As communities across the Arctic and sub-Arctic strategize their futures in a time marked by a renewed Cold War and a second space age, those that position themselves on the leading edge of defense, surveillance, and Earth observation may rise to the top – though at the cost of practices and habitats yoked to the planet.

A few hundred kilometers inside the Arctic Circle, the island of Andøya rises out of the Norwegian Sea. Spires of granite tower over luminescent beaches, where crashing waves muffle bleating sheep. Soon, the roar of rockets hoisting satellites into space will drown out the ocean. A spaceport is taking shape on the rocky coast, and nobody seems to mind. Except the fishermen.

Centuries of settlement in Andøya

No drones are allowed near the red lighthouse in Andenes.

In the turquoise seas pounding Andøya, located within the Vesterålen archipelago, the fishing banks come closer to shore than anywhere else along the north Norwegian coast. Since the Bronze Age, men have hauled fish and whales out of the sea for sustenance and export. Historically, Sámi settlements also dotted Andøya, to which the remains of large reindeer trapping sites testify. Sámi gathered furs, walrus teeth, down, and marine oil, which they traded in exchange for items from the south, like iron and grain. Together, Sámi and Norwegian communities formed the basis of a rich Arctic economic network.

The town at the northern tip of Andøya, Andenes, grew into one of Norway’s most important fishing villages and a major whaling site. A 40-meter red lighthouse was built in 1859, complete with a house for the keeper and his family, an engine house, boat house, outhouse, oil shed, and even a shed to store peat for burning (resembling the longstanding traditions across the North Sea in Shetland and Ireland of cutting and burning peat for fuel). Two other villages sprung up on Andøya, too: Bleik, which enjoys an envious position facing northern Europe’s longest beach, and Haugnes, on Andøya’s inner coast. While these three villages outlasted centuries of environmental and economic change, Haugnes would not survive geopolitical change.

The village of Bleik.
Andøya’s precipitous coastline.

A NATO base comes and goes

In 1951, as the Cold War was ramping up, NATO activated its Headquarters Allied Forces Northern Europe. AFNORTH, as it was called, was responsible for defending Norway and Denmark, which had joined the alliance two years prior, and northern Germany. At a NATO meeting in Lisbon — the capital of a country long tied to the north Norwegian stockfish trade, where cod becomes bacalhau — a decision was reached to build a base on Andøya near the harbor at Haugnes to harden NATO’s northern defenses against the Soviets. All 310 of the village’s residents were forced to leave, as it was closed to make way for the air base. The new military infrastructure supported Norway’s only maritime patrol aircraft, at least for a time.

Looking out towards Andøya Air Station, which still has a civilian airport, from Andenes, Norway.

In 2016, the Norwegian parliament voted to close Andøya Air Station and instead centralize maritime patrol aircraft at Evenes Air Station 75 km away. The decision provoked anger across Andøya, seeing as many of its residents had uprooted themselves for a military base that they ended up outliving. Upstairs at the quaint Polar Museum in Andenes is a room dedicated to Haugnes’ forced closure. A sign reads, “Today, only the lighthouse and the foundations of the school is left. The government has now decided to shut down the Norwegian part of the base, which means the workplaces are lost.” An entire village with centuries of history was eviscerated to make way for a fleeting military base.

Russia and the rise of drones put Andøya back in the crosshairs

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has pushed NATO back on high alert, returning northern military infrastructure such as Andøya to the spotlight. One idea being floated is to make the moribund air base a center for the Norwegian Armed Forces’ drone initiative. The high school in Andenes already offers drone operator studies, potentially creating a pipeline from the community to a future military drone center. Drones are playing an increasing role in both defense and offense in the Arctic, with the Norwegian offshore oil and gas regulator reporting last week an increase in unidentified drones in the safety exclusion zones surrounding its facilities.

From fishing the seas to scanning the skies

While the defense sector has proven to be an unsteady partner for Andøya, the space sector has been more reliable. In 1960, scientists began scouting northern Norway for a location to house a rocket range, which could be used to study the auroral ionosphere and upper atmosphere. They settled upon Oksebåsen (the Bull’s Pen), a bay on the western side of Andøya. The site is located directly within the nighttime auroral zone, which sits between 65° and 70°N. Between these latitudes, interactions between the Earth’s magnetic field, atmosphere and ionosphere, and incoming solar particles are most intense.

Research within the auroral zone can reveal secrets about an enchanting celestial phenomenon while also helping to predict space weather to inform the operations of long-range telecommunications and GPS-reliant technologies, which are both vital for national security. It is precisely within this zone spanning the Arctic Circle that the Esrange Space Center in Kiruna was established 250 km southeast of Andøya in Sweden. In other words, the geography of the skies has shaped patterns of human development on the ground.

Oksebåsen also offered an ideal site for a rocket range by virtue of its large downrange area relatively free from ship traffic, mountains that provide shelter from wind, and proximity to Andøya Air Station. In 1961, the first sounding rocket at Andøya Rocket Range was launched, heralding the dawn of the space age for an island that had previously looked deep into the seas for its fortune.

Andøya’s future: out in space

In the sixty years since Andøya opened, hundreds of rockets and balloons have been launched, many of which are detailed in this report. Andøya Rocket Range has also transcended its original remit. In 1997 it established a second launch site in Svalbard, and in 2014, it renamed itself Andøya Space. The broader name reflects the company’s burgeoning interests beyond rockets, including launching satellites into orbit, engineering drones, taking lidar and radar-based measurements of the atmosphere, and promoting space education. A space museum open to the public communicates the company’s efforts in a kid-friendly manner. One small exhibit underscoring the importance of the Arctic for outer space states, “An increased used of the Arctic leads to an increased use of space.”

Now, Andøya Space is developing a spaceport for commercial satellite launches a little ways south of its main facility along FV974, a designated Norwegian scenic route. In October 2021, the company was awarded NOK 365.6 million (US$35 million) to build Norway’s first orbital launch site. The first launch pad, aimed for completion by the end of this year, will support 10 annual launches of small- and medium-lift vehicles. Eventually, the construction of two other launch pads should support a similar number of launches as SaxaVord Spaceport, which is currently under construction in Shetland (and which I wrote about earlier here). Located at 69°N, Andøya Spaceport offers easy access to polar orbits, which are useful for Earth observing and telecommunications satellites. The spaceport is also forecasted to provide up to 150 jobs, helping offset many of those that were lost with the closure of the air base.

When breaking ground breaks the waves

When I visited Andøya in July 2022, a large amount of ground had already been broken. A rubbly future launch pad has started to creep out into the water. Just south of the launchpad lies Bukkekjerka, a protected Sami cultural monument. Prior to Christianity, sacrifices were made within a cave facing the sea. In most recent times, for the past half-century, there has been an annual open-air church service, which attracts many from across Andøya – perhaps even some who remember or even resided in the disappeared town of Haugnes. In 2018 at Bukkekjerka, Oslo architectural studio MORFEUS designed some stunning toilets, all concrete and glass and mirrors. I passed them on my way to eat my cold pasta salad on the grassy shore, where I watched some sheep graze. Their clanging bells were the sole interruption to the wind and waves.

Bukkekjerka: Not your average rest stop. Except, perhaps, in Norway.

Within the next year, rockets roaring at 130 decibels—the level at which sounds becomes painful to human ears—will thunder through the sky. These spectacles will occur at first on average once a month, and eventually closer to three times a month. The glorified outhouses erected where Sami sacrifices were once held will no doubt be used by space enthusiasts driving along the coast to catch a glimpse of a rocket carrying the next instruments to watch over us.

Each time a rocket blasts into space, the waters below will be closed for three hours. This restriction frustrates local fishermen, who want to be able to access their fishing grounds whenever they want. Others have voiced concerns about fuel from launches leaking into the sea. Yet a report by Andøya municipality minimized the impacts, determining, “The consequences of moving the launch area are considered to be minimal for fisheries.”

Some sections of the report paint a grimmer picture for other species. The seagull colony faces existential impacts from the construction of a jetty and a breakwater for the spaceport, as predators will gain easier access to the birds. Combined with the noise of the launches, the report concluded, “It must therefore be taken as a starting point that the colony of seagulls nesting on Børvågskjæra will disappear completely.” Further issues include the fact that each launch leaves an average of 10 percent of explosives undetonated, which can leach into the sea or soil. Ocean waves might help reduce the concentration of toxins, yet they still risk running off into the water.

The area where the spaceport is being built, including Bukkekjerka, is “assessed collectively as a cultural environment with a great depth of time, linked to the use of the sea.” Where Sámi once made offerings to their gods, the sea is becoming a sacrifice zone.

Two sheep grazing next to the bay over which rockets and satellites will soon be launched.

Is Andøya turning its back on the water?

The rapid emergence of air power in the twentieth century touched down violently in Andøya, where residents – including Haugnes’ 310 evicted villagers – had wrought a living from the sea for hundreds of years. The Norwegian website DigitaltMuseum recalls, “The fish farmers had lived on what nature provided until the Cold War came.”

In the twenty-first century, with Andenes’ high school training young students to be drone operators, Andøya is seizing a spaceborne future. Concerned fishermen have become the minority. One Norwegian I met indicated that the impetus for the commercial spaceport had originated with the Arctic island rather than Oslo. Over the past several decades, Andøya’s residents had grown used to the presence of the military, and wanted to see similar activities and jobs return. This nostalgia for the military-industrial complex resembles the story in Shetland, where the closure of the Royal Air Force Base in 2006 on the the isle of Unst had caused jobs to disappear and families to leave. Consequently, as I explored, support is high there for the construction of a spaceport, too.

On a wooden balcony in Andenes, a bleached whale skull surveils waters in which pleasure craft and whale watching vessels now outnumber fishing boats. Within the next few months, the reverberations of rockets will echo through its empty craw. Outside a nearby building sit blackened whalebones once illuminated by blubber-scorching fires. With winter descending, the cetacean remains will soon glow under the aurora that initially attracted astronomers to Andøya – and under the lights of blazing rocket launches and glimmering satellites, too.

As communities across the Arctic and sub-Arctic strategize their futures in a time marked by a renewed Cold War and a second space age, those that position themselves on the leading edge of defense, surveillance, and Earth observation may rise to the top – though at the cost of practices and habitats yoked to the planet.

Categories: Scandinavia

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