Select Committee on Science and Technology Seventh Report


1. Space has intrigued and inspired humankind for centuries. The unexplored vastness of space tempts questions, such as whether life exists elsewhere or whether humans could survive without the Earth. Over the last fifty years, humankind's relationship with space has changed dramatically. Technological advances mean that people no longer have to be content observing space from the Earth but can actively explore it. Since the first man-made object Sputnik 1 was launched in 1957, men have walked on the Moon and lived aboard spacecraft, satellites have been launched, scientific missions have explored the planets in our solar system, and the Hubble Space Telescope has discovered new planets in the Milky Way. Humankind's increasing activity in space is demonstrated by the more than 100,000 objects that are currently orbiting the Earth. However, building up knowledge of nearby planets and stars has only served to emphasise how little humankind knows about the universe beyond. People's imaginations have filled in these knowledge gaps, producing novels such as The War of the Worlds or The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, television programmes like Battlestar Galactica or Star Trek, and musical works such as The Planets.[1] The idea of space, its potential and its unknowns, will continue to tempt scientists to explore and all to speculate.

Our inquiry

2. The UK is involved in numerous space activities, ranging from robotic exploration to satellite navigation to Earth observation. We undertook this inquiry in order to discover the ways in which the space sector can benefit the UK by helping to deliver services, by contributing to the economy, and by inspiring young scientists. Our inquiry has been particularly timely for two reasons. First, the Government is currently undertaking a Comprehensive Spending Review and the recommendations we make here will, we hope, feed into that process. Second, the British National Space Centre, which co-ordinates the space-related activities of Government departments and Research Councils, launched a consultation on its new strategy in January 2007.[2] The strategy is expected to be published in the autumn.

3. On 19 July 2006 we announced an inquiry into UK civil space policy. We invited evidence on the following points:

  • The impact of current levels of investment on space-related activities on the UK's international competitiveness in this sector;
  • The benefits and value for money obtained from participation in the European Space Agency and other international programmes;
  • The maximisation of commercial benefits and wealth creation from UK space-based technologies through innovation and knowledge transfer;
  • The delivery of public benefits from the space-related activities of different Government departments (eg. DEFRA, MoD, DTI, DfT), and the co-ordination of these activities; and
  • Support for space-related research and the UK skills base.

We received a total of 121 memoranda in response to this general call and to later specific requests for written evidence, and we thank all those who contributed to the inquiry in this way. We acknowledge the work of the House of Commons Scrutiny Unit in helping to provide economic analysis of some evidence. We would also like to thank our specialist adviser, Professor Mike Cruise, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research and Knowledge Transfer) at the University of Birmingham.

4. We held seven evidence sessions, hearing from industrialists, knowledge transfer specialists, the British National Space Centre, European Space Agency, organisations involved in space education, industrialists and academics in the field of Earth observation and satellite navigation, space scientists, space medicine and space tourism experts. Details of the witness panels are provided at the end of the Report. The final evidence session was held with the then Minister of State for Science and Innovation, Malcolm Wicks MP and Dr David Williams, Director General, BNSC. We are grateful to all those who gave oral evidence during this inquiry. Transcripts of the oral evidence sessions are published alongside this Report, together with written evidence submitted to the inquiry. We would like to note the helpful and open approach that BNSC has taken to our inquiry, in particular providing supplementary material to a tight timescale. In addition, the space industry has been very supportive of this inquiry. However, we have been subjected to inappropriate and excessive lobbying by those representing certain parts of the industry, which could easily have proved counterproductive to the strong story the UK space industry has to tell.

5. During the course of this inquiry we held two informal briefing meetings and undertook two visits. On 8 November 2006, we held a private informal seminar with Mr Raj Sivalingam, Director of Space Policy and Europe, BNSC, Miss Paula Freedman, Director of DTI Space within BNSC, Professor Martin Barstow, University of Leicester, Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson, President of the Royal Astronomical Society, Colin Paynter, Managing Director of EADS Astrium, Sir Martin Sweeting, Chief Executive of Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, and Mr Rupert Pearce, General Counsel, Inmarsat. On 29 November 2006, we held a private meeting with the NASA STS-121 Space Shuttle crew, including British-born astronaut Piers Sellers. On 30 January 2007 we visited the University of Leicester Space Research Centre and the National Space Centre in Leicester, and held an oral evidence session in the Shuttle Suite at the National Space Centre. On 6 March 2007 we visited ESA Headquarters in Paris and discussed our inquiry with ESA representatives. On 27 March 2007 we visited the Space Science and Technology Department at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. Our thanks go to those who arranged and participated in these informative meetings.

6. Our inquiry has focused on the civil rather than military uses of space.[3] We have found, however, that there is an increasing overlap between the uses of space for civil and military purposes and many spacecraft technologies and applications can be used in both sectors. We may return to the military use of space and so-called 'dual use' systems in the future.

7. Since completing the oral evidence sessions for this inquiry, there have been changes in the machinery of government that have resulted in the splitting of the responsibilities of the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Education and Skills into three new departments: the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, and the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Given that the DTI and DfES were both members of the BNSC partnership, this Report presumes that the BNSC will continue to work with these new departments. The BNSC, previously hosted by the Department of Trade and Industry, has moved to the new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.


8. The space sector, particularly the BNSC, has been the subject of numerous reports over the past decade outlined in Box 1.

Box 1: Reports on Civil Space Policy

9. As well as these general inquiries, a number of reports have focused on individual programmes. In November 2004, our predecessor Committee produced a report on the Government's involvement in the ill-fated Beagle 2 robotic mission to Mars.[4] Three months later, the ESA/UK Commission of Inquiry produced their report into the loss of Beagle 2.[5] In November 2004, the House of Commons Transport Select Committee published a report on Galileo, the European satellite navigation system, which expressed concern regarding the costs and the timescale of the project.[6]


10. In the following chapters of this Report, we take an overview of space activities in the UK. We consider first the current UK space policy and the forthcoming space strategy. In Chapter 3, we focus on the way in which space activities are organised in the UK through the BNSC partnership and we discuss whether this partnership should be replaced by a space agency. Chapter 4 explores international relations, the UK's role in ESA, the European space policy and the opportunity for bilateral missions. In Chapter 5, we move on to the way in which the Government supports the space industry in the UK through the ESA programme, national programmes and alternative funding mechanisms. In Chapter 6, we focus upon space science and technology and in chapter 7 we consider the ways in which the development and exploitation of technology could be improved. Chapter 8 looks at Earth observation programmes such as the ESA Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) programme. In Chapter 9 we concentrate on satellite navigation, particularly the Galileo programme, and telecommunications. We then move on to discuss robotic and manned exploration, space tourism and launchers in Chapter 10. Finally in Chapter 11 we present our observations and recommendations on the impact of space in education, the co-ordination of space activities and outreach work.

11. Throughout this Report BNSC is taken to mean the BNSC partnership. References to BNSC Headquarters will be specified when it is the Headquarters' function that is relevant.

Does space matter?

12. In his foreword to the consultation on the UK's space strategy, the Minister for Science and Innovation states that "Space matters. Year by year, it forms an ever greater part of everyone's life."[7] Space is becoming an increasingly important sector for the UK. Satellites are able to aid navigation, supply data about the Earth and its climate, deliver mobile communications and broadcasting, and provide vital information for disaster relief and humanitarian aid. The exploration of space is increasingly able to answer questions not only about other planets but also about the Earth. Technologies that have been developed initially for use in space have been applied in other sectors such as security, healthcare or defence. When one answers the phone, watches the television, uses GPS in the car, makes a financial transaction, or searches for a map on the internet, one might be benefiting from space. Looking ahead, space may be used to provide remote healthcare, to warn of natural disasters, or even as a holiday destination. Space is also seen to be inspirational, a point we will return to later on.

13. During this inquiry, we have been aware that the evidence that we have received has been self-selective and that we have heard from people who have tended to take the importance of space for granted. We are conscious that some critics will argue that space is high risk and costly. There are numerous examples of projects that have not gone to plan. Cryosat, the satellite that was intended to monitor sea ice thickness, crashed shortly after its launch in October 2005. In 2003, scientists lost contact with the Beagle 2 Lander on the Martian surface. The Apollo 1 and Challenger disasters are also stark warnings of loss of human life as well as significant financial resources. In June 2005, the BBC asked the general public their views on human exploration to the Moon or Mars. Approximately 20,000 votes were cast. Of these 20,000 votes, 3370 people added written comments, with 61% of these comments in favour of human exploration and 26% against. Of the 26% that were opposed, "the commonest reason given was that resources should be better spent tackling more immediate problems like poverty in Africa, the funding of the NHS etc."[8]

14. In fact, the Government currently spends only £207.61 million (0.038% of its overall budget) on space, for which the political rewards are myriad, both for UK subjects and for the wider world.[9] There is much to learn from the exploration of space. We believe that space is a highly significant area of science policy. As other countries continue to exploit and explore space, it is crucial that the UK is also involved in this sector and it is necessary for the Government to take a more strategic approach to space.

1   H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (London: Picador, 2002) Back

2   BNSC, A Consultation on the UK Civil Space Strategy 2007-2010, January 2007  Back

3   More information on the UK's military use of space can be found in Military Uses of Space, POST note 273, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, December 2006. Back

4   Science and Technology Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2003-04, Government support for Beagle 2, HC 711 Back

5   ESA/UK Commission of Inquiry, Beagle 2, April 2004 Back

6   Transport Committee, Eighteenth Report of Session 2003-04, Galileo, HC 1210  Back

7   BNSC, A Consultation on the UK Civil Space Strategy 2007-2010, p 2 Back

8   Royal Astronomical Society, Report of the Commission on the Scientific Case for Human Space Exploration, October 2005, p 26 Back

9   HM Treasury, Budget 2006, March 2006, p 7 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 17 July 2007