbit, with the first stage of the vehicle returning to Earth so it can be reused.
The system is designed to carry payloads of up to 500kg, making it ideal for the manufacturers of small satellites, which currently must be launched from sites in Russia or the United States by hitching a ride alongside military satellites. The company’s system could be ready for testing as early as 2020, with the first commercial flights pencilled-in to begin later that same year.
“The UK has the opportunity to enter this market and become the global leader in the field,” explains Stuart McIntyre, founder and chief executive at Orbital Access. “There are currently only ten spaceports licensed in the world and they’re all in the US.
“At the moment, the active spaceports are only involved in the testing of vehicles, like the Mojave spaceport in California, where Virgin Galactic is carrying out its tests. No spaceport is operating commercially yet, so the UK is in a very strong position.”
The UK Government wants Britain’s first spaceport to open by 2018 and has shortlisted six possible sites. Campbeltown, Prestwick and Stornoway are in the running in Scotland, along with Newquay in England and Llanbedr in Wales. “We’re looking to operate from a network of spaceports around the world,” says McIntyre. “That will allow us to service customers at whichever location is most suitable.”
Looking further ahead, Orbital Access also has far reaching plans for services it can offer beyond its Orbital 500R system. In July 2016, the company was awarded a £250,000 grant from the UK Space Agency to lead the Future UK Small Payload Launcher (FSPLUK) project. FSPLUK brings together the Sabre technology of Reaction Engines, the aeronautical-design expertise of BAE Systems and the hypersonic research, trajectory design and optimisation capabilities of the universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde to develop a new system for launching equipment into orbit.
The project aims to bring a viable launch system into service by 2020 and then introduce a fully-reusable system in 2030. Other partners working on the design include Fluid Gravity Engineering and the UK Government’s Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC).
Glasgow-based small satellite maker Clyde Space and Surrey Satellite Technologies are also involved with the project because they could be potential customers for the service. McIntyre says it is essential that the needs of industry are taken into account when designing the payload launch system. The project was launched as part of the UK Space Agency’s £1.15m investment in developing a spaceport. Along with four other projects – led by Airbus, Deimos, Lockheed Martin and Virgin Galactic – the agency wants to explore topics such as: understanding and building the regulatory environment for safe, commercial operations; creating the operational model for a commercially-viable spaceport; quantifying the market needs for small satellite launches from the UK; analysing the potential to grow a high-value supply chain around launch and sub-orbital spaceflight systems and engaging with these suppliers; building the technology and business roadmaps in support of launch and sub-orbital spaceflight systems; and developing a detailed understanding of how overseas launch and spaceflight systems can be adapted for operation in the UK.
The investment is part of the UK Government’s efforts to grow the value of Britain’s space sector from £11.8bn in 2014 to £40bn by 2030. The latest figures from the UK Space Agency valued the industry at £13.7bn during the second half of 2016.
“There is a growing demand for satellite launch systems,” adds McIntyre. “Companies are increasingly using nanosatellites for a whole range of applications, from monitoring aircraft and shipping movements, through to weather forecasting and studying the effects of climate change on the environment.
“This is a global market with demand coming from the Far East, India, the Middle East and the US. The UK has a tremendous opportunity here to be at the forefront of this industry.”
The Orbital 500R system and its FSPLUK are important parts of Orbital Access’s work, but the horizontal take-off projects are not the only tricks that McIntyre has up his sleeve. The chief executive has been looking at the wide range of services that will be needed by his company’s customers. During July 2016, the business signed a memorandum of understanding with American manned space launch vehicle designer XCOR Aerospace at the Farnborough air show. The deal could open up exciting opportunities for both firms.
XCOR is developing its two-seater Lynx spacecraft to send people into the atmosphere. The company is competing to send the first tourists into space with Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Zero 2 Infinity, a Spanish firm that uses stratospheric balloons instead of aeroplanes.
While space tourism may have captured most of the deadlines, McIntyre points out that there are also industrial applications too. He highlights demand from biotechnology companies that may want to study the effect of zero-gravity on their drug targets and from materials manufacturers that could use a zero-gravity environment to create new structures for their products.
That industrial demand also underpins Orbital Access’s plans for a zero-gravity flying service, in addition to flights using XCOR’s Lynx spacecraft. The company’s zero-gravity programme would involve flying conventional aircraft in extended parabolic flightpaths, which would produce a long period of zero-gravity in the cabin, giving up to 20 or 30 seconds of weightlessness. While the periods of weightlessness produced by zero gravity flying wouldn’t be as long as those experienced by passengers aboard a sub-orbital spacecraft, they would still allow scientists and engineers to carry out experiments. McIntyre plans to use the Avro RJ series short-haul aircraft for the service.
“Zero gravity flying is likely to be one of the first services that we’ll be providing,” he says. “The aircraft we will use will have to be specially modified – for example, the fuel and oil systems will need to be positively pressurised so that they continue to function in zero-gravity.”
When they’re not being used for zero gravity flying, McIntyre plans to get his money’s worth out of the Avro RJ jets by using them to ferry passengers between the UK and Europe for clients in the aerospace industry. For customers looking to move heavy equipment around the world, he will also press his modified MD-11 long-haul aircraft into service, when they’re not busy being used by his horizontal take-off service to put satellites into orbit.
Offering such services to the aerospace sector will help to develop Orbital Access’s skills and experience in preparation for the longer-term aims of introducing service with XCOR’s Lynx and its own payload deployment flights. Orbital Access’s partnership with XCOR is also helping Prestwick to develop links with Midland spaceport in Texas.
In December 2016, the airport also signed a memorandum of understanding with Houston spaceport in Texas. Under the deal, the two organisations will share information about licensing and operations.
The agreement marks the start of a process to develop global ‘best practice’ for commercial space launch activities, safety and environmental standards. It will also allow Houston spaceport to work with Orbital Access, while Prestwick will benefit from Houston’s existing agreements with the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (Nasa), enabling it to use Nasa’s technology, research and resources in a commercial environment.
Prestwick began life as a flying school in 1935, with the site’s favourable weather conditions making it a suitable training centre for Royal Air Force pilots. During the Second World War, the airport became the main landing strip for transatlantic flights, with the US Air Force sending its troops and equipment through the airport to Europe. After the war, Prestwick became one of the hubs for the fledgling airline industry, with the inaugural flight to Belfast leaving on 28 January, 1946. Passenger numbers soared from 11,000 in 1992 to more than 2.4 million in 2015.
One of the airport’s more unusual claims to fame is that it’s the only place in the UK that was visited by popstar Elvis Presley. The ‘king of rock and roll’ was returning to the US from Germany when his US Army troop transport aircraft landed at Prestwick on 3 March, 1960, to refuel, a date that’s still celebrated locally.
One man more than any other was involved in the creation and growth of the airport, both before and during the war – David McIntyre, Stuart’s grandfather. On 3 April, 1933, David and the Duke of Hamilton became the first aviators to fly over the summit of Mount Everest.
Both men were members of No 602 City of Glasgow Auxiliary Air Force Squadron and founded the airfield at Prestwick. After opening his flying school, David was station commander at RAF Prestwick during the Second World War and was instrumental in its post-war expansion.
His grandfather clearly had a big influence on McIntyre’s choice of career. After studying aeronautical engineering with management at the University of Glasgow, he became a market analyst at Caledonian Airmotive, before joining British Aerospace Regional Aircraft as head of market analysis at Jetstream Aircraft Prestwick.
McIntyre’s career took him overseas with British Aerospace, which then became BAE Systems. He returned to the UK in 2004 and was a member of the joint management team at Fleet Support Limited, the company that ran Portsmouth naval base using both civilian and Ministry of Defence staff. He then gained experience outside the aerospace industry at Hampshire-based healthcare device maker Microsulis Medical, first as managing director of oncology and later as shareholder and chief executive. The company’s technology was bought by Nasdaq-listed AngioDynamics in 2013.
McIntyre returned to Scotland the following year to become the bid leader for Prestwick to become a spaceport. The airport had been bought from New Zealand infrastructure firm Infratil at the end of 2013 by the Scottish Government.
“Coming back after two decades away really did feel like a homecoming,” he remembers. “Being away had given me experience of management and running major international projects, which I’ve found very useful.
“I sadly never met my grandfather because he died in 1957, before I was born, but my father has worked very hard to keep my grandfather’s legacy alive. The stories about his grit and determination and entrepreneurialism were very inspiring to me as I was growing up.
“It’s not passed me by that there are parallels between what David was doing in the 1920s and 1930s and what we’re doing now, nearly one-hundred years later. He was an aviation pioneer – he was flying before terms like ‘airfield’ and ‘air passenger plane’ had even been coined.
“We’re doing the same things now – we’re working out what infrastructure and services will be needed to allow people and equipment to be flown up into space. It’s very exciting to be following in his footsteps.”