Meet the British ‘space inspectors’ working for a safe blast-off

Emma Cuddy, chief engineer for space at the CAA, in the Science Museum
Emma Cuddy, chief engineer for space at the CAA - Paul Grover/Telegraph

With Britain’s first vertical launch expected to lift off from Shetland this year, the UK could soon become the go-to European destination for space missions.

But behind the scenes, an army of ‘space inspectors’ is ensuring that, despite reaching for the stars, companies have their feet planted firmly on the ground.

It is the job of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to make sure that things go off with a bang – but only at the right time.

“If you mix hazardous materials too quickly, you get a firework before you planned to have a firework,” said Emma Cuddy, chief engineer for space at the CAA, who heads up the space inspectors.

“We want to make sure they have the mitigation in place to stop that from happening.”

There are more than 2,200 companies working in Britain’s £65 billion space economy from satellite manufacturers to spaceports, from software to observation. The industry has grown significantly in recent years, and is aiming to capture 10 per cent of the global space market by 2030.

Launch Pad One at Lamba Ness in Unst
Launch Pad One at Lamba Ness in Unst

But with any new technology comes risk. When Virgin Orbit attempted the first vertical launch from Spaceport Cornwall in January 2023, a rocket fuel filter dislodged, causing one of the engines to overheat, scuppering not only the mission but also the company, which folded soon after.

The CAA’s space inspectors carry warrants giving them the authority to force companies to open up their doors for monitoring and have powers to stop or prohibit activities, and suspend or revoke licences.

There are currently three senior inspectors, supported by dozens more engineers who are also warranted and who have been recruited from the police, Border Force, the Health and Safety Executive and the aviation industry.

“The main focus is obviously safety,” said Cuddy. “There’s other things that we look at such as national interest, national security, international obligations, that person’s finance and technical resources.

“But actually what you want to do is go into an organisation and see what they are as an organisation, understand how they work, the culture. We’re trying to promote safety management and learning from mistakes.

“Red flags would be people not being competent, not understanding the jobs they do. If you go into somewhere and it’s a mess, for example, then I know I’m going to find things quite easily.”

Cuddy began her career as an avionic engineer for British Airways, working for the company for 17 years, before moving to the CAA in 2017. In the past seven years the pace of technological change has been dramatic, and keeping up has proved challenging.

Sixth sense

Determining if a company is playing fast and loose has become a sixth sense based on years of experience, and is largely a matter of having the right systems in place.

“There’s so much change and so much innovation and every single launch vehicle is different, and you’ve got different fuels and you’ve got different systems,” she said.

“When I walk into an organisation, I’m on, I’m looking, and you get an immediate sense of what kind of organisation this is, what are their priorities, and whether the staff know what they are doing.

“We don’t do a technical assessment of their rocket or satellite, but we look at their assessment and ask whether that seems like a reasonable argument. A satellite may have introduced a new battery, but how much history has that battery got? Has it got years of use from other organisations that proves its reliability?

“It’s not something you can teach, it’s something you pick up because you’ve done it so many times. You are thinking back to everything you’ve heard, everything you’ve seen and how it fits into the bigger picture.

“It’s our purpose to ensure that the processes are in place so that they could ground themselves if something happened and call it to a halt.”

So far, the team has not had to carry out enforcement and has been successfully working with operators to achieve compliance.

Last December, the CAA granted a spaceport licence to the SaxaVord in Unst, Shetland, and is expected to approve its ‘‘range’’ licence in the coming weeks, which gives permission for the spaceport to clear the area around the flightpath of the rocket. Each launch operator will also require a launch licence.

At the boundary of space

Edinburgh-based aerospace firm Skyrora is scheduled to be the first to lift off from SaxaVord, and will start with a small test rocket that will reach around 65 miles high, the start of the Kármán line, which marks the boundary with space.

If successful, the company is hoping to carry out an orbital flight by the end of the year.

Lockheed Martin is also expected to launch its UK’s Pathfinder mission from the site, while German company Rocket Factory Augsburg has already installed a rocket platform – or stool – for its first launch.

Rocket-builder HyImpulse, which is based near Stuttgart, also announced earlier this month it was planning a programme of orbital rocket launches from SaxaVord from late 2025, with sub-orbital test flights next summer.

Other spaceports across Britain, including Sutherland, Argyll and Prestwick, are also hoping to be operational by the end of the decade.

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