Council won't investigate claims people 'could have been killed' by Spaceport Cornwall rocket launch

Cornwall Council will not investigate claims of safety concerns surrounding Spaceport Cornwall's failed rocket launch. Credit: PA Images

Cornwall Council will not investigate its Spaceport in Newquay over claims that people "would have died" if the rocket had exploded on the runway in January.

Hundreds of people attended the Virgin Orbit launch at Spaceport Cornwall on January 9 which was ultimately a failure. A modified Boeing 747, Cosmic Girl, took off from Newquay airport and flew to 35,000ft over the Atlantic Ocean where it dropped the LauncherOne rocket carrying nine small satellites. A dislodged fuel filter caused the first attempt to launch satellites into orbit from the UK to fail.

“Near-miss event”

Space technology company Newton Launch Systems issued a report to a parliamentary committee earlier this year saying it had concerns about the Cornish launch, claiming that if the rocket had exploded on the runway spectators would have been killed by flying fragments and burning fuel. It also suggested that “for safety reasons” the launch should have taken place 300km west of Ireland rather than at Newquay as there had been a “near miss event” with the Canary Islands.

The report states: “Video evidence from the January 2023 Virgin Orbit launch shows significant numbers of people, including members of the public, in close proximity to the aircraft and its fully-fuelled rocket as it taxied to the runway, for example, photographs published showing spectators well within this radius crowded around the site’s perimeter fence. Although the risk of the rocket exploding while on the ground is quite low, had the rocket exploded, people would have been killed.”

Cosmic Girl taxis down the runway ahead of take off at Spaceport Cornwall. Credit: PA

This led to a member of the public asking the council’s Conservative Cabinet if it would investigate. They said: “Due to recent accepted expert evidence of Newton Launch Systems to the Parliament Science, Technology, Innovation Select Committee, unequivocally stating ‘had the rocket exploded, people would have been killed’ do you agree the Audit Committee must conduct a forensic financial and endangerment investigation into Spaceport Cornwall?”

Council leader Linda Taylor replied that no such investigation would be carried out “at the current time”.

She added: “The report submitted by Newton Launch Systems was an unsolicited input into a parliamentary select committee convened following the outcome of the January 9 Virgin Orbit launch from Spaceport Cornwall. All launch operations were conducted in full accordance with the spaceport licence and the operators’ licences granted by the Secretary of State for Transport. The regulator was present at the launch event monitoring compliance with the licensing conditions. Given that no concerns from the regulator have been raised it is not agreed that the council should conduct an investigation into Spaceport Cornwall at the current time.”

A follow-up question from another member of the public asked: “What are the actual regulations that should have been adhered to, to protect the safety of the public when the Virgin rocket was launched in January this year and would apply for any future spaceport launches?”

The council’s portfolio holder for economy Louis Gardner, who has worked closely with Spaceport Cornwall, replied: “The spaceport licence which was approved in November 2022 set out two areas in which hazardous operations could be performed, for fuelling and transit of the launch system. A 1,275ft safety zone was defined in which no non-essential personnel were to be authorised. Within the licence application, Spaceport Cornwall defined an area for public viewing outside of that safety zone and infrastructure was put in place to designate and control the area.”

Credit: Lee Trewhela, Local Democracy Reporter