Ready For Takeoff

The government should foster the successes of the British Space Industry

On a cold March weekend, industry leaders, scientists and space enthusiasts gathered in the city of Sheffield for the annual National Student Space Conference (NSSC) being held in the University’s walls. Industry was keen to showcase the cutting edge technology British industry is spearheading with slick presentations to woo space minded undergraduates, while researchers excitedly discussed bold new missions Britain is playing a part in.

The inescapable enthusiasm held by conference delegates is well founded. Growth of the British space sector over the last five years has averaged at 7.5%, compared to 1.7% for the wider economy. Some 40% of the world’s small satellites are manufactured in Britain, and a quarter of commercial communication satellites. According to London Economics, a consultancy group, British space industries employ over 37,000 people and have a turnover of roughly £11 billion a year. The UK Space Agency is committed to adding 66,000 new jobs to the sector and seeing industry turnovers rise to £40 billion by 2030.

These successes have gone uncelebrated by the public and politicians alike. Likely because, Tim Peake aside, Britain has shied away from missions that capture hearts and minds in the same spirit manned missions or exploring far away worlds can. Indeed, for much of Britain’s history in space, the attitude of successive governments could be described as benign neglect. Lady Thatcher took the view that space was an expensive hobby, and prestigious missions such as manned flights were uneconomical. This view, according to Stuart Eves of Surrey Satellite Technology speaking on an NSSC panel, carried on throughout the 1990s and 2000s under New Labour. British space industries have often been denied the more generous public funding that characterise other space industries, making its market orientated approach over state dependence typical of German, French or Italian space industries something of an anomaly. Rather than focus on ‘upstream’ space industry, which involves manufacturing space vehicles, modest civil R&D funding meant space industries in Britain focused on small scale missions with commercial applications ‘downstream’.

In many ways, this has been a good thing. Oxford Space Systems, which constructs microsatellites in a few weeks for £30,000, is one such example of the benefits of selecting commercially viable projects built quickly with current technology. By comparison, a report by the nonprofit International Cost Estimating and Analysis Association found government satellite projects take on average 7.5 years to build and launch. This has allowed British industry to claim a 6% share in global space services and products despite disproportionately low civil spending. Modest government funding hasn’t held research back, either. At the NSSC, Dr Clara Sousa Silva pointed to TWINKLE, a £50 million mission which will look at the composition of planetary atmospheres beyond the solar system for much less than the larger James Webb Telescope, an $8.7 billion (£6 billion) mission, and long before Europe’s ARIEL mission launches in 2026.

While a lackadaisical approach by past governments proved fortuitous for industry, the sustainability of the flowering industry may rest on greater government involvement. A British Innovation and Skills report ‘The Space Economy in the UK’, and the ‘Case4Space’ by the Space Innovation and Growth Team (SIGT) argued government intervention – namely ameliorating market failures and less fragmented policy – is needed to foster growth and boost exports to £25 billion by 2030, according to the SIGT ‘2014-2030’ report.

The previous coalition government got more involved in space, moving away from the alleged hostility Gordon Brown showed aerospace and embracing these reports’ findings. The 2012 budget gave £60 million extra to the European Space Agency (ESA), and a proposed spaceport is another encouragement for investment in space. Innovate UK, a government body, was established to foster collaboration between scientists and businesses and provide a coherent space policy. These shifts are welcome, but more can be done. Upstream investments by the government independent of, and in addition to, the ESA will let companies’ acquisition new technology faster, and underwrite projects where longer term investments are needed; yet aerospace got no mention in Mr Osborne’s March budget. Shame. The sky’s the limit for a Britain unwilling to commit to its space industry.

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