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
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and have also written some unpublished stage plays with space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
3. RELEVANT FACTUAL
3.1 In his Foreword to The UK Space Strategy
2003-06 and beyond, Lord Sainsbury, Minister for Science and
"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
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
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
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 spacecarbon-free, nuclear-safe and
infinitely sustainableis 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
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 interestmuch 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
(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
(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.