Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 68

Submission from Stephen Ashworth, Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society


  1.1  Space tourism is about to become a major new industry, but requires an economic method of access to orbit. British engineers have been trying to interest successive governments for at least 15 years in a public-private partnership to build a space plane to serve this market, but without success.

  1.2  Solar power harvested in space is likely to make a major contribution to future industrial energy use. Since it is infinitely sustainable, low-pollution and capable of long-term growth, its importance is hard to overstate. But Britain does not seem to be taking any action to develop it.

  1.3  Britain's Beagle 2 Mars probe was popular with the public, and represents technologies with future commercial and security applications. But no successors have been funded.

  1.4  Given that these opportunities are falling by the wayside, it seems that Britain's current Space Strategy is not being effectively implemented, but is in reality more show than substance. British government policy appears to be to allow our international competitors to develop new space services first, so that Britain ends up impoverishing itself as a purchaser rather than a supplier of them.

  1.5  Exploration of the natural resources available in space and on other worlds is a matter of strategic importance to Britain, just as was global exploration in earlier centuries.


  2.1  I work in Oxford University as a freelance academic typesetter, and am 53 years old.

  2.2  I have for many years taken a non-professional interest in spaceflight. Recent articles by myself on the subject may be found in Spaceflight magazine for April and June 2006, and I have contributed a discussion of lunar exploration to the correspondence section of the May 2006 issue. I edit an e-mail newsletter called Astronautical Evolution to promote discussion of space and society.

  2.3  I am the author of a booklet-length science-fiction poem entitled Creation (ISBN0-9536158-0-4), and have also written some unpublished stage plays with space themes which have been presented as rehearsed readings with actors in Oxford.


  3.1  In his Foreword to The UK Space Strategy 2003-06 and beyond, Lord Sainsbury, Minister for Science and Innovation, wrote:

    "This document sets out the strategy for realising our vision against three clear objectives:

      —  enhancing the UK's standing in astronomy, planetary and environmental sciences;

      —  stimulating increased productivity by promoting the use of space in government, science and commerce;

      —  developing innovative space technologies and systems, to deliver sustainable improvement in the quality of life


    We will continue to encourage new ideas, which are the lifeblood of scientific and technological advance and ultimately of commercial success. This strategic framework will allow us to do this in a coherent way."

  3.2  In December 2003, Britain's Beagle 2 probe was lost while attempting to land on Mars. It was a one-off mission, with no follow-up flights planned, either to overcome failure or to capitalise on success. Calls from Professor Colin Pillinger, who has been the driving force behind Beagle 2, for government money for a successor have been ignored. All future British Mars exploration has been united with the Aurora programme of the European Space Agency (ESA).

  3.3  In April 2005, ESA responded to the success of its Mars Express orbiter and the failure of the Beagle 2 lander by postponing its next Mars mission, the planned ExoMars lander, by two years, thus leaving a nine-and-a-half-year hiatus between one landing attempt and the next. If, as seems likely, only a single spacecraft is sent, it will be as vulnerable as was Beagle 2 to random failure and, in the event of failure, to long delay before any successor is despatched.

  3.4  In February 1994, Bristol Space planes Ltd completed a feasibility study of an economical ground-to-orbit space plane for ESA. The study concluded that such a vehicle could be built with existing engines and proven materials and systems for a development cost of less than £2 billion. ESA did not take the study further, but developed instead the Automated Transfer Vehicle, now due to go into service in late 2007. At a meeting in November 2005, David Ashford, the principal author of the Bristol Space planes study, asserted that the ATV cost about the same to develop as a first-generation reusable space plane, but about 100 times as much to fly, and described ESA's decision as one of the most wasteful in the history of spaceflight. He concluded by repeating his long-standing call for a public-private partnership to develop space plane access to orbit.

  3.5  Another British company, Reaction Engines Ltd, has also for many years urged the British government to establish a private-public partnership to build an economical reusable space plane, so far without success.

  3.6  After pressure from Lembit Öpik MP, the government set up a Near Earth Object Task Group to examine the security hazard from near-Earth asteroids, and the contribution the UK might make to researching them and reducing the risk. In September 2000, it published 14 recommendations for action, which were accepted by Lord Sainsbury. Since then, one recommendation has been implemented, resulting in the setting-up of the Near Earth Objects Information Centre in Leicester. The other 13 recommendations have not yet been acted upon.

  3.7  The basis of modern civilisation is economic growth. It is certain that almost all the natural resources of potential interest to industry are extraterrestrial, including notably solar energy, and water and strategic metals in the near-Earth asteroids. Therefore exploration of the resources found in space and on other worlds in space is not a question of pure science alone. It is above all an economic question, which will assume ever increasing significance as the 21st century progresses and terrestrial resources come under increasing pressure.

  3.8  The economic aspect of space exploration has been obscured by the focus of the major space agencies of the world on prestige projects, notably the International Space Station. Yet the advent of private space explorers, including Britain's Helen Sharman in 1991 and the current work being done by the British company Virgin Galactic, demonstrates that even without government support economic applications of manned spaceflight will emerge, though more slowly than otherwise.


  4.1  The UK Space Strategy focuses on, amongst other things, innovation and commercial return. Obviously, in doing so it ventures into the realm of speculative enterprise. Yet it has strong foundations for doing so: communications and Earth observation satellites have become economically justified and indispensable parts of modern life. Given that the space age is only in its infancy (next year sees the fiftieth anniversary of the launching of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1), other commercially important applications of space are very likely to arise as technology progresses.

  4.2  Among those who have studied the subject, there seems to be little doubt that in the near future two new space enterprises are likely to make the breakthrough to multi-billion pound industries. These are space tourism and solar power from space.

  4.3  Space tourism in the sense of a mass leisure pursuit has not yet arrived. But private space exploration, in which a company or a wealthy individual pays for a seat on an existing government spacecraft, began as early as December 1990, when the Japanese reporter Toyohiro Akiyama visited the Mir space station, and has continued with regular visits to the International Space Station by private individuals, most recently the Iranian-born US engineer and entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari.

  4.4  Given the success of the X-Prize-winning SpaceShipOne and the further work now being done, particularly in the USA, it is clear that the age of true space tourism is rapidly approaching. The Select Committee will be aware that much pioneering design work has been done over the past twenty years by British engineers towards are usable space plane to open up this new market. If the UK Space Strategy meant what it said, at least one of these designs would be being energetically promoted in a partnership of public seed-corn funding and private investment.

  4.5  Regrettably, it appears that this is not happening, and that instead of selling space planes to the world, the UK has decided to position itself as a purchaser of products from the United States. In this regard, the Select Committee will have already noted that Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic company, although British, is buying its hardware from American manufacturers, despite the fact that equivalent designs have been promoted by British engineers for the past 15 years.

  4.6  It is hard to overstate the importance of space plane access to low Earth orbit, given that all activities in space are currently restricted by the enormous costs of launching them into space. These costs are a by product of the Cold War, which caused ballistic missiles to be pressed into service as space launchers, rather than high-speed aeroplanes along the lines of the X-15.

  4.7  The lack of UK government interest is felt all the more acutely since the removal from service of Concorde deprived Britain of a universally loved national icon. The Select Committee will be aware that Concorde provides a useful technological basis for the launcher of a two-stage orbital commercial space plane, and that the potential market for such a vehicle is very much greater than the market for supersonic air travel turned out to be.

  4.8  Two of the most important issues facing current and future UK governments are the sustainability of industrial energy supplies, and the problems of dealing with the pollution caused by energy use. Obviously, there is no magic solution, and the future of energy will be characterised by diversity in energy sources as well as increasing efficiency in their use. Yet solar power has not received the prominence which it deserves.

  4.9  Since almost all solar energy passes by our planet or is partly obscured by the atmosphere and the day-night cycle, solar energy needs to be harvested in space. Unlike fossil fuels, which will only be available for centuries to come, solar energy can be guaranteed for billions of years. Unlike fossil fuels, whose ability to match increasing global demand is in doubt, solar energy is in vastly greater supply than humanity's current needs, provided that it is captured in space, allowing a significant margin for future growth. And unlike fossil or nuclear fission fuels, the use of solar energy from space on Earth would cause relatively little pollution. (The main pollution concerns are the rocket launches necessary to send equipment for manufacturing solar cells to the Moon, where raw materials can be mined in quantity, and the microwaves with which the energy harvested in space would be transmitted to the ground, though the semicrowaves would be deliberately defocused so as not to create any health hazard at the receiving station.)

  4.10  A fully fledged space solar power system would require very large photovoltaic arrays in orbit, and would therefore represent a huge investment. But there is scope for a country such as the UK to build and operate a small prototype demonstration satellite. The image of the first light bulb lit by power harvested in space—carbon-free, nuclear-safe and infinitely sustainable—is likely to become an icon of hope for humanity, as well as a forerunner of export orders for developing a mature system for energy-hungry developing nations such as China, India and Brazil. Such a prototype would need a public-private partnership. If the UK SpaceStrategy meant what it said, this project would have high priority. Regrettably, this appears not to be the case, and the UK appears to have decided to leave the opportunities of satellite-based solar power to our international competitors.

  4.11  A few words on the significance of the Beagle 2 project are in order. Firstly, the fact that the spacecraft was completely identified with the UK created immense public interest—much more than was the case with the successful Huygens probe to Titan, which, although it had British equipment on board, including the first experiment to contact the surface, was owned by Europe and was never seen as British by the public in the same way.

  4.12  Secondly, the technologies in Beagle 2 are of more than purely scientific interest. For the same technologies, applied to exploration of the near-Earth asteroids, are of potential economic significance, given that their natural resources are likely to become important as activity in space increases. At the same time they have a security application, in the event that an asteroid is found on a collision course with Earth and needs to be diverted in order to avert a major natural disaster.

  4.13  It is hard to see how our effectively abandoning Beagle 2, by allowing it to become absorbed into the multinational and slow-moving Aurora programme, fulfils the SpaceStrategy's goal of "enhancing the UK's standing" in planetary science.

  4.14  Other witnesses may argue that the UK should rejoin the European astronaut corps, with the object of flying British government astronauts on the International Space Station. Assuming that this represents a cost-effective way of conducting medical research and inspiring young people to take up science and engineering at university, it would be logical for the Departments of Education and of Health to share the cost. Since their combined annual budgets come to about £160 billion, whereas the annual cost of a modest astronaut programme would easily be less than one thousandth of this, it would appear to be reasonably affordable, even given the current high costs of space station access.

  4.15  To conclude, I invite the Select Committee to consider the following menu of opportunities for possible greater UK government commitment to space:

    (a)  Most significantly for the future of aerospace in this country, the UK could implement its current Space Policy by supporting the embryonic British space plane manufacturing industry in a private-public partnership, under the auspices of the Department of Trade and Industry.

    (b)  The Department of Energy could develop a prototype solar power satellite as a practical demonstration of a sustainable and low-pollution industrial energy supply.

    (c)  The current space science budget could be supplemented with new money to permit an ongoing programme of scientific probes modelled on Beagle 2, to Mars and to selected near-Earth asteroids. The increase in funding should be justified not so much by scientific return as by the strategic need to keep the UK abreast of emerging technologies with future commercial and security applications.

    (d)  The Departments of Education and of Health could share the cost of sending British scientists to the International Space Station.

    (e)  The recommendations of the Near Earth Object Task Group could be implemented in full.

  4.16  Finally, rather than specific recommendations, I offer the Select Committee the following general points to bear in mind when considering options for government action:

    (a)  Given the natural resources of space and the continuing need for economic growth, it is in Britain's strategic national interest to cultivate development of those resources(solar energy, space tourism, asteroidal metals) through public-private partnerships.

    (b)  Given the slow pace of international collaborations, including the European Space Agency, and their habitual focus on high-cost methods, Britain should consider carefully whether a given project would be more cost-effective as a national project, or as a collaboration with one or two selected international partners. We should not simply assume that anything to do with space should be handed to ESA to deal with.

    (c)  Value for money to Britain may be achieved not so much by copying what other countries are doing as by identifying potentially valuable areas of activity which have so far escaped serious attention. Obviously, this includes low-cost access to space, which currently is mainly in the hands of the private sector, and would possibly offer the greatest leverage per pound spent. Other such areas include a practical demonstration of solar power from space, and asteroid prospecting for volatiles and minerals.

    (d)  Any political party or government which regards itself as progressive has an interest in sharing the commercial and technological risks of developing the resources and opportunities of the space frontier. It is time that this was reflected in political rhetoric and practice, in Britain and elsewhere.

October 2006

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