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.”