Spaceports are commonly established by national space agencies for their own spaceflight programs, and increasingly developed by private launch companies including SpaceX and Blue Origin for their exclusive use. In recent decades, these have been joined by commercial spaceports designed to attract business in space tourism and small satellite markets, reflecting changes in the structure of the international space sector, and introducing new geopolitical dimensions to space launch.
This trend is illustrated by the development of new commercial spaceports in Europe, where the UK, Norway, Sweden and Germany are establishing their own launch infrastructure to secure their share of a growing small-satellites launch market. Newly developed commercial spaceports are anticipated to deliver economic and social benefits both locally and nationally.
As scholars working in the social studies of outer space, we organized the Spaceports: Places, Promises, Politics symposium to facilitate dialogue between researchers and invited spaceport developers, and to provide an opportunity to share ideas, knowledges and perspectives of those working in industry and the academy.
We organized the symposium into small groups, each including spaceport representatives, to discuss key issues and challenges guided by the three organizing themes: Places, Promises, Politics. This exchange across academia and industry helped to identify potential avenues for future research in these key areas.
One potential area of research that emerged from discussion was the prospect that—in addition to their core business—spaceports could also attract visitors interested in taking tours of spaceports and surrounding sites, and from spectating launches. We reflected on the role such tourism would play in shaping public perceptions of space launch and outer space more widely, and the positive and negative impacts this could have for local communities.
The symposium’s small group discussions explored the themes of places, promises and politics by sharing our respective and ongoing fieldwork at several spaceport sites in Europe. Our reports from the field investigated the impacts on communities and environments, as well as the national and local politics at work in their establishment, operation and status over time.
The construction and operation of spaceports affects different groups of people in different ways. Chakad Ojani’s work in Esrange, Sweden reported on Sami reindeer herders worried that the spaceport will impact their traditional way of life. In Andoya, Norway, some local people are concerned that their fishing rights might be curtailed by launch operations. Alternatively, Mia Bennett reported that many communities welcome inward investment. Indeed, many spaceports are located in economically marginalized areas where local people rely on a few industries to sustain their communities, often through resource extraction or military bases.
In such places, spaceports might also produce local opposition. Matt Barlow reported on the Flow Country region of Scotland, where the construction of a new spaceport highlights tensions between competing visions for the area—between securing UNESCO World Heritage status for the ‘most intact and extensive bog system in the world’ and the economic promises of constructing space launch infrastructure. In contrast, Karlijn Korpershoek’s ethnography of the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guinea showed the complex interplay between colonial legacies and the space industry. She showed that despite being largely integrated into the local area, the spaceport remains an ambiguous project for many in the region. Parts of the communities are proud of the spaceport but Korpershoek noted that infrastructure has been designed to service the spaceport more than other local needs.
Nelly Bekus and Makar Tereshin’s insights from their respective research projects on the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan highlighted the international tensions that surround this enclave of the Russian Federation. Bekus discussed the mobilization of opposition to the environmental impact of the spaceport, in contrast with Kazakh political leaders’ national ambitions to become a space power. Tereshin also provided a fascinating account of how local people salvage and reutilize parts of Soyuz rockets for their purposes in the spaceport’s ‘drop zone’ where spent rocket stages crash.
Eleanor Armstrong discussed her fieldwork at the European Space Camp at Andøya Space in Norway, supporting students interested in scientific careers and shaping their understanding of how and where space research takes place. Other spaceports are active throughout the domain of STEM programmes, inspiring young people to consider careers as scientists and engineers, and to promote an inclusive and diverse space sector.
Richard Tutton’s talk addressed the broader sociotechnical expectations that govern the development of spaceports and visions of policymakers, such as the promise of growing economic returns from the global space economy. Matjaz Vidmar discussed the innovation futures anticipated by the space sector, introducing the concept of ‘sustainable space’. Managing expectations related to the possible economic benefits of newly established spaceports is a pertinent issue, when the risks involved in space launch (such as launch failure) and in establishing new business ventures are varied and complex. Kate Sammler’s work with Casey Lynch on Spaceport America in New Mexico provided a cautionary tale in this regard, as it took more than a decade for Virgin Galactic to commence its space tourism business there.
The symposium also included some creative and imaginative writing led by Pippa Goldschmidt, former astronomer and now author, showing how fiction can be a form of valid critical engagement, which others have shown in various contexts. In a speculative mode, Natalie Trevino’s talk invited us to consider how the design of future spaceports might need to account for the unpredictable consequences of the ‘overview effect’ (the change that occurs to some who see the planet in its entirety), if space tourism were to become a more everyday activity in the future. This was prompted in part by the moving reflections of actor William Shatner after his Blue Origin flight in 2022, who felt an immense sadness at seeing the blackness of space. In other words, spaceports are ‘good to think with’, prompting reflections on the kinds of mobility they facilitate as a means to (re)shape people’s perceptions of themselves and the world.
The Spaceports: Places, Promises, Politics symposium catalyzed a new network of scholars interested in space launch. The event marked an important step towards realizing the potential for the social studies of outer space to engage with industry, governmental agencies and citizens groups, exploring where spaceports are situated, the expectations of their future benefits, and how they might be governed.
We are grateful for the funding provided by the Department of Sociology at University of York, the Societies and Cultures Institute (SCI) at the University of Exeter, and the School of Engineering at University of Edinburgh to run this symposium. We also thank Jane Slocombe in the Department of Sociology at the University of York who undertook vital logistical support for this event.
Richard Tutton is co-Director of the Science and Technology Studies Unit (SATSU) at the University of York, UK; Eleanor Armstrong is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Science Education at the University of Stockholm; Pippa Goldshmidt is a freelance writer in Edinburgh and Honorary Fellow of the University of Edinburgh; Mark Presley is a former space policy advisor and Honorary Fellow, SATSU, University of York; Alexander R.E. Taylor is Senior Lecturer in Communications at University of Exeter, UK; Matjaz Vidmar is Lecturer in Engineering Management at University of Edinburgh.