31 Oct 2011

The latest space race – on the Isle of Man

To infinity and beyond? Channel 4 News North of England Correspondent Morland Sanders visits the unlikely interstellar hub that is the Isle of Man.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but this isn’t it, writes Morland Sanders.

Between a barber’s shop and a bank, up three flights of stairs, squeezing past the eastern European cleaner – and I’m in the headquarters of an international satellite company.

On a screen in the corner of the room is a live relay from a rocket site in Kazakhstan. On the veneered table in front of me is an array of scotch eggs, cheese and onion pasties and paper plates.

This is the headquarters of ManSat, one of the increasing number of hyper-tech companies turning the Isle of Man into a real contender in the global space race.

A recent international space industry report suggested the island was the fifth most likely nation to next plant its flag on the moon.

ManSat has organised the paperwork for the orbit slot for this satellite, and with a bottle of shiraz now open, the finance director of ManSat, Ian Jowitt, looks nervous: “There’s a lot riding on this – about $400m.”

At 19.48hrs on 19 October, Isle of Man time, the Kazakhstan rocket successfully blasted off and later delivered its satellite to the correct slot 36,000 kilometres above the earth, providing broadband access to rural areas of the United States.

The final frontier

The launch was another high point for the CV of the Isle of Man’s stellar space sector. Four of the world’s top 10 satellite companies are now here. The International Institute of Space Commerce is based just outside the capital Douglas, and private space flight company Excalibur Almaz chose the Isle of Man as a base for its most ambitious of projects.

In a gray hangar in a far-flung corner of this remote island there is a grand plan. Roller doors, up, lights on, a genuinely surprised TV crew.

Al Thomson trying out the Russian space capsule (Morland Sanders)

We are confronted by two ex-Soviet 20-metre-long space stations and a small green capsule with three impossibly cramped seating positions (pictured above and – with our cameraman Al Thomson trying out the capsule – left).

This company hopes to have tourists in space by 2013.

This is perhaps the showpiece in a 10-year plan by the Isle of Man government, to reduce their reliance on the finance sector and create a dynamic, robust base for space commerce.

Tim Craine, director of the business development agency at the Isle of Man government, believes companies are coming here for a number of reasons.

A zero per cent corporation tax is undoubtedly one of them, but he feels they could be here for a long time to come: “The dream is for the Isle of Man to be recognised as one of the best places in the world to operate a space business from, and if you look at the companies we’ve got here, that’s very realistic.”

Others agree. A recent international space industry report suggested the island was the fifth most likely nation to next plant its flag on the moon.

That truly would be one giant leap for the Isle of Mankind.