Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 56

Submission from the British Interplanetary Society


  UK Government space spending as a percentage of GDP is approximately a quarter of the average for space-faring nations and is lowest by a considerable margin. This is due to the UK Government failing to engage in any way in three quarters of the totality of space activities (the areas where the UK Government is involved are financed at typical GDP levels). This unique funding pattern arbitrarily excludes British scientists and industry from many important fields, to the great detriment of the national good. We urge the Committee to consider a more balanced and fair UK programme where the available money and organisation allow all UK space professionals a chance to make world-class contributions.

1.  Introduction

  1.1  The British Interplanetary Society (BIS) has been Britain's premier society concerned with astronautics and space technology since 1933. It is one of the oldest astronautical institutions in the world with a worldwide membership (a third of the fellowship lives abroad). It was a founding member of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) and in 2008 the BIS will host the 59th Congress of the IAF in Glasgow, welcoming up to 2,000 delegates from the entire international space community.

  1.2  These occasions inevitably highlight the host nation's activities in space. It is therefore timely that Parliament through a Select Committee has again turned its attention to the state of UK space activity. Despite previous Parliamentary Committees' findings, that addressed many problems requiring attention, we regret there remain significant weaknesses in UK space policy compared with other nations.

  1.3  British space has much to be proud of, but we also have a uniquely unbalanced programme and it is this that has created a dominating negative view of UK in space internationally, overshadowing the many successes we do have. The Glasgow Congress would be a wonderful opportunity to publicise to the world a new UK policy that is fairer to UK space professionals, more balanced in its objectives and more in line with every other space-fairing nation.

2.  The Lack of Balance

  2.1  The UK has a honourable and recognized history of achievement in some areas of space applications, for example in science, Earth observation and communications. The Case4Space study conducted by UKSpace (and forming the basis of their submission to the Committee's inquiry) has shown that these activities have led to a significant and highly productive space industry worthy of continued support.

  2.2  Despite this, the UK place in space is widely seen both internally and abroad as being weak—illustrated by the fact that new space achievements are greeted by the media with the surprised question, "Is Britain still in space?" The background to this perception includes the following factors.

    —  The UK government investment in space is absent in areas that other governments consider vital—about one quarter in comparison with other European nations. A consequence is that in many high profile space activities Britain is conspicuous by its absence.

    —  UK space business (as defined by Eurospace) consolidated turnover in 2005 was €502 million. This is significantly lower than France €1,838 million, Italy €733 million, and Germany €614 million, even though these comparison figures are the most favourable they have ever been due to a slight rise in the UK and a large drop in other European countries. (Source: ASD-Eurospace Facts and Figures: the European Space Industry 2005.)

    —  UK has 2nd largest aerospace industry, but only 3% of this is related to space (Source: SBAC UK aerospace industry survey 2006). This compares with 10-15% for other European nations and 25% for the USA.

  2.3  All these factors come down to the lack of balance in what is supported by the Government. By excluding three quarters of all space activity, the UK space budget is reduced to a quarter, but then so is the consequent industry, and detail of what is excluded has a disproportionate impact on the up-steam (space engineering) section and therefore aerospace industry particularly hard.

3.  Applications

  3.1  The first objective of the "UK Space Strategy 2003-06 and Beyond" is to "enhance the UK's standing in astronomy, planetary and environmental sciences."

  An objective that excludes all other science areas with an interest in using space capabilities from UK government support and hence any chance of pursuing involvement in many important research opportunities. The Government policy explicitly enshrines and endorses an unbalanced approach to space research.

  3.2  This exclusion is not because the UK does not have interest and world-class capability in these fields. Microgravity applications represent an immediate example. The strength of UK science in space applications to medicine, biology and materials science was demonstrated by the recent history of the 50 UK proposals to the ESA ELIPS programme—the European programme to exploit the research opportunities of the International Space Station. This was a comparable number of proposals to the 53 from France and the 56 from Germany, and they were judged by peer review to be of world-class quality. But all are excluded from the programme because of their UK origins. The consequences of this will be a loss of capability in many areas of critical interest to the UK, for example pharmaceuticals.

  3.3  The reason so many areas are excluded is they often use a human space presence to conduct the activity. There has been a long-standing resistance to UK involvement in manned spaceflight, an implicit policy that has never been justified in any way. When pushed the unofficial response reveals an incorrect preconception regarding the relative costs on manned and robotic missions. In fact the costs of conducting scientific research on robotic and human space facilities fall into the same range and there is no real cost difference between the approaches. Cost is certainly not a reason to exclude UK science researchers from programmes such as the International Space Station.

  3.4  We believe that the unbalanced policy has had serious consequences in terms of industrial, commercial and scientific capabilities of the UK including the ability to draw the next generation into science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The Case4Space studies have already uncovered strong evidence of the unique inspirational role of Space in encouraging young people in these fields, but it is the areas in which the UK does not participate (particularly human space flight) that have the biggest inspirational impact and if the enthusiasm generated is not to be turn into disillusion the promise must be fulfilled.

  3.5  The uniquely negative UK policy on human spaceflight has been reconsidered from a number of quarters recently including the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Aeronautical Society. In response to this renewed interest, the BIS held an open meeting on 27 May 2006 that was attended by many interested bodies. The meeting unanimously agreed the resolution:

    "This meeting recommends UK involvement in human spaceflight in order to benefit fully from the opportunities that spaceflight offers, managed by an appropriate national body."

  The resolution was later endorsed by the BIS Council on 9 September 2006 as part of Society policy and we would commend it to the Committee.

4.  Infrastructure

  4.1  A feature of UK space policy is that it solely focuses on applications, as laid out in the three objectives outlined in "UK Space Strategy 2003-06 and beyond". This has been interpreted to mean that UK government will primarily consider involvement in downstream utilisation activities, and up-steam satellite construction where it has a direct bearing on a downstream utilisation activity of interest. In particular this has exclude the UK from any involvement in what is generically known as the space infrastructure, that is launch systems, human spaceflight elements, and tracking and data relay systems.

  4.2  Because UK space policy supports only applications, and not the capabilities required to support those applications, there is a loss to the industry in business providing those support capabilities. For example, the UK pays non-UK providers to launch its spacecraft (up to 50% of the total space segment cost). In addition, since those applications that the UK supports are incomplete, there is a further loss of total business. In those areas supported by the UK, investment is similar to other space-faring nations on a GDP basis, but this double exclusion from major areas results in a business only about 25% of expectation (even after the over low spend is accounted for). Since the support activities represent those areas in which the aerospace industry has tended to take an interest, this also explains why the space segment of the UK aerospace industry is so small.

  4.3  The consequence is that the fastest growing sector of the aerospace is largely denied to the UK industry. Given the aerospace sector is such an important part of the UK industrial economy is a matter of concern. Despite the lack of any Government support, UK privately funded initiatives have ensured there is a considerable amount of world-class technologies and system expertise that could make the basis of a competitive contribution in the development of the space infrastructure. However, because of global market failure, without government support these are unlikely to be realised and the UK will lose out on the important benefits that they could provide.

  4.4  The House of Commons Select Committee on Trade and Industry found in its 10th report of the 1999-2000 session, which inquired into UK space policy, reached three recommendations and conclusions on UK launch systems policy; they were:

      "(p) The general perception among all those involved is that the Government and BNSC are following a policy of no involvement in launchers. It is our strong impression that in the BNSC there is a less than open mind on the use of public funds for launcher research and development. If Ministers do indeed have an open mind on the use of public funds for launcher research and development, they should make this explicit.

      (q)   We recommend that a review is undertaken of the UK's participation in launcher development programmes. Since no partner in the BNSC is likely to be fighting for UK involvement in reusable launch vehicles (RLVs), we also recommend that this evaluation be undertaken by a body independent of BNSC.

      (r)   The decision has now been made not to participate in the Future Launch Technologies Programme (FLTP). The UK has, however, technical expertise in the area worthy of maintaining and developing. We recommend that consideration should be given to ways of maintaining and developing. We recommend that consideration should be given to ways of fostering existing UK expertise in technical space infrastructure in the UK outside the normal avenues of space technology funding."

  With some small exceptions that seem to relate to personal initiatives of individuals rather than any policy changes, the evidence presented to the Trade and Industry Committee remains valid and none of these recommendations seem to have been acted upon. Certainly we are not aware of any public domain review that has informed policy direction.

5.  Conclusions

  5.1  The long-standing UK space policy was been to only get involved with robotic applications when there is an overwhelming case created by mature operational systems created by other nations. This is stifling innovation even in the areas the Government policy will consider. In many other areas both applications and the development of a space industry in its own right to support all applications the UK space community is unable to meaningfully contribute.

  5.2  The consequence of this unbalance is unfairness within both the science and the engineering communities. This leads to many lost opportunities to exploit British expertise and is the reason the overall wider space industry is small compared with other nations. The UK downstream industry should be three times the size it is and the upstream (space engineering) industry should be between five and 10 times the size. It is consideration such as this that have lead every independent review of UK space policy that we are aware of to conclude the narrow scope it not in the national interest.

  5.3  To redress the unbalance and unfairness will obviously require new money; making the UK overall spend more like that of a typical space-fairing nation. However there also needs to be an organisation and mechanism for spending that money. The long-standing UK problems are perpetuated because there is no government institution or even person with the responsibility for these areas. This institution or institutions (there are many models that can be considered) would enable the worth and potential of UK areas of space expertise to be properly and objectively evaluated, and, where justified, funded as they would be in any other developed nation. Such a change in the government's organization and commensurate support would release a new era of benefits of wider and greater impact than the past successful investment has provided.

October 2006

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