Scottish firm’s little known role in helping Apollo 11 astronauts find a new frontier

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The grainy picture of the lunar landscape captures history being made 50 years ago, not just by the Apollo 11 crew but also for the Scottish-based company that helped to make their mission a successful one.

The role of Gore, a firm that now employs 250 people in Dundee and Livingston, is little stated but it was their cables that astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin used to bring home vital information from this new frontier.

This ribbon cable, built to withstand extreme temperatures and radiation bursts, connected seismology equipment to the lunar module and is pictured strewn across the moon among the footprints of Armstrong and Aldrin.

The lunar rock-collecting shovel used by the astronauts was also fitted with Gore materials.

As Armstrong shared with the world his moment for mankind, the moon landing was also a time of celebration for Gore, which just ten years earlier had not even existed.

Jeff Fyfe, the Global Space Business Leader for Gore, said: “The cables we manufacture today in Dundee are pretty much the same as the ones that were on the moon in 1969. We are doing things in pretty much the same way and we are very proud that we have never had a failure. When you put something in space, it is really, really important that it never fails – you can’t go back.”

Gore was set up by Wilbert (Bill) Lee Gore and his wife, Genevieve, in Delaware where he developed a flurocarbon-based polymer known as PTFE in the basement of his home.

The material was later marketed the world over as Teflon.

The couple set up their first office in Dunfermline in 1967 after falling in love with Scotland on a hillwalking holiday, it is claimed.

As Nasa prepared for the 1969 mission, it was recognised that this new generation of cable, coated with Gore’s core technology, could withstand the extreme environments of space. PTFE was then later developed into a product that was to transform the fortunes of the company – Goretex.

Today, Gore sits at the heart of Scotland’s flourishing space industry, which is made up of around 130 companies and 7,000 employees and accounts for fifth of the UK sector.

Meanwhile, a planned spaceport for Sutherland in the Highlands, which is due to open by 2024, will launch a new generation of small satellites into NewSpace – or orbits far closer to the earth that can be commercially exploited.

It is in this NewSpace that the next steps of humanity’s exploration and expansion into the solar system will be made, with Scotland well positioned to take its place in this new era of low-cost access to space or spaceflight technologies.

Space companies in Scotland are typically involved in design and manufacture of space assets, such as satellites, rockets and ground radio terminals.

Meanwhile, the use of information collected in space - such as observational data and GPS –is also big business.

Mr Fyfe said: “Around 20 per cent of the space industry in the UK is now in Scotland and that continues to grow. That is a really important metric. It says a lot about Scotland and our long history of engineering and culture of innovation.

“Space has proved to be a perfect fit for the application of engineering skill in Scotland.”

The focus in Scotland is now getting smaller, more affordable satellites in to space for less time.

While traditional satellites, around the size of a lorry or a bus, would stay up for 15 years, today satellites –around the size of a fridge – are being sent into orbit for around a third of that time.

“Half of the world is still uncovered in terms of communication and access to the internet so this is what is now being addressed by people such as [Amazon founder] Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson.

“They are making access to the internet for all a reality. It is estimated that there will be 25,000 low orbit satellites put into space between now and 2027,” Mr Fyfe said.

At the forefront of Scotland’s sector is Clyde Space, which was founded in 2005 and specialises in the development and supply of CubeSats – or miniaturised satellites – and small satellite systems.

Meanwhile, Glasgow-based Alba Orbital, set up by entrepreneur Tom Walkinshaw, supports the creation of PocketQube class satellites which are just 5cm cubed, about one-eighth of the volume of a CubeSat.

Meanwhile, several firms are involved in ‘downstream’ space activity, which uses information collected in space.

These include Musselburgh-based Astrosat, which uses satellite images to help track illegal logging, tackle fuel poverty and improve responses to disasters.

Calum Norrie, of Scotland’s Space Network, which represents about 50 of Scotland’s space companies, said he could remember the moment that the scale of Scotland’s space industry truly started to emerge.

Mr Norrie, formerly with the European Space Agency, said: “It started to coalesce around ten years ago. I can actually remember the day that happened.

“There was a guy who used to work for Scottish Enterprise who arranged a meeting of all the companies in Scotland that did space.

“At the time I was working for the European Space Agency and there were a whole lot of companies in Scotland that I didn’t know about. To be fair, people in Scotland did not know about them.

“Each company was given three minutes to talk about what they were doing. That was when things really started to roll.”

Mr Norrie said Scotland’s space industry had come on “genuinely, a huge amount” in the past decade with the sector predicted to be worth £4 billion by 2030.

Today, major projects include InfiNect at Heriot-Watt University which is creating a flat panel antenna to support high bandwidth communication while on the move on buses, trains and planes, even in remote and rural areas.

“You need to have an antenna that doesn’t stick up and cause wind resistance.

“You need to have a flat panel antenna instead. It really is the holy grail of satellite communicate.

“People have been trying to develop this technology for 20 years,” Mr Norrie said.

It is these flat panel antenna that will support the vast, moving satellite constellations being put into space by companies such as Amazon.

Mr Norrie said that the £22m Space Hub Sutherland, which will create 400 highly-skilled jobs – will further raise Scotland’s image as a country serious about space.

“The profile that brings is perhaps more significant than anything else.

“There is nothing like having a spaceport to show the commitment and presence of Scotland’s space industry,” he said.

As we reflect on Neil Armstrong’s giant steps made 50 years ago today, it appears that Scotland’s stake in space will bring new frontiers closer to home.