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Melissa Quinn Explains Her Spaceport Cornwall Departure, Next Steps for Spaceport

By Mark Holmes | May 30, 2023

Melissa Quinn, departing head of Spaceport Cornwall. Photo: Spaceport Cornwall

It could be another two to three years before another rocket launches from Spaceport Cornwall after the failed Virgin Orbit mission, says outgoing leader Melissa Quinn, who recently announced she will be leaving her role as head of the spaceport.

Quinn told Via Satellite in an interview that the spaceport is taking a “wait and see” approach, but it seems another launch is some time away.

The spaceport was the site of the Virgin Orbit launch failure during the spaceport’s first mission in January. Virgin Orbit is now ending operations after going through bankruptcy, selling its assets to Rocket Lab, Launcher, and Stratolaunch.

“We have had some other really interesting conversations going on with other launch companies,” Quinn said. “But with a new customer, we will be looking two to three years from now. We have proven what we can do here. We have the license. We have been through the pain of regulations. We are confident in ourselves as a site. I would love to see some kind of spaceflight. It could be a Dreamchaser landing, rather than a launch, which would be exciting. We have got to be really confident that so much is still to come.”

However, despite the work of building the infrastructure and getting the necessary licenses, it is not a predictable future. No one knows when and what rocket will be the one to launch from Cornwall. Quinn believes part of the future is re-defining what the definition of a space port is.

“We have a diverse mix of businesses going on site. We have a multi-user site. We never built everything bespoke to just Virgin Orbit. We took into consideration some of the other space launch companies that may come along in the future, and what they might need,” she said.

Quinn said the site was designed to be multi-user, and the team is moving businesses into the new space systems operations facility. Spaceport Cornwall has also announced a partnership with Sierra Space and is working on a concept of operations with the company, with several other launch operators in the pipeline.

“We established the Spaceport to be multi-user, and the team are continuing to focus on moving nine space businesses into new facilities over the next week, as well as working with other launch operators like Sierra Space and Space Engine Systems. The Spaceport has the facilities, capability and, most importantly, a spaceflight license to enable access to space for the foreseeable future,” she said.

Quinn says that even if Virgin’s Orbit’s initial mission had been a success, she likely still would have left the role. “Heading into the launch which I hoped would go really well, but either way, it was the pinnacle for me. I would have achieved everything I had set out to do as the head, and I really wanted to look at what was next and to hand over to someone else to take the project in into that next chapter. It was a hard decision, but one I had been thinking about for a while.”

Quinn has been working at the Spaceport for 10 years, and spoke about the challenges along the way.

“When you are in a launch campaign, it is all encompassing. For me, as a mom and wife, I sacrificed a lot to get to launch, and I need to take a bit of a break from launch, to work in a different field of the industry and spend a bit more time with my family,” she said. “It was much more a personal decision than any reflection of the Spaceport. If anything, the Spaceport is going to be busier than ever because we have all of these new facilities and businesses moving in.”

The end of Virgin Orbit’s business is a reminder for all the positive vibes in the industry right now, space is not an easy area to build a successful business. Quinn said of the Virgin Orbit situation, “[The bankruptcy] is definitely not on the basis of one failed launch. Dan Hart has been very honest about this. It played a role, and didn’t help. But there were some other issues going on in the business. They were hoping to have more time to sort out, and they didn’t have more time, and the failure didn’t help that situation.”

Quinn hopes that she is leaving behind a strong legacy. She takes pride in Spaceport Cornwall’s outreach program, and how it has engaged with 150,000 young people. “I have a letter from a parent of a daughter I spoke too at a primary school eight years ago, and is now studying aerospace engineering, and remembers when I came into speak. This is what I am most proud of, our work with young people,” she says.

She believes the work has put Cornwall on a world stage, and that Spaceport Cornwall has taken the lead in launching rockets in a more sustainable and responsible way. “We were really transparent about the impacts of launch. We worked with the University of Exeter and the Eden Project on our lifecycle analysis, for instance. We shined a light on how brilliant our space industry is on solving some global challenges, but at the same time, saying how we can do it better.”

This is something that Quinn believes has had an impact all around the world. “You can find everything about from our carbon missions to our biodiversity plans out on site. We have every up and coming spaceport so they want to be the most sustainable spaceport in the world. That is a great thing, but when we started out, that was definitely not what people were talking about,” she added.

However, despite its great infrastructure and a lot of hard work, being a successful launch operator is far from easy, and consequently while space ports are emerging all over the world, launching satellites and rockets on a consistent basis is one of the hardest challenges.

Quinn recounts a recent dinner with SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell. “They failed a lot at SpaceX, they almost ran out of money. They had to keep coming back to try again. It is what launch is. It is hard, really hard, but the rewards are so massive,” she said.

“If you can get it right, build that niche area, have that cadence build up, we were just on the cusp of that happening for Virgin Orbit, but we didn’t quite get there for them,” Quinn added. “If we had a few more successful launches, they could have really got that mobile launch platform going which was that business model. We just missed that turning point for them. Space is hard, but launch is even more hard.”