Words by Suzie Inman
In 2022 the team at Spaceport Cornwall is aiming to send the first rocket ever launched from UK soil into outer space.
Blasting off from Newquay, the rocket will be the first of many carrying satellites into orbit. The UK currently builds a large proportion of the world’s small satellites, but we currently cannot launch them on home soil. Spaceport Cornwall is about to change that, helping secure a major space market opportunity for the UK. Melissa Thorpe, Interim Head of Spaceport Cornwall, is an economist with a background in aerospace and aviation, and is about as far from what you might expect a space leader to look like as it gets. She’s young – and she’s a woman. She’s like a breath of fresh air, driven in her ambitions to not only launch next year, but to make Spaceport Cornwall a global leader in space sustainability and to inspire future generations. I had posed some questions to Mel, to find out what all this means for Cornwall now and in the future.
What exactly is Spaceport?
Spaceport Cornwall is a consortium between UK Space Agency, Cornwall Council, Virgin Orbit and Goonhilly Earth Station, whose aim is to establish a satellite launch facility at Cornwall Airport Newquay. It will create a new, innovative and high-skilled industry, attracting space businesses and investment to the region, in addition to bringing more than 150 jobs. Because Virgin Orbit use a modified Boeing 747 to launch a rocket from under its wing, it can be integrated into normal aviation activities at Cornwall Airport Newquay. So, you’ll have flights to London take off, then a rocket! The launch will use a modified Boeing 747 with a 70ft rocket under the wing to deliver satellites to space. All it needs is a runway.
What is Richard Branson’s involvement?
Richard Branson owns two space companies; Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit, his small satellite launch company, who we are partnered with. Virgin Orbit’s 747, Cosmic Girl, and its two-stage rocket, Launcher One, will deliver small satellites into low Earth orbit. The beauty of Virgin Orbit is that it’s basically a mobile launch platform, that will come to their satellite customers, rather than the other way around. They are going to have several spaceport sites around the world, with Cornwall as their European hub and we were thrilled when Virgin Orbit successfully launched for the first time in California in January this year.
How will the satellites launched from Spaceport Cornwall impact our everyday lives?
Most technology that we use daily relies on satellite tech of some kind. The maps app on your smartphone, taking money out of an ATM, internet in rural areas, even some cancer research is all space tech. Satellites are a huge part of our everyday life, and it is this capability that we need to expand. Satellites are incredible for monitoring environmental impact too. They can provide unbiased, real-time information to monitor polar ice-caps, track plastic in the ocean and look at the impact of carbon emissions. They also make heavily polluting industries like agriculture more efficient through things like crop rotation monitoring and driverless tractors.
What are Spaceport’s plans to encourage Cornwall’s next generation into science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers?
Emphasising STEM as a career option is so important. Space is exciting and we do a lot of work going into Cornwall’s schools. I am part of Cornwall’s TECgirls, aimed at 8-13 year olds. I guess I’m particularly aware of that as I have a five-year-old daughter and my partner’s daughter is 13 and we see their endless curiosity that needs to be nurtured. We have a responsibility to inspire children with this project, and we take that very seriously, but inspiration alone is not enough. We can’t just go into schools and get kids excited, the integrity lies in providing them with clear pathways. So, we’re working with local colleges and universities and actually providing the routes to get there.
I want to inspire girls in particular to think of jobs in STEM as a possibility and not to dismiss them as too masculine or uncool. The difference between the number of girls to boys interested in space at primary and secondary is staggering, so we are supporting initiatives that promote STEM to young girls and teens. I love walking into a school in my jumpsuit and trainers and challenging their perceptions of what the Head of a Spaceport might look like!
I’ve seen that the new Spaceport will hold sustainability as a core value and challenge others in the space sector to do the same. Can you tell me in more detail about your sustainability ambitions, ethical framework, and how you’re working to be carbon efficient?
Recent commercial space exploration focuses on abandoning Earth for another planet. My own opinion is that Earth is the best planet and it should be more about making space work for us here. We’ve been doing a lot of work to make Spaceport Cornwall as sustainable as we can, which entails backing up our statements with action. At the height of activities, we will increase emissions in Cornwall by 0.1%, not a lot, but still an impact. While we have off-setting and mitigation plans for our launches, we also will work on decreasing the impact all together through R&D in biofuels and reusability. We’re also focusing on being transparent – committing publicly to sustainability, a transparent carbon impact report, researching the impact of our activity, as well doing our part to clear up and reduce space debris.
How long have you been in your role and what does the job involve?
I’ve been in the role of Interim Head since the beginning of 2021, something I hope will be permanent soon. Before that I spent seven years as Head of Engagement for Spaceport, so I’ve been with Spaceport Cornwall since its inception in 2014. There is no day-to-day with my job. One day I might be filming with the BBC, the next briefing Ministers, the next at a school doing STEM activities, and the next sat on an industry panel alongside Space X and NASA discussing launch.
As an economist with a background in aerospace, I bring a somewhat new perspective to Spaceport’s mission; using technology to develop rural economies in a sustainable manner. I want to create a world-leading, sustainable, horizontal launch site from the heart of Cornwall, that inspires communities and individuals to embrace the space industry and use it to benefit life on Earth. There are currently six of us in the core team. We’re all incredibly passionate about this project, and are all local, which drives our commitment for making the benefits of Spaceport reach across the county.
Have you ever had any surprise reactions about your age and gender?
Oh, yes! When I started out in the space world I think I tended to downplay the feminine in me because I felt like people didn’t take me seriously. But, now my experience and confidence has grown, I don’t mind my peer’s shock or surprise – I like to challenge them on their expectations and activities. Sometimes I do feel extra pressure, partly because I’m younger than most space leaders, and partly because I’m female. People do a double-take occasionally when I’m on an industry panel, and I have been asked to make the coffee in a meeting full of men.
My favourite reactions are the teenage girls I meet in high schools, who didn’t know you could work in the space industry and look like me. I want them to know you can be feminine and still launch rockets.
Where did your interest in technology come from and what in life and work has brought you to this point?
Growing up, my dad fought forest fires using airplanes and I always loved the use of technology to help solve problems, especially environmental ones. Whilst I’m not a space geek at all, and certainly not an astronaut, I’ve always been fascinated by using space technologies to benefit life on Earth, and to inspire young people to get into STEM careers.
How do you manage the work/life balance with your family?
We have two daughters, one who is 5 and one who is 13. They’re both very independent and adventurous; they definitely keep us on our toes. My partner runs several amazing businesses and our lives are very busy, but we are an incredible team and support each other when things get hectic. We try and bring the girls along with us to work and involve them when we can. But when we have time off, we do that very well, and make it quality time full of adventures. The girls are awesome surfers, so we all head to where the waves are good, and have a go. We usually visit my partner Ben’s cafés Canteen, out at Wheal Kitty or Newquay Orchard…we love his food. Or sometimes I just catch up on sleep.
We currently live in Truro, close to the girls’ schools and love how easy it is to access each coast from here. I love the history and heritage of Cornwall, it has such an atmosphere about it, especially in the winter. I have a few favourite spots, but Zennor Moor takes my breath away every time.
I know that you’re a proud Canadian. How long have you been in the UK? What do you miss about Canada and what similarities are there with Cornwall?
Being Canadian is a mindset grounded on kindness and getting the job done, so I am proud to be part of that. I have been in the UK for 11 years now, and Cornwall for 10, so it is my home. While I miss my family, mountains and the vastness of Canada, Cornwall definitely provides rugged beauty and strong-knit communities that are similar.
Is there anything, or anyone, in particular that drives and inspires you?
I come from a line of pioneering women, so my mom and my grandmother are massively inspiring to me. If you know them, you know. I was never really a space geek, however watching meteor showers on a hot summer’s night in Canada definitely gave me a love for exploring space. In the industry now, I’m so lucky to work with people like Ian Jones from Goonhilly and John Paffat from KISPE Space and space broadcaster Sarah Cruddas who are space rock stars, and amazing mentors to me.
Have there been any moments when you’ve caught your breath and thought ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this’?
Every single day. I still cannot believe that a girl from a tiny town in Canada is heading up a Spaceport in the UK. I have experienced some incredible moments so far, but nothing will compare to being on the tarmac with my team and family when that first launch happens next year. That gives me goosebumps already.