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Space / ‘Milestone’ work underway at spaceport site ahead of construction

CAST an eye down the Lamba Ness peninsula in Unst, where the Saxa Vord spaceport launch site is planned, and you might think construction work is underway.

But the digging of the ground at the former RAF base is part of a process to register the site’s archaeological history prior to development.

It relates to the scheduled monument consent granted by Historic Environment Scotland [HES] for work to take place on the site.

Turf has been stripped up to see if anything is found underneath.

Once completed, along with road improvements on four sections from Baltasound to Lamba Ness, construction of the spaceport itself can begin, ready for launch by the end of this year.

A small ceremony was held at Lamba Ness on Wednesday morning as seven pupils from Baltasound Junior High School visited the site – as well as three members of the Uyeasound Up Helly Aa squad and former councillor Alastair Cooper.

Cooper was involved in the project through chairing the council’s development committee, and he was given a gift as a token of appreciation at the SaxaVord base prior to a site visit.

The launch pads will be built by local construction firm DITT, which will be supported by a range of sub-contractors including Unst Plant, EMN Plant and Sandisons of Unst.

At the height of construction, there are expected to be 60 workers on site, all of whom will be accommodated at the former RAF Saxa Vord site which SaxaVord Spaceport acquired.

Once operational the plan is for the spaceport to host the UK’s first vertical satellite launch.

Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

SaxaVord Spaceport CEO Frank Strang told Shetland News that he was “very proud” of what the team have achieved so far.

“I’ve seen the effort, the blood, the sweat, the tears,” he said.

“There’s a major backstory, and to get to where we are today…I feel great pride, and I feel that we’ve crossed the Rubicon and people really believe.”

While the Lamba Ness site has received planning permission, there are still a few vital documents still to be signed off, such as how the developer will manage the habitat and peatland.

Seen on site on Wednesday was fencing placed around a duck nest, which had been spotted by a worker.

Planning lead Alan Farningham said the hope was that the remaining documents could be turned around quickly.

However, statutory consultees like NatureScot and SEPA will need to respond – “we’re very much in their hands”, Farningham said.

He added: “There’s been very, very good communications with the likes of NatureScot, SEPA and HES, because if there hadn’t been, we wouldn’t be where we are now.”

But Strang said the SaxaVord team are “in a hurry” in an effort to keep up momentum as the space industry progresses at speed.

The company plans to hold a “paper exercise” on 4 July to allow staff to gain more experience in running a spaceport.

Meanwhile there is a plan to launch a sub-orbital launch vehicle in October, subject to all planning and licenses being in place.

Strang said the hope is that at the “back of the year, the beginning of next year” the first orbital mission in the UK will take place.

Frank Strang at the launch site. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

He admits that “quite rightly” there was some scepticism around the concept of a rocket launch facility in Unst when plans first emerged a number of years ago.

But Strang believes people have been won over as the project – which has signed agreements with a number of international companies and is due to host the UK Government backed Pathfinder launch – progresses.

“You need to understand that our journey is a complex one, and a long one,” he said.

“I spent a lot of time in London, a lot of time off island having to fight the fight. If you’re not living it, you can’t understand what’s going on. So, I do understand the doubters.

“But what I do hope and what I’m seeing…there’s lots of believers out there. We’ve spent 14 to 15 million pounds on Unst already, created jobs – the benefits going all the way back through to Lerwick. We’ve come a long way.”

One of those working on site is Liam Spence, a DITT quantity surveyor who is from Unst himself.

“It’s an unbelievably exciting project for myself to be involved in,” he said.

“It’s going to brilliant for the Unst community, the Unst economy, the Shetland community, the Shetland economy.

“I’m unbelievably proud [to be involved]. When you get into the construction industry, getting involved in construction all over Shetland – and to be able to come back and work on a major project that’s in Unst…

“Where I was born and raised was Norwick, so out of my bedroom window that was in my parents’ house, you can actually see the launch sites.”