HIGHLAND politicians have blasted the "short-sighted" decision to axe Kinloss and Lossiemouth RAF bases from a shortlist of potential locations for Europe's first spaceport, as Scottish Government-owned Prestwick Airport remains in the running.

Consultation documents revealed that the Ministry of Defence opposed proposals to locate a commercial spaceport at either military site in Moray, but suggested RAF Leuchars in Fife could be used as a temporary launchpad.

The bases had been shortlisted by the Civil Aviation Authority last summer among eight possible locations for the facility, which the UK Government wants to establish by 2018.

In a letter to the Department for Transport, Group Captain Iain Lunan of the Royal Airforce wrote: "None of the three locations meets the runway criteria, and due to overriding operational factors Kinloss Barracks and RAF Lossiemouth should be disregarded from further consideration.

"RAF Leuchars will transition to the Army in 2015 but an active runway will remain under RAF control. The planned future use of Leuchars is likely to preclude it from becoming a permanent Spaceport; however, there may be a possibility that the site could be utilised as a temporary facility for a limited period of time"

The decision to rule out the two Moray bases leaves Prestwick, Campbeltown and Stornoway airports as the only Scottish candidates for a permanent base, vying against rival bids from Newquay and Llanbedr in Wales.

However, the move was slammed by Moray MSP Richard Lochhead as "wrong-headed and short-sighted" given the aircraft engineering and airbase expertise already available in the local community.

Moray MP Angus Robertson said the decision "defies logic".

He added: "I am utterly mystified that the Ministry of Defence assessment has reached this conclusion, particularly at Kinloss, whose runway is barely used since the Nimrods were removed from service and which has acres of space that could be better used.

"Given the keen interest shown in Moray's location and facilities by Virgin Galactic it is an inexplicable decision."

The spaceflight company headed by Sir Richard Branson has long been rumoured to favour Moray for a UK base, but in its consultation response Virgin Galactic insisted it had "no specific views on the CAA's shortlist of eight potential sites".

Rival firm, California-based XCOR Aerospace, backed Newquay or Llanbedr on the grounds that these were the sites with "the most number of days without substantial cloud cover".

The commercial space industry - combining satellite launches, scientific research and ultimately space tourism - is expected to be worth £400 billion a year to the global economy by 2030.

The UK spaceport would be the first in Europe.

The CAA is now drawing up a detailed technical specification of spaceport requirements which will be published later this year, prior to inviting official bids. A spokesman for the DfT said that while they expect to select the winning site from the five currently shortlisted, they had not "closed the door" to other locations making a case for consideration.

The Scottish Government's Strategic Vision document for Prestwick Airport stated that securing spaceport status would be a "catalyst for transformational change" at the ailing hub.

However, it could also impact on passenger and freight operations since any spaceport development would "entail periodic disruption to existing commercial operations", potentially causing problems for Ryanair and Donald Trump's plans to use it as a hub for private jets serving his nearby Turnberry resort.

Prestwick Spaceport Director Stuart McIntyre said: "We have secured strong support from our stakeholders in the region as well as internationally. We are determined to offer the global space industry a highly capable facility that will exploit Scotland's perfect location for polar orbit launches and space programme research and development. Prestwick will sit at the heart of an end-to-end space industrial capability allowing commercial space application developers to realise their designs, launch them to orbit and distribute their service to their global customers."

Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities Keith Brown said: "As we've consistently said, we stand ready to support and offer advice to any Scottish bid - not just Prestwick.

"While Prestwick Airport would appear to be in a strong position, there may also be scope to utilise more airfields in Scotland as part of any successful bid to ensure other parts of the country benefit along the way."