Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40
WEDNESDAY 6 DECEMBER 2006
Q40 Dr Iddon: You, that is the industry,
have been arguing that you should be full partners in the BNSC.
In view of the fact that they are the funding agency, do you think
it would be proper for the industry to be a fully-fledged partner
in the BNSC?
Mr Paynter: I think it is a question
of what "fully-fledged" means. Obviously we would not
be a funding partner to that, but we could help have a voice in
shaping policy, in shaping and understanding technology that lies
five or 10 years out and we could help articulate that. Whether
we need to be a full partner to do that, I am not sure, to be
fair, but it would be useful to have more of a voice. Interestingly,
I am a council member of PPARC personally and there is no real
conflict of interest at that sort of research council level in
terms of how we articulate from an industry perspective. I personally
am asked to leave for areas where there are conflicts of interest,
but I think they get benefit out of having those types of skills
and knowledge on the council.
Q41 Dr Iddon: Would any of our other
witnesses this morning agree or disagree with what Colin has said?
Are you guys arguing strongly for a space agency in Britain or
are we happy with the BNSC as it exists at the moment?
Mr Martin: The last question you
ask on the agency, I think I agree completely with what everyone
else has said, that at the current level of funding and the staffing
that we have in the BNSC to administer that funding, I think we
need to stay with the structure similar to that which we have
now, apart from maybe some of the details about how the executive
of that might work. On the other issues that you raise and on
the other issues that we have been talking about here on the partnership
of the BNSC, whether the industry should be part of that partnership,
I think the impression that I have gleaned over the years is that
sometimes some of the partners of the BNSC are maybe somewhat
reluctant partners and nobody would be more interested than industry
in making sure that the BNSC is a success, so in terms of who
are the key stakeholders in the BNSC, I definitely think that
the industry has to be one of the main ones. Whether that means
we should be part of the partnership, I do not know, but certainly
our interest should be part of the interest of the BNSC.
Q42 Dr Iddon: Presumably you are
consulted regularly by the BNSC?
Mr Martin: Very much so, yes.
Q43 Dr Iddon: Martin is nodding in
agreement with you. David?
Mr Williams: I think probably
I would suggest that the BNSC should have a bit more empowerment.
I agree with Stuart that some of the partners have been reluctant.
My personal view, which I know is not shared by everybody here,
is that some of the other ministries that are involved in the
BNSC should be regarded as users rather than as partners. It is
easier for us to provide them with solutions that they want and
they can use rather than asking them to define it upfront. I would
like to see a bit more empowerment of the good people we have
got inside the BNSC to enable them to act in an even more entrepreneurial
way and show more leadership because the only way that this industry
is going to continue to succeed is through speed. We have to do
the hard things and we have to do them quickly, so anything that
can be done to generate stronger leadership and dynamism in the
industry would be a good thing. I am not sure whether that means
an agency, but I think more empowerment is important.
Q44 Dr Iddon: So it sounds very much
as if the users should be separated out and we focus on the main
decision-makers in the partnership. That is what is coming over
to me. Would you agree with that?
Sir Martin Sweeting: I think broadly,
Q45 Dr Iddon: Could I turn to the
relationship between the BNSC now and the Ministry of Defence
which is a major player for obvious reasons. How close is that
relationship, Colin, between the MoD and the BNSC and could it
Mr Paynter: It could be improved.
I think the MoD have some very specific technology requirements
in some areas of their activities obviously, but the ability to
have benefits through dual-use technology I think is quite high
and will be higher in the future as the sort of military customisation
of satellites becomes quite specific. I would strongly welcome
much more involvement from the Ministry of Defence in the BNSC.
I think their involvement is fairly low both in financial terms
and in commitment terms, but I have seen some movement in that
with meetings set up between Lord Sainsbury and Lord Drayson in
terms of recently over the last 18 months. I think that is starting
to move in the right direction, but there is a lot more benefit,
I think, that could be created out of some joint technology programmes
between the MoD and the civil agencies.
Sir Martin Sweeting: I think perhaps
historically the MoD with space has focused primarily on national
communications capabilities for the MoD and then has been reliant
on the US particularly for other space services. I think we have
seen, certainly in the last couple of years, a broadening of interest
within the MoD, as has been expressed in the future air and space
concept, where the MoD is beginning to look a little bit more
widely at space, so consequently I would hope that their dialogue
with the BNSC outside in areas other than just communications,
for example, for military applications, will increase, so I see
a development of interest in the MoD and I would hope that it
before too long would follow and the discussions we were having
with the previous Minister, Lord Sainsbury, and Lord Drayson on
this, I think, are a very good indicator.
Q46 Chairman: Do you feel also that
Britain, that we, looking again at the MoD, ought to have a far
greater independent capability for monitoring rather than relying
very significantly on the US satellite system for military observation?
Sir Martin Sweeting: I think that
the change in world politics and the threats that we face have
started to catalyse a different way of thinking and that the stretching
of our allies' facilities in space means that having a degree
of national capability to support our own services is becoming,
I think, much more appropriate. Clearly the very large-scale and
very expensive capabilities that some of our allies have are perhaps
not appropriate for us to duplicate and not sensible, but, on
the other hand, having a certain set of tools in our toolbox where
we can help our Forces under certain situations, particularly
when our allies are stretched and their capabilities may not necessarily
meet our requirements, I think, is going to be increasingly important
to the MoD.
Q47 Bob Spink: I would like to address
regulation, licensing and the possible impact on space debris,
if you will excuse that pun. Each country is in itself self-regulating
within its international obligations and the UN treaties. Do you
think that this system works well, or that some countries do it
better than others?
Mr Williams: I have something
to say on that subject, as an operator who has recently been awarded
a licence. We are also going through the process of seeking further
licences and we are hoping to build another eight satellites.
The system in general is a good one. It is an unusual system and
it is an accident of history, but I think it works reasonably
well. In the UK it is administrated for us by Ofcom and I think
that Ofcom is a first rate regulator across the board. I think
they do their job very well and very diligently and they were
very helpful to us in the early days. There is a problem that
we face, which is that not all regulators outside the UK are quite
so good at their job as Ofcom, or perhaps they take a different
view. It is certainly beyond contention that some regulators will
interpret ITU guidelines and rules in a way which is very flexible
and gives a distinct competitive advantage to other satellite
operators. So there are satellite operators in Europe, for example,
for whom the same standard of rigour in interpretation of rules
and guidelines that apply to me does not apply, and that gives
me a competitive disadvantage. Ofcom do their job and they do
it very well but I other people are doing things differently and
it is causing us a problem, I think we need to address that.
Q48 Bob Spink: Do you think there
is a pragmatic problem? For instance, are you suspicious about
the fact that some satellites just inexplicably stop? Do you suspect
that that might be impact related?
Mr Williams: There are dirty tricks
that are played in the space industry without doubt, and sometimes
regulators outside the UK have a role to play in that, so either
we have to police
Bob Spink: Rather than dirty tricks I
was thinking of accidental impacts with space debris, but thank
you for your answer to that question; we will come back to that!
Q49 Chairman: That was much more
Sir Martin Sweeting: Stepping
out of that minefield for a moment, may I come back to your point
about the dangers of space debris and space? Yes, it does exist.
There are about 2000-odd satellites in earth orbit and there are
about 100,000 pieces of space junk. Space is very big but the
shuttle, for example, does make regular manoeuvres to avoid space
debris, and satellites have suffered damage from space debris
but it is still, fortunately, a very small fraction and the risk
is quite remote but real, and there are now regulations to try
to reduce the generation of space debris. The worst hazard is
not from the satellites themselves but it is when they fragment,
and to make sure that at the end of life they do have a finite
lifetime so that we do not just keep adding to this problem. Coming
back to the regulatory side, everybody has very ably discussed
the communications regulation area but the other areas of regulation
associated with the international space treaties and the national
treaty in this case, the Space Act, and how the industry in the
UK carries a large part of that burden in terms of providing the
necessary third party insurances and so forth, which are not necessarily
reflected in other countries where it is carried at a national
level. Particularly if we apply back to the question about SMEs,
as was mentioned earlier, as spacecraft are getting smaller and
lower cost the insurance for this actually dose not actually shrink
and the standing burden of the regulatory side in the Space Act
does become a larger proportion of these activities and that,
I do think, needs to have some examination to see whether the
regulatory environment in terms of our international obligations
is appropriate in the UK.
Q50 Bob Spink: What do you want to
see come out of the review of the Space Act?
Sir Martin Sweeting: In terms
of looking at the burden on industry and the commercial activities,
to make sure that essentially the licensing and the insurance
regime contained within that Act does not suppress the entrepreneurial
activities, particularly as we see some of the new and different
strands of activity coming up in the space programme.
Q51 Bob Spink: Ignore the shorthand
writer and talk turkey now. Do you think that we are over interpreting
the regulation, gold-plating the regulation in this country, where
other countries are not, and that is putting us at a competitive
disadvantage? Do you further think that that might drive some
operators from this country to operate in other countries?
Sir Martin Sweeting: The UK is
very diligent in the way that it interprets the Act and quite
rightly so, but I think it is perhaps an area where government
can play a larger area rather than shifting the full burden on
the industry, which might then, I believe, curtail the entrepreneurial
opportunities that we face.
Q52 Bob Spink: Is there anything
that the government can do or the international community can
or should do to look at this increasing issue of space debris
in order to prevent problems that are lining up for generations
in the future?
Sir Martin Sweeting: If I can
quickly answer that, and perhaps others might add, that there
are now policies which are going to try to ensure that satellites
have at the end of their life proper passivation, so that they
do not fragment, which is by far the biggest danger. Then after
that, in orbit, where it is practicable, to ensure that they have
a finite lifetime, so that they are brought back into the atmosphere
if in a lower orbit or moved to safe orbits if they are further
Q53 Chairman: Can I ask for the very
briefest of answers, if I may, from all of you? Last week we had
NASA in town and they announced their new lunar exploration programme,
which is very, very exciting. They made a clear offer to the UK
government to become involved in parts of that programme; do you
think we should?
Mr Williams: Yes.
Sir Martin Sweeting: Slightly
more expansive on that; I think definitely but I think we need
to play a role
Q54 Chairman: Is that definitely
Sir Martin Sweeting: Definitely
yes, but in an appropriate way, exploiting our robotic and communications
expertise in the UK.
Q55 Chairman: Stuart?
Mr Martin: Yes, I agree. From
an inspirational point of viewand we have not talked about
that at all yetI think an active and very public space
programme in the UK would be very important.
Q56 Chairman: By that you mean a
human space programme?
Mr Martin: We have particular
strengths in the area of robotics and communication services that
we already have in our space industry here, which we could apply
Q57 Chairman: So you would agree
with Martin about the robotics?
Mr Martin: I agree with Martin,
Mr Paynter: I agree with that
Q58 Chairman: To become involved
in a very specified area?
Mr Paynter: Yes.
Chairman: On that note could I thank
you all very, very much indeed for your time with us this morning.
We will move on to our next panel.