The commercialization of space travel is picking up pace with companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic leading the way. In a bid to ensure it doesn't miss out on the potential economic benefits of commercial spaceflights, the UK is looking to construct its first spaceport, with a shortlist of eight potential sites announced at the Farnborough Air Show.

The list of nations currently able to independently send crews into space is a short one, consisting of Russia and China. The final Space Shuttle flight in 2001 saw the US cut from the list, but it is set to return with NASA's Orion spacecraft and various spaceplanes being developed by a number of private companies. It is the commercial spaceplanes and satellite launch services that the UK is particularly interested in.

At the Farnborough Air Show's "Space Day," Aviation Minister Robert Goodwill and UK Space Agency Chief Executive Dr David Parker revealed eight airfields identified in a recent Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) report as having the potential to host a spaceport.

To make the cut, the sites needed to meet a variety of criteria. These include having good transport links by land, sea and air, while being secluded from large population centers and busy conventional airspace. Weather was also considered, with strong consistent crosswinds and cloud cover looked on unfavorably. Finally, a large site with the ability to incorporate a runway of over 3,000 m (1.86 mi) was also required.

Although Goodwill said there were other sites in the UK that may fit the bill, the eight identified by the CAA are Cambeltown airport, Kinloss barracks, Llanbedr airport, RAF Leuchars, RAF Lossiemouth, Newquay-Cornwall airport, Glasgow Prestwick airport and Stornoway airport.

With the UK Space Agency calculating that the space sector has been growing at an average rate of 7.2 percent over the last two years and with the aim of the UK capturing 10 percent of the global space market likely to be worth £400 billion (US$686 billion) by 2030, the plan is to have a fully functional spaceport operating by 2018 that would serve as a focal point in Europe for commercial spaceflight companies and satellite launch operators.

"We want the UK to be at the forefront of the next stage of spaceflight," said Goodwill. "That’s why it is important we start laying the foundations today for the infrastructure that we will need tomorrow."

With spaceplanes currently regulated as aircraft, the CAA also reviewed regulations surrounding them. As a result, in the short term they will be treated as experimental aircraft, which will allow flights to operate on the principle of informed consent from the involved parties.

The CAA will now conduct more detailed work looking at potential spaceport sites, while seeking input from international governments and interested commercial operators.