There was a festival atmosphere at Cornwall Airport Newquay on Monday afternoon as more than 2,000 space fans began to arrive to view a historic rocket launch.
As long as there are no last-minute technical hitches and the weather in the far south-west of Britain behaves, a converted Boeing 747 will take off from Spaceport Cornwall, fly out across the Atlantic and launch a rocket that will propel nine satellites into space.
Virgin Orbit’s Start Me Up mission on Monday night will be the first launch of satellites from British soil and is being heralded as the start of a new space era for the UK.
Speaking on a more down-to-earth form of transport – a Devon double-decker bus but with a great view across to the 747 – Ian Annett, the deputy chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said: “We’re all greens at the moment but of course there’s a number of gremlins that can trip you up at the last moment.
“We’re watching the weather closely but one of the advantages of horizontal launch is that you can quickly get above the weather. It’s looking all right for later.”
Tickets to watch the plane take off were snapped up by members of the public within hours of being released.
Given that the mission is named after the Rolling Stones song, it seemed appropriate that the event had the trappings of a music festival.
There were food stalls and a merchandise stand selling beanies, T-shirts, even a Cornish Spaceport-branded belly board (£75). Spectators could take selfies in front of a replica of the LauncherOne rocket that will whiz the satellites into orbit.
There was a big screen that will track the mission and – the staple of any modern festival – a VIP section with leather armchairs. Plus a marquee with a silent disco, which promised to be a useful way of staying warm.
The spectators should see the plane, flown by Sqn Ldr Matthew Stannard, an RAF test pilot, take off from the spaceport runway and fly over the Atlantic towards Ireland.
About an hour after take-off the rocket will be detached at 35,000ft. It will fall for a few seconds before it ignites and shoots southwards, gathering speed and altitude as it passes Portugal and the Canary Islands.
At about 1.30am on Tuesday, Virgin Orbit’s mission controllers – and the crowd – should know whether the rocket has successfully delivered the satellites in orbit.
Among those with satellites on board are the UK’s Ministry of Defence, the Sultanate of Oman, the US National Reconnaissance Office and British startups including the Welsh company Space Forge, which is developing reusable satellites.
If all goes well, it will be a triumph for north Cornwall, which has faced scepticism over the years that such a mission could be launched from an area more associated with surfing than space adventures.
Melissa Thorpe, the head of Spaceport Cornwall, which is based in a corner of the commercial airport, said: “I hope people will feel some inspiration, some aspiration, and feel proud of how we are representing Cornwall going to the stars. There’s a lot of doom and gloom out there. It’s exciting, different, it’s also a bit of an underdog story.”