Spaceport developers in the Highlands have privately admitted they have “very little” room for delays in the project schedule if they are to “deliver it on time”.
Documents released to the Press and Journal show that the Space Hub Sutherland programme board discussed the tight timetable at a meeting in August.
Board members were told that the planning and design timelines for the £17.3 million rocket-launching scheme “need further refinement” and that there was “very little slippage time within the programme to deliver it on time”.
However, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) said last night that while it was a “uniquely complex and ambitious project”, the agency remained “confident” that the first satellites will be launched from the Sutherland site in the early 2020s.
Plans to build the UK’s first vertical-launching spaceport at the Melness Crofting Estate, near Tongue, moved a significant step forward last month when a proposal of application (PAN) notice was lodged with Highland Council.
HIE expects that a formal planning application will follow at the end of the year, with the agency having secured an option to lease the site in August.
Potential hurdles remain to be cleared, however, including obtaining the required funding, resolving the future of a sporting lease at the site that is held by Wildland Ltd, and an expected hearing at the Land Court amid opposition from some local crofters.
On funding, an Audit Scotland report recently highlighted that “the costs of the project are increasing, and it is not yet clear how these will be funded.”
Minutes from the August meeting show that HIE was to “continue discussions with UKSA (UK Space Agency) re the grant funding requirements and terms and conditions”.
The P&J understands that a decision is also still to be made on a £5m contribution that was being sought from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), because of the site’s proximity to the Dounreay complex.
Last night, an HIE spokesman said: “We are making good progress in developing our plans for Space Hub Sutherland.
“Maintaining pace is very important and we’re taking forward a number of work streams in parallel, including all aspects of site design and a broad range of environmental studies.
“We are currently holding a series of pre-planning consultation events in local venues, and on course to submit our formal planning application to the Highland Council by the end of December.
“It goes without saying that this is a uniquely complex and ambitious project. Nothing like it has been attempted before in the UK.
“The ultimate goal is to be ready for the first satellite launches to take place in the early 2020s, and we are confident of achieving that.”