It was supposed to be the night that the UK strapped rocket boosters to its attempt to make a dent in the new global space race.
Yet no amount of awe or excitement on the ground at Spaceport Cornwall could will the LauncherOne rocket into completing its mission, one that would have made the seaside town of Newquay the site of the first successful orbital launch in western Europe.
Carried skyward and over the Atlantic by a former passenger plane named Cosmic Girl, the Virgin Orbit-operated spacecraft was then supposed to launch into Earth’s lower orbit to place nine satellites among the stars.
Relive the space mission as it happened
Instead, the hardware failed to deploy after an anomaly – a heartbreaking end to Monday night’s operation for the Cornwall crew, and one that has made sceptics question the UK’s role in an industry dominated by power players such as the US, Russia and China.
Can Cornwall bounce back?
Spaceport Cornwall will forever go down in history as the first site to earn a UK spaceport licence – the cruel irony is it might have missed its chance to be the first to host a successful launch.
Although future missions are all but assured from Newquay, it remains to be seen if there will be another this year.
Melissa Thorpe, head of the spaceport, said “of course” she would like another launch attempt in 2023, but appeared to put the ball in Virgin Orbit’s court.
Speaking from the site in the early hours of Tuesday, she said: “We’re a licensed spaceport, we’re here to operate, we did everything perfectly tonight from our point of view.
“The airport was amazing, the operation side of it went completely to plan.
“So we’re just here to support, get Virgin back up, get another rocket here in the near future, hopefully.”
Matt Archer, from the UK Space Agency, said another 2023 attempt “will depend on Virgin Orbit’s availability”.
Virgin has said it will “work tirelessly” to get to the bottom of why the mission failed.
Spaceport Cornwall, meanwhile, is hopeful it can also attract other launch operators to the site.
Scotland’s chance to go extra mile
With the Newquay launch proving a case of so close yet so far, two sites in Scotland will be hoping their upcoming rocket missions go all the way.
Spacehub Sutherland and SaxaVord Spaceport on the Shetland Islands both aim to host launches this year.
Like Cornwall, the objective would be to carry satellites into space. Unlike Cornwall, these sites are built for the spectacular vertical launches made famous by NASA’s base at Cape Canaveral in Florida.
They still have some way to go, as they will have to follow in Spaceport Cornwall’s footsteps by earning a spaceport licence from the UK Civil Aviation Authority.
What makes the Sutherland site noteworthy is that it’s built and managed by Scottish rocket maker Orbex, so missions from there could be entirely home-grown affairs.
Where are the UK’s other spaceports?
Cornwall, Sutherland and SaxaVord are three of seven spaceports coming online across the UK.
Among the others is one in north Wales, at Llanbedr in Gwynedd.
They should help take full advantage of the UK’s already sizeable satellite-building industry, and it’s estimated that 100,000 of them will launch from here by 2030.
Space is big business and increasingly important for national security – among the cereal box-sized satellites carried from Cornwall were ones to detect piracy, illegal fishing and monitor climate change.
The UK is determined not to be left behind, so don’t think the Cornwall failure will have anyone from government to industry rethinking the overall strategy.
George Freeman, the science minister, said after the launch: “We will continue to press on and we will get there in the end.”
Dr Alice Bunn, president of industry body UKspace, said: “Space plays a crucial role in our everyday lives, and its impact will continue to grow in many areas.
“Therefore, we must pull together to learn from this and achieve a successful first launch in the future.”
The plummeting costs of going to space
What helps make launching satellites a solid business exercise is that costs have fallen rapidly.
In 1971, when Britain launched its one and only rocket (the Black Arrow, which actually blasted off from Australia), putting satellites into orbit cost £95,000 per kilogram.
That’s just over £1m in today’s money, whereas the cost of launching on Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne is just under £33,000 per kilogram, according to company chief executive Dan Hart.
So whether it be the romantic desire to boldly go or just plain old economic prudence, the UK’s space programme is going nowhere – and 2023 could still be a big year.