30th September 2017
By Peter Tremayne
A delegation of local councillors and business leaders from Cornwall are about to jet off to the United States on a £30,000 trip to the New Mexico desert.
They aim to learn more about the Spaceport America, which has cost US taxpayers more than $200 million since it opened in 2011. Intended to be a launch-pad for space tourism, the spaceport is still looking for its first commercial passenger.
The trade trip is to be funded entirely by taxpayers through the Cornwall & Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership. The six-strong delegation includes the Liberal Democrat leader of Cornwall Council, Adam Paynter, and the Conservative group leader Phil Seeva. Both are on the LEP board. Others on the trip include LEP chief executive Sandra Rothwell.
The four-day visit, which will see the Cornwall delegation fly to Los Angeles before heading to the spaceport, is supposed to help inform decisions about Newquay’s bid to become Britain’s first spaceport, and drum up investment following the likely loss of European Union funding after 2020.
The Spaceport America: a big, very expensive, aircraft hanger, in the middle of a desert
The US facility was built next to the White Sands Missile Range, between El Paso and the relatively small town of Truth or Consequences. Spaceport America is politically controversial within New Mexico because taxpayers have yet to see any return on their investment.
Meanwhile billionaire Richard Branson has been able to use the US spaceport, relatively cheaply, as somewhere to park his Virgin Galactic sub-orbital aircraft – which was originally due to make its maiden commercial flight in 2009, but which has faced numerous technical challenges, including an in-flight break-up which killed the test-pilot in 2014.
Some New Mexico politicians now want to sell off the spaceport in a bid to get some of their money back.
The Spaceport America site could be seen as of interest to the Newquay project because it has a long runway, allowing horizontal take off and landing. There are two other similar bases in California, but it is not known if the Cornwall & Isles of Scilly LEP plans to visit them as well.
But the size, and cost, of the Cornwall delegation could prove controversial as it is not immediately clear how it will help the Newquay bid. Immediately following inquiries by Cornwall Reports, Mr Paynter emailed all of Cornwall's 123 councillors in an attempt to justify the trip.
The £30,000 cost includes travel from Cornwall to London, flights to the US, internal flights while there and all accommodation. The LEP is meeting all the costs from its budget.
The delegation will fly out of Heathrow on Sunday morning. A series of working meetings with potential investors have been organised across the four-day visit (Monday-Thursday). Delegates will return on Friday.
The six people going are: Sandra Rothwell, Chief Executive of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership, LEP Board member Gavin Poole, Chairman of the Spaceport Steering Group and partner with Stephen Scown Solicitors, LEP Board member and Leader of Cornwall Council, Adam Paynter, LEP Board member and Leader of the Conservative Group on Cornwall Council, Phil Seeva, Aerohub Enterprise Zone Manager and Spaceport Lead at Cornwall Airport Newquay, Miles Carden, Space and Aerospace Business Engagement Manager at Invest in Cornwall, Ross Hulbert.
Sandra Rothwell, Chief Executive of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership, said: “The LEP is leading a trade delegation to North America in support of our spaceport bid and will be meeting a range of potential investors.
"We are in a global race for investment in a commercial spaceflight market that could be worth £25 billion over the next 20 years. If we are going to signal the seriousness of our intent – and we are absolutely serious about a spaceport at Newquay – then we need to field a team that demonstrates a breadth and depth of support and knowledge. Spaceport Cornwall could be a gamechanger for our economy.
"Spending £30,000 of the LEP’s budget from central Government on a trade mission that could spawn a new industry and put Cornwall at the centre of commercial spaceflight for generations to come is in our view a good investment. If others disagree then that is a matter for them, but we make no apology for being ambitious.”