Monday interview: Craig Clark, Clyde Space

Scottish micro satellite maker Craig Clark once dreamed of life as a rock star ' but his ambition gravitated elsewhere. Picture: Hemedia
Scottish micro satellite maker Craig Clark once dreamed of life as a rock star ' but his ambition gravitated elsewhere. Picture: Hemedia
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LIKE most teenage boys Craig Clark dreamed of music stardom and over the years he has played the drums in a number of bands. But now turned 40, he’s centre stage in what some regard as the new rock and roll: the Scottish space race.

Heading the country’s first micro satellite company, Clyde Space, has propelled him into the spotlight as one of Scotland’s ones to watch. With its first satellite now in orbit, excitement is building around the development of Britain’s first space port, with a more then evens chance of it being based north of the Border.

Clark owes his role among Scotland’s space industry pioneers to a friend who suggested the Glasgow-born engineer should start his own business after 11 years spent as a power systems specialist with his former employer, Surrey Satellite Technology. With some self-funding and support from family and friends he turned his mind to developing Clyde Space.

The company has guaranteed its place at the forefront of developments following the successful launch earlier this month of UKube-1, the first satellite to be fully assembled in Scotland. That earned the company multiple name-checks during the announcement last week that Westminster is looking to set up the UK’s first spaceport by 2018.

It began with treasury secretary Danny Alexander, who used the “amazing Scottish company” as an example of Scotland’s “proud association with space exploration”. Not to be outdone, a Scottish Government spokeswoman cited Clyde Space while highlighting the sector’s “huge economic potential”.

For his part, Clark welcomes the growing support, but adds there remains “a lot of work to do” in a sector still worth just £20 million to Scotland.

“It is early days for the space industry in Scotland, but there is a real momentum there to do something,” says Clark, who was at last week’s Farnborough Air Show when the spaceport plans were officially announced.

“The important thing for the space industry in Scotland and the UK is to have people having ideas for space applications. Those are the high-value services – making satellites is really just the delivery of services.”

UKube-1, for example, lets scientists test new technologies more cost-effectively while conducting experiments for companies and academics. Applications for data relay and imaging are among the most promising, Clark adds.

“That is where we are going to see the growth of the space industry in Scotland,” he says.

Judging by Westminster’s plans outlined last week, the UK’s first dedicated base for space-planes has a good chance of being located north of the Border.

Eight sites are battling to host the spaceport, which will be the first of its kind outside the US. Scotland is the favourite, with six aerodromes in the running: Lossiemouth, Kinloss Barracks, Campbeltown, RAF Leuchars, Glasgow Prestwick and Stornoway.

Newquay in Cornwall and Llanbedr in Wales are the only other sites on the list. Both have the advantage of better weather, as more days of sunshine improve the chances of selling flights to paying space tourists. Commercial flights such as these are scheduled to begin in the US in 2016, and already have extensive waiting lists.

Space planes have wings and act like normal aircraft in the atmosphere, but are also equipped with rockets that propel them into sub-orbit. These aircraft are ideal for dropping off the nanosatellites made by Clyde Space, which “piggyback” on other launches to keep costs down. On a personal level, Clark would “love” to see the new spaceport located in Scotland. Such a move could also have commercial advantages.

“We could offer the whole package – do it all here and be in control – and there is a lot of value in doing that,” he says. “For one thing, it is a lot quicker.”

The launch of UKube-1 – which went up on the Russian Soyuz-2 rocket out of Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan – was delayed for various reasons by nearly 12 months. Operating on a smaller scale, a UK spaceport would have fewer chances for delays to occur.

With UKube-1 now up and running, Clyde Space is fielding increasing demand for its services. Sales in the current year should be “about £3m”, up from £2m during the 12 months to April, when profits came in at £100,000.

“We have another three missions we are working on just now, and one of them is a very, very complex mission,” Clark says. That is a launch for the European Space Agency, which is scheduled to take place next year. It involves intricate instrumentation and high volumes of data, both of which make it a trickier mission than many.

To cope with these demands, Clyde Space is preparing to move its 34 staff out of the West of Scotland Science Park by the end of this year. Its new facility at Skypark in Finnieston will have about three times the manufacturing and design space of its current premises.

The expansion is supported by Nevis Capital and Coralinn, the private equity investors who took a roughly 40 per cent stake in Clyde Space in 2010. Clark owns a further 40 per cent; the remainder is in the hands of family and friends.

All but 5 per cent of Clyde Space sales are outside the UK. About one-third of its business comes from the US, with Australia, Japan and South America also generating substantial orders.

“One of the great things about the space industry is it’s almost 100 per cent export,” Clark says. “It’s also high-value, low-volume manufacturing, which is ideal.”

• Additional writing by Terry Murden

30-second CV

Job: Chief executive, Clyde Space.

Born: Glasgow, 1973.

Education: Greenfaulds High School; BEng (Hons), University of Glasgow; MSc, University of Surrey.

Ambition while at school: Play in a rock band.

Car: Volkswagen Corrado.

Can’t live without: My family.

Favourite place: Glasgow.

Interests: Playing the drums, reading, running. I once played in a band called The Custard Experiment.

What makes you angry? I am not sure I really get angry, but just now I know I don’t like what I’m seeing on the internet with people turning political views into personal attacks.

Best thing about your job: We work on really exciting projects that are changing the way people do space around the world.