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Space Café Scotland by Angela Mathis Recap: Building a Spaceport is More Difficult Than Building a Rocket

By Viktoria Urban

Screenshot taken from the Webtalk

The year’s second Space Café Scotland by Angela Mathis – Building a Spaceport is More Difficult Than Building a Rocket took place on Thursday, 28th February interviewing Frank Strang, CEO of Shetland Space Centre.

Frank Strang trained as a Physical Education teacher at The Scottish School of Physical Education in Glasgow, Jordan Hill College. He then joined the Air Force as a Physical Education Officer. After breaking his back parachuting, he fell into the business world. Since then, he has been involved in defence, aviation security, and economic regeneration. The Shetland Space Centre is also an economic regeneration project as well as an aerospace project.

Strang explains that the success of any project relies in the team. Over the past five years, the team at SaxaVord has grown from four to 40 full-time employees. The team is made up of a lot of former military and former employees of the gas and oil industry. 

“…whether it’s space or any business, the key is to be able to stick it out and see it through.”

Author Robert Louis Stevenson based his novel, Treasure Island on Unst, where the spaceport is being built. The island’s population of 2000 decreased over the years to about 600. It was once a thriving fishing port and had the busiest heliport in Europe with 350,000 passengers a year. Strang reckons that the space industry is going to regenerate not only the area’s but Scotland’s economy as well.

“You need to start with a belief.”

He says that the vision of a spaceport started with a visit to the UK Space Agency in London, who said that Shetland would be the right locale for a spaceport. An independent report to find the optimal site for small satellite launches in the UK found that the number one site was SaxaVord’s because of its geographical location. The spaceport was then designed with help from ArianeGroup. After two years of struggling, a high net worth investor took interest in the project, and SaxaVord now has funding in the bank, a vertical launch program, and the Pathfinder program to back it up.

“…if you can work collegiately you should do it. Especially if you’re in a hurry.”

SaxaVord did just that, picking the brains of colleagues on Kodiak Island, Alaska. They have also been tapping into the expertise of the Kennedy Space Center.

Strang says that the northern latitude will attract clients to Shetland as they can launch straight to Sun-synchronous orbit. Shetland has access to a mature supply chain and the accommodation is also near the spaceport. Shetland is a very unique place, Strang says. He continues to explain that the Scottish Government has made it very clear that they want the space industry to become an engine room for the new economy.

Strang agrees with Professor Brian Cox, who said that the best way to protect the Earth was to look down from space. SaxaVord’s business plan, therefore, includes plans for an environmental and ecological support operation center to see how satellite technology can be utilised to help save the planet. The spaceport is also looking into tidal energy generators, eco-friendly fuels and also wants to help with the current space debris issue with partners including ThinkTank Maths Limited (Edinburgh).

Strang is not concerned about finding young talents to work in the industry as he says he gets numerous job requests daily from maths graduates, science graduates, and even history graduates. He thinks there is more interest than there are jobs in the industry. He gives advice also for new businesses starting out, stating that they should take their ideas and go and knock on the doors of companies and talk to them.

The biggest risk he sees is being too slow. The industry is moving at such a fast pace and technology is developing so rapidly, that it can be hard to keep up and react to what the industry is looking for. 

“This industry is about the young companies, the young people, and we must adjust to that.”

Angela Mathis concludes the discussion with drawing our attention to a job opportunity at Space Scotland, which is looking for candidates for the position of Executive Director. If you want to get involved, click this link.

To listen to Space Café Scotland’s insights, you can watch the full program here:


Viktoria Urban, contributing Editor at SpaceWatch.Global: After graduating as a Journalist from Edinburgh Napier University, I am now doing an Astronomy and Planetary Science degree at The Open University (Scotland) which has enhanced my already existing love and enthusiasm for space. I am also a member of and a volunteer for several societies both in Hungary and in the UK and write online content on space for multiple companies as well. I hope my science communication will encourage many to find a job in the space sector, whatever their background and highlight important issues to ensure a sustainable space environment for future generations.

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