First Prestwick space flights predicted for 2019
Space flights could start from Prestwick Airport in three years' time, its spaceport development director predicted today.
Richard Jenner said he hoped the Ayrshire base would become the UK's first spaceport as he signed a deal with a spaceport which has been approved for launch at Houston in Texas.
He said medical experiments and zero-gravity flights could be the first operations, followed by aircraft taking satellites and other equipment into space from 2020.
Prestwick hopes these could eventually be followed by passenger flights.
The airport reckons it is in pole position to be granted a spaceport licence by the UK Government once new legislation is introduced in the New Year and passed early in 2018.
Dr David Alexander, director of the Rice Space Institute in Houston, who is backing Prestwick's plans, said: "This is going to happen somewhere in the UK and we are not going to let it happen anywhere but Prestwick."
Ministers scrapped a contest to chose the first UK spaceport in May, when Prestwick's short-listed competition included the former RAF air base at Machrihanish in Kintyre and Stornoway.
Prestwick also plans a visitor centre and other attractions, such as a rocket simulator, which could be opened before the first flights, to create a "space experience".
However, it stressed that its space launches would be restricted to horizontal take-off aircraft, rather than rockets, which would require a remoter site, such as Stornoway.
Mr Jenner said: "We have been frustrated at the slowness of progress, but things are stepping up considerably now.
"The immediate focus will be working with our launch partners to provide lower cost access to space for the booming UK satellite and associated services industry in the UK and across the world.
"However, longer term, this partnership could develop to a point-to-point for passenger travel using hypersonic flight capability that will help to cut down journeys by a matter of hours."
Prestwick's partnership agreement with Houston will give it access to expertise and training from the Texas site, which was approved as the United States' tenth spaceport last year.
It will also benefit from Houston's agreements with the US space agency Nasa, such as use of its technology and research.
However, Houston Spaceport general manager Arturo Machuca cautioned about possible delays to spaceport development following hold-ups in the US.
He said: "I recommend you be patient."
The spaceport project is seen by Prestwick as crucial to its viability after attracting few extra flights since being bought by the Scottish Government for £1 three years ago to avert closure.
It has also had to be propped by state loans which are expected to reach £40 million over the next five years.
Mr Jenner said the project would not be affected by the UK leaving the European Union, from which the European Space Agency is separate, and includes non-EU members.
Apart from Virgin Galactic's trials, no spaceports have started operating because the sub-orbital aircraft required are still being developed.
A Prestwick Airport spokeswoman said today: “The signing of a partnership agreement will provide access for Glasgow Prestwick Spaceport to knowledge, experience, processes and procedures and training from Houston Spaceport and Nasa.
“This partnership will also provide business opportunities for customers looking for alternative orbital launches.
“Glasgow Prestwick Spaceport customers looking for equatorial/tropical launches will be referred to Houston, and Houston customers looking for polar launches will be referred to Glasgow Prestwick.
As technology develops, this will hopefully lead to point to point opportunities for space flights for passengers.”