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Meet the man hoping to turn a remote Scottish island into a commercial space hub

Could Lewis become gateway to the stars? 

The airport on Lewis, the northernmost island in the Outer Hebrides, has a cafe selling Stornoway Black Pudding, a waiting room and a view of the sea.

It could also one day be a space hub, if Chris MacLeod gets his way. He is working on an engine which he hopes will transform commercial space travel into an economically-viable project, at a time when Stornoway is in the running to be a UK space port.

MacLeod, an affable man with silver hair, can now be found in the Stornoway-based engineering department of the University of the Highlands and Islands. The town, with its tweed shops, fishing boats and Presbyterian churches, seems wedded to tradition. The campus, deep in the nearby woods, feels sleepy. But MacLeod is dreaming of the stars.

“If you had a way of cheaply flying into space, a lot of other problems in the world would disappear,” he says. “For example, you have a way to get rid of toxic waste. You have the mining possibilities of asteroids. You have all the industries in space like making perfect ball bearings. There is almost unimaginable potential.

“The first people to make it work - you are talking about an effect that is like the wheel. It makes humans a spacefaring race rather than being locked on earth.”

MacLeod was born on Lewis, but like many of his peers, he left for university as a teenager and didn’t come back. Instead, he moved to America, where he worked for an aircraft company and ended up contracted to work for Nasa.

Then, three years ago, he decided to return. He discovered he was not alone – other islanders in their 40s and 50s had come back after a career abroad.

“You have this stock of people who are very highly qualified,” he says. “They tend to bring things back that you maybe don't expect here. I had been doing research into propulsion and spacecraft so I brought that back with me.”

The challenge MacLeod has set himself is to find a cheaper alternative to rockets, the conventional but incredibly expensive way to enter space. There is already such an engine, known as a scramjet. However, these, according to MacLeod “failed miserably” because the craft is flying too fast to mix the fuel with the air, in order to burn it (a recent scramjet test, by the Indian space agency, lasted around five seconds).

MacLeod’s solution is to use fuel pellets, which distribute the fuel more evenly, then vaporise when air flows around them, and produce the thrust that makes the engine work. While it is hard to bring equipment to the island – the only transport is a two and a half hour ferry from Ullapool or a flight on a propeller plane from Glasgow – his team can design the engine using computers, and build their own models using the machine shop. While engineering departments elsewhere in the UK have been selling off their heavy machinery, he has a whole room dedicated to welding.

The researchers are now looking for partners to expand their project. So far, most of the interest has come from the United States – Britain’s space industry focuses on satellites – but MacLeod hopes to attract interest closer to home.

While the fact Stornoway is on the government shortlist to be a space port is a "happy accident" for MacLeod, space travel would be the latest chapter in Lewis’s relationship with flight. The island, which sports one of the UK’s longest runways, was home to RAF Stornoway from World War II until the end of the Cold War.

But even if Lewis does become a space hub, the idea may become less remarkable over time.

“I suspect that commercial space travel will become fairly common fairly quickly,” says MacLeod. “It is like at the beginning of computing. If it becomes cheap and simple to fly into space, Lewis won't be the only space port for very long.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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Will the Brexit Cabinet talks end in a “three baskets” approach?

The joy of the three baskets idea is that everyone gets to tell themselves that it will be their basket that ends up the fullest. 

It's decision day in the Brexit talks. Again.

The Brexit inner Cabinet will meet to hammer out not its final position, but the shape of its negotiating position. The expected result: an agreement on an end state in which the United Kingdom agrees it will follow EU regulations as it were still a member, for example on aviation; will agree to follow EU objectives but go about them in its own way, for example on recycling, where the British government wants to do more on plastic and less on glass; and finally, in some areas, it will go its way completely, for instance on financial services. Or as it has come to be known in Whitehall, the "three baskets" approach.

For all the lengthy run-up, this bit isn't expected to be difficult: the joy of the three baskets idea is that everyone gets to tell themselves that it will be their basket that ends up the fullest. There are two difficulties: the first is that the EU27 won't play ball, and the second is that MPs will kick off when it emerges that their preferred basket is essentially empty.

The objections of the EU27 are perhaps somewhat overwritten. The demands of keeping the Irish border open, maintaining Europol and EU-wide defence operations means that in a large number of areas, a very close regulatory and political relationship is in everyone's interests. But everyone knows that in order for the Conservative government to actually sign the thing, there is going to have to be some divergence somewhere.

The bigger problem is what happens here at home when it turns out that the third basket - that is to say, full regulatory autonomy - is confined to fishing and the "industries of the future". The European Research Group may have a few more letters left to send yet.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.