Beam me up, Scots! Life is tough on Unst, Britain’s most northerly inhabited island, but it could soon become the site of Britain’s first venture into space from its own territory. Ready for blast-off…
Image: Jonathan Buckmaster)
Wise-crackers on a remote Scottish island set to be the new Cape Canaveral have already come up with a slogan: “One wee step for man, one giant leap for McMankind”.
Unst, Britain’s most northerly inhabited island, is closer to Norway than Aberdeen and home to fewer than 650.
It has one pub, one hotel, one school, three shops, a lone bus route and no police station or hospital.
Located further north than Moscow, sheep outnumber locals and the nearest railway station is in Bergen, Norway.
Here life is tough, with an average temperature of 13C, near-constant gales and just five hours of winter daylight.
Yet Unst could soon become the site of Britain’s first venture into space from its own territory.
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Edinburgh rocket company Skyrora announced this week it had signed a deal to launch satellites from the former Saxa Vord radar base on the island. It wants to send its 23-metre 56-ton XL rocket into space from 2022 with up to 16 launches a year by 2030.
Crucially, the SaxaVord Spaceport is expected to create 140 jobs locally.
Not surprisingly it is the talk of the island.
At its peak in 1871, during the herring boom, Unst had a population of 2,269 but its fortunes declined with the closure of the radar early warning station in 2005.
Hundreds lost their jobs and left the island, creating a knock-on effect for the local economy.
In the “capital”, Baltasound, two miles from Saxa Vord, Victoria Mouat, 41, runs Victoria’s Vintage
She moved to Unst 20 years ago from her native Devon and hopes the spaceport will bring in much-needed trade.
She said: “When I first arrived here the island was thriving, thanks to the RAF.
“There were social events and re- gattas. There was even an Oktoberfest.
“But when the base shut people left in droves, especially young families.
“We have an ageing population so I’m really willing the spaceport to succeed because it should bring in new families.”
The mum of four went on: “In summer this is the greatest place on earth. We have hardly any crime and most of us leave our doors unlocked. I genuinely don’t know where my door key is.
“But it’s a different story in winter. After October we hardly see any visitors.
“The weather is bad and it’s only light from 9am to 2pm. I just hope it doesn’t put people off coming to work here.
“Our northerly location is our claim to fame now but being home to the UK spaceport is even bigger. It’s so exciting.”
Unst, which measures 11 miles by three, may not boast Cape Canaveral’s tropical climate but it does have one crucial thing in common – its isolation and a “clear run” to space.
Rockets must be launched away from urban areas and cannot overfly towns, villages or even oil rigs.
From Unst they can head directly north over the Arctic Circle before leaving the earth’s atmosphere.
Its northern latitude also means more satellites pass overhead than anywhere else on earth, making it an ideal spot for downloading data from space. At Unst’s only pub, the Balta Light, barmaid Yvonne Thomson, 35, is confident the spaceport will boost the local economy.
She said: “It will bring in the tourists and they will be looking for somewhere to drink. Anything that attracts more visitors is a good thing.
“In the longer term, new employees will be bringing their children here which means the school can survive.”
Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image)
At first sight it is hard to believe Saxa Vord will be launching rockets in a matter of months.
New US and Scottish flags fly alongside shiny plastic signs announcing the futuristic site is “under construction”.
But just feet away, sheep wander in the howling wind and drizzle through what remains of the RAF base.
However, spaceport boss Frank Strang insists plans for a 2022 launch remain on track.
The former RAF pilot said: “I’m 100% confident the first UK orbital launch will take off here next year.”
The country-music-loving entrepreneur admits that at first glance Unst is an unlikely frontrunner in the new space race. But plans are in hand for an eco-resort to house visitors and scientists coming to the spaceport.
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The 62-year-old said: “When I first mooted the idea with the local council they thought it was an April Fool.
“People of my age think of the old space race but we’re now in the new space race where satellites the size of a teapot cost as little as £30,000.
“On average we all use satellites 20 times a day in our everyday lives, from cashpoints to mobile phones to GPS.
“The UK is ideally placed to be a frontrunner in the new space race and Unst is the perfect spot.”
Surprisingly, Frank says there are as many weather windows to launch on the island as there are at sunny Cape Canaveral.
“You need a three-hour window of winds under 30 knots,” he said.
“We looked at Met Office data going back a decade and it showed that in spring and autumn we have those windows on 95% of days.”
The first rocket is due to be launched from Lamba Ness, a bird-watching spot a mile from the tiny settlement of Haroldswick.
Access is via a single-track road where sheep and Shetland ponies wander freely.
But plans are under way to build a new road to accommodate the cranes and lorries that carry the rockets. In a reassuring sign of the times, the spaceport is also aiming to be the world’s greenest launch site.
Skyrora plans to fuel its rockets with Ecosene, which is made from waste-plastic, preventing more than 3,000 tons of un-recyclable plastic going to landfill by 2030.
As we leave Unst on the ferry, 60mph winds howl across the hills and the rain is horizontal as the first early winter storm of 2021 blasts in.
It begs the question: Will 2022 really be the year this remote outpost goes up, Unst and away?
Just watch this space.