Michelle Legro: “The WIRED photo team had a pretty impossible task: take a picture of a spaceport that hasn’t been built. Thankfully the Scottish Highlands are a reminder of the stunning beauty of these remote lands—and the limited ways that the people who live there have to make money. (Read: sheep)”
Small town living has its challenges. But if your small town happens to be especially remote, you may face a particularly sticky proposition: Would you welcome in a spaceport? As commercial space travel becomes more of a reality, companies like Space X, along with local governments, are on the hunt for the right places to build out the necessary infrastructure.
In the Scottish Highlands, for instance, a local development board has been working in conjunction with a UK effort to push rural Scotland into the global space industry. And the potential building and running of a spaceport could mean a path to preserve the future of a town with few other industries—a boon, yes, but one with many environmental downsides.
“When you think about spaceports, you probably think about rockets, moon launches, and other celestial payloads,” says Michelle Legro, the deputy editor of the features team at WIRED. “But spaceports are very much earthbound projects, wrapped up in the politics of land rights, environmental issues—and billions of dollars in potential profit.”
“So when writer Tomas Weber proposed a story for WIRED about Scotland’s largest landowner, a fast fashion billionaire, opposing a spaceport in the remote Highlands, I knew there had to be more to the story.”
While Weber’s investigation focuses on the village of Melness, and the complex decision to go through with the spaceport, Legro found herself thinking of how similar situations have played out, from Boca Chica, Texas to Chengdu, China. Here, she connects the dots between these far-reaching places, the human cost of investing in the space industry, and the billionaires that always seem to find their way to the center of these stories.
ML: “Billionaire Anders Polvsen also makes an appearance in this New York Times feature as a defender of the Scottish peatlands, which are essential sinks for capturing carbon. But like the spaceport, there may be other interests at play.”
ML: “And just one more about Scotland while we’re at it: Who are all of these super-rich climate crusaders who are suddenly in charge of the country’s most essential environmental questions? I mean, if you’re going to purchase a crumbling castle, I guess the least you can do is make sure you don’t destroy the surrounding landscape…”
ML: “This was the first piece that came to mind when I read Tomas’ pitch. Alex Marvar’s profile of the Georgia barrier islands in the flight path of a proposed spaceport shows the myriad ways the commercial space race touches the lives of the powerful and the powerless.
ML: “Okay here comes the company you’re all waiting for: Space X. But first let’s travel back to 2016, and this feature from Texas Monthly, from a writer who considers what it might mean to build a rocket launching pad near his family land on Boca Chica Beach, outside of Brownsville. Would Space X be a friendly neighbor?”
ML: “And….fast forward to 2020. The Boca Chica launch pad has been built. Some residents took a buyout from Space X, but others have stayed to enjoy the mess. For all of these other speculative spaceports, this is the reality of living next to one.”
ML: “Space X isn’t the only company with a hold on commercial space travel. Back in 2005, Richard Branson announced that Spaceport America in Truth and Consequences, NM would be the hub for his grand spaceflight plans. Ten years later, WIRED stopped by for a visit to ask, how’d that all work out?”
Michelle Legro is the deputy editor of the features team at WIRED.