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Muddy Meets: Melissa Thorpe, SpacePort Cornwall

Cornwall is at the very front of the UK's space capabilities and leading the way is Melissa Thorpe - but where are her favourite places in Cornwall and which tech leaders inspire her the most?

Even into the 2020s we are still getting women firsts – and here in Cornwall Mel Thorpe is the first woman to be in charge at a spaceport in the UK and one of the first globally. Based at Cornwall Airport Newquay, Spaceport Cornwall is set to be the base for the UK’s first horizontal space launch in 2022. Ahead of International Women’s Day Muddy caught up with Mel to chat space, technology and Cornwall.

Cornwall at the forefront of the UK’s space technology, that sounds exciting.

It is! We are working towards our first launch in 2022. The Spaceport was a UK Space Agency idea to create launch capability in the UK, and the site at Newquay was chosen from a shortlist of eight round the UK. There’s a pioneering spirit in Cornwall which makes it a perfect place to take forward new technology – and space is super inspiring – we are creating up to 150 new highly skilled jobs.

Are we sending up people into space here then? Catch a flight to the moon from Newquay?

No, no people – although I’d definitely be keen to go if I could! I’m told seeing the curvature of the earth changes everything. For the time being, we’re focused on sending satellites. That kind of launch is challenge enough here, despite Cornwall being very tech minded.

Rockets then? Or something else?

Well, rockets but not like the ones above. The Spaceport Cornwall is a horizontal launch facility; we basically send a rocket about the size of two double-decker buses attached to a modified Boeing 747 up to altitude and then the rocket continues on up into space. The plane circles round and comes back down to land.

Attached to the rocket is a satellite – this is what it’s all about really, launching satellites into orbit. The interesting thing about the Newquay launch site is that it is treated as normal airline activity, so you’ll have your London flight take off, then the rocket, one after another. We’re the only airport in the world to have space launches happening at a civilian airport.

Satellites? So they’re a big deal then? I imagine most people have not given them much thought.

Yeah, did you know basically all modern-day technology uses space technology of some kind? Want to drive to a new place and open your maps app on your phone? That’s a satellite. Want to transfer some money using online banking and then get cash from an ATM? The data that makes it work is all down to satellites – and it is this capability that we need to expand.

Wow – what else are they used for?

Satellites can provide real time unbiased information, so have amazing uses for monitoring environmental impact and shaping tourism policies. We can watch the polar ice-caps, track plastic in the ocean, look at the impact of carbon emissions. On a more micro level we can clean up more polluting industries – for example, farming is seeing great success in monitoring crops and using driverless tractors, all powered by satellites.

We also use satellites for driving forward medical research. Some cancer research uses space to carry out studies. A project that would have taken 6 months in a micro-gravity simulation on earth can be done in just 24 hours using a satellite in orbit in zero-gravity.

Are you Newquay’s answer to Elon Musk then?

Elon’s doing interesting things, but he is very much about leaving 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. This coincides with Sir Richard’s (Branson) view that we need to enhance what we already have here. He’s very passionate about that

Sir Richard? Is he a Cornwall fan?

He loves Cornwall. He used to come here on holiday as a kid, and his business, Virgin Orbit, is the backing behind the launch here. It’s his Boeing 747 that will carry out the launch, and we were thrilled here at Spaceport Cornwall when Virgin Orbit successfully deployed its LauncherOne system from the US a few weeks ago.

We are hoping Sir Richard will be here in Cornwall for the G7 summit in June, when we’ll be talking about the sustainable and environmental work that we’re doing at the Spaceport.

Are you hoping to meet the G7 leaders? Any heroes there?

Well, I’m a proud Canadian, so Justin Trudeau is on my list, he’s pretty inspirational.

Going back to your point about sustainability? Isn’t that a bit tricky for your sector? Is it is possible?

We’ve been doing a lot of work to make Spaceport Cornwall as sustainable as we can, and our aim is net zero. For starters, using an existing airport and a horizontal (plane) launch has lower carbon emissions than a vertical launch pad – we are looking at using biofuels and the plane can come back down again and be used for the next launch.

© Virgin Orbit

We’re also focusing on being transparent – committing publicly to sustainability, a transparent carbon impact report, researching the impact of our activity, using space for environmental intelligence, and introducing an ethical framework. We want Cornwall to take a global lead in responsible launch. 

What brought you to work in the space industry? Is there extra pressure being female?

I’m an economist by background, not a space geek at all, and certainly not an astronaut. I bring a new fresh perspective – using technology to develop rural economies in a sustainable way, which is essentially the Spaceport’s mission – and sometimes I do feel an extra pressure, part of which is because I’m younger and female. People do double-takes occasionally when I’m on a panel – I sit on a recommendation committee in the United Nations, for example, and still people expect space leaders to be male and slightly older!

What about your role models – any of the big names inspire you?

I think there’s an interesting dynamic with tech entrepreneurs and I am definitely inspired by people spending their own money on exploration and taking themselves outside of their comfort zones, going beyond what they’re used to (literally, in terms of going to Mars) but my role models are more close to home. I come from a crazy brilliant family of trailblazing women who showed me what is possible when you put your mind to it.

Sounds like you spend a fair amount of time on outreach?

Emphasing STEM as a career option is super important – space is very exciting and we do a lot of work going into Cornwall’s schools. The difference between the number of girls interested in space at primary and secondary is staggering, so we are supporting initiatives that promote STEM to young girls and teens – I am part of Cornwall’s ‘Tec Girls‘ aimed at 8 – 13 years. 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.

Where in Cornwall do you live?

Truro – the little cathedral town is just perfect for us. Its heart is lovely, with the shops, river, great schools and nice community. And not overrun by tourists – it is, as you say in your best places to live guide, often overlooked as it is not coastal, which makes it a great place to live. I’m loving the ease of city life, although I do love St Agnes on the north coast too, which is near where I lived before. I love going for a run up on the coast path there, I think the ruggedness appeals to the Canadian in me!

Where’s your favourite place to go in Cornwall?

Newquay has grown on me, being my nearest town to the Spaceport, and as a family we’ve taken up surfing, so we love to go there to splash around and I like to run along the beach at Perranporth. My favourite beach of all though has to be Porthcurnick on the Roseland – we take the girls, get food from the Hidden Hut, there’s the river and it’s great for the dog too. Perfect. You can’t beat Zennor for a spot of rugged end-of-the-world-esque atmosphere. I’ve lived in Cornwall for 11 years, but that feeling of endless space really speaks to my Canadian soul.

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