Changing orbit

Stuart Buchanan
4 min readNov 27, 2023

Over the last year, I’ve been learning about the growing space sector in Scotland. I first heard about the UK’s ambitions to develop launch capability, and Scotland, in particular, appears to be leading that charge. Rocket launches are big, loud spectacles, and probably what will most grow the general public’s awareness of the sector. But there’s far more to it than just this part.

There are, most obviously, the things the rockets are actually launching into space: satellites. Glasgow builds more of these than anywhere else in Europe. And then there’s the stuff that those satellites are doing: sending back data. Again, Scotland has an abundance of expertise in this field, too.

My initial curiosity about all this was, admittedly, driven by a romanticised idea of space, as portrayed by popular science shows, films and books — as well as a healthy dose of science fiction! The reality is no less impressive, but it is indeed, a reality — and a day job — for the 8,500 people in Scotland who work in the space sector.

I got to meet some of them this week at the UK Space Conference in Belfast. What on Earth was I doing there? A fair question.

My aforementioned curiosity led me to discover AstroAgency, a marketing and communications agency specialising purely in the space sector. Their monthly SpaceBar networking event has been central to my growing understanding of the sector, and how it all comes together. Getting to know the good people behind the scenes led to a very kind offer of a spare ticket to attend the conference, and I used the opportunity to soak up as much information as I could.

It was definitely the large dose of reality I needed to see. There are already hundreds of players in this field, as well as new ones entering all the time, dealing with the everyday business of operating in space. Sure, there is still an aspirational, starry-eyed wonder to some elements of the work. But there are many practical, hard, and sometimes mundane problems that are being tackled by commercial operators competing for business like any other industry.

There are businesses making better antennas for satellites to communicate with their ground stations. Others are trying to find a way to allow satellites to refuel in orbit. Some are even building habitats for human missions to the Moon. While this is all quite space-focused so far, the more you think about it, the more you realise how reliant almost all elements of our modern society are on space technology. Everything from agriculture to healthcare relies on data that we get from space. The phone in your pocket connects you, on demand, to a global positioning system of satellites orbiting Earth, every time you launch your maps app, for example. Soon, we might need to ask ourselves what industries aren’t reliant on space technology.

I attended as many talks as I could, and there was lots of discussion about skills. There is actually a shortage of skills in the sector, and it must compete with other, sometimes better paid-sectors when it comes to hiring new talent. There’s a growing move to attract mid-career talent, too. This obviously piqued my interest, although it’s not people like me that’s needed — it’s more, ya’know, actual rocket scientists, as the old saying goes. Engineers, software developers, electronics experts and such are also in short supply. But I still think there is a role somewhere in there for me, maybe. An outside perspective, and the ability to turn technical jargon into simple messages, presented in an engaging manner, will help more people learn about the realities of this sector, and the benefits it has to offer. A rocket launch is easy to understand — but what happens before, and after that? It’s the job of storytellers to fill in those blanks, I think.

It’s my intention to explore this sector further — as an outsider, the few people I’ve gotten to know so far have been very welcoming — and perhaps find a way to contribute to it myself. I have a pile of business cards, flyers and stickers from the conference to look over, and more conversations to be had.

It feels like something I am gravitating towards — which seems apt.

PS — I’d like to thank author Tim Marshall for saving my bacon in several conversations I had during the conference, by so comprehensively covering all the biggest “need-to-knows” of the the space sector in his latest book, ‘The Future of Geography’. On multiple occasions, a concept I had just read about a few days prior in that book came up — and I actually knew what people were talking about. If that isn’t a ringing endorsement, it is also very interesting just in its own right and well worth a read.