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What could a thriving space industry in the north of Scotland look like?

Orbex CEO Chris Larmour has high hopes for the space industry in the north of Scotland.
Orbex CEO Chris Larmour has high hopes for the space industry in the north of Scotland.

As Jeff Bezos prepares to head into the stratosphere, it could feel as if the expedition and space industry is a million miles away.

But with the creation of a spaceport in the far north about to lift off, a vibrant space industry is taking hold in the north of Scotland.

Opinion has been mixed, however, the overall socio-economic benefits that could help address depopulation issues have been the overriding benefit cited by supporters.

Job creation in Moray

One firm that has already invested millions in the north is Orbex, a company created to deliver low carbon, high performance micro-launch vehicles to carry satellites into space.

Orbex, who formed part of the consortium with Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) to bring plans to the table for a spaceport near Melness, have quietly gone about their business.

However, in doing so, the company have been able to grow and develop their technology from a dedicated base in Forres.

Adding a ‘new arm’ to existing industry

Orbex chief executive Chris Larmour has said there is already a considerable space industry in Scotland employing thousands, with efforts in the north to add to those figures.

Thumbs up – Orbex’s chief executive Chris Larmour talks Greg Clark MP, former secretary of state for business, through plans at Melness

Mr Larmour said: “It is a considerable size of business with several thousand employees in it so it is not like we are starting from zero.

“We are adding a new arm to it launching those things into space. But it isn’t an economic opportunity in Scotland yet.

“Because all of those payloads will be exported for launching to America, India, Kazakhstan and New Zealand, in some cases to get into space.

“All that revenue and all the jobs that could go into launching satellites are lost and that is probably half the value right there.

“That is what is being created with companies like Orbex and the spaceports connected to them.

“They are able to repatriate or hold onto those monies and keep them as UK revenues, UK taxes, UK jobs and benefits.”

Expansion in Forres

Orbex, who now employ 95 people directly or as sub-contractors on a full-time basis, have found that their current base in Forres is not big enough.

From September, the company will take on a neighbouring warehouse before moving to a brand new dedicated factory which will house up to 400 employees, should planning be granted.

Orbex have set up shop in Moray with plans to create a multi-million pound factory to house up to 400 workers.

Mr Larmour said: “A lot of people are a bit surprised that we put the factory in Forres, but the reasons are logistical.

“We wanted a place that we could test nearby, which we can at Kinloss.

“We wanted fairly easy connectivity to the spaceport, which is around two-and-a-half hours by road, and we wanted a nice place to live for people.

“There is a great standard of living in that area on the Moray coast.

“There is a good pool of people we can call on to build airframe structures and avionic structures nearby.

“It is a solid group of people you don’t need to import from Germany or France or wherever, so local jobs and we are all for that.”

Millions of pounds already invested in the industry in the north

Job creation is a huge draw to generating support for a spaceport in the Highlands.

Places like Sutherland are quite important to us,” Mr Larmour added.

“I think there is a misconception as to what spaceports are. They are businesses fundamentally.

“There is always this mythology around space rockets that the only jobs are rocket scientists.

Orbex has already invested heavily in the north, with a test site being created in Kinloss.

“Yeah, you need some rocket scientists but for a spaceport you need someone to keep the books, someone to check the licences, maintenance people, electricians, logistics people – there is a plethora of jobs that will be available connected to that spaceport.”

He continued: “When you launch a rocket, it happens in a split second. But the build-up to it takes several days.

“There is plenty of local economic benefit around the spaceport and more broadly, from Orbex directly, we are putting money into local businesses for steelworks and the test site we are building in Kinloss also has steelworks we are contracting to a local steel firm.

“Money flows into the community one way or another.”

Measure of success will be determined at take off

Despite making huge strides and expanding the workforce at their Forres base, Orbex feel that the real measure of success will come at the first launch in Melness.

Mr Larmour added: “I don’t think I will be happy until we have actually got a vehicle flying into space.

“That is the goal of this company, to get rockets into orbit. Until we have done that, it is hard to say if it has been a success.

“I think we are on the right path and I think people who visit us and give us grants and monitor our progress are very happy with the progress we are making.”

Opportunities for youngsters

The company is very aware of its profile and has committed to developing skills that will “stay local and develop value locally”.

By working with educational establishments, right from primary age to university scholars, opportunities are being created for those with a real passion in the space industry.

From rocket competitions to 10-month internships, the company is building its workforce with plans to offer apprenticeships once the right scale has been achieved.

However, Mr Larmour has said he considers his firm to be “the tortoise in the race” instead favouring long-term stability over a large public profile.

I want to be here 10 years from now.”

Chris Larmour

He continued: “Sometimes you read reports in the press about a space race but I kind of see us as the tortoise in the race in a way.

“I don’t really care about being first but I definitely care about being there at the end and having a business that lasts, that is quite important.

A 3D printed engine created by Orbex.

“I want to be here 10 years from now producing dozens of rockets annually and launching them once a month from every pad we are operating from and employing lots of people.”