Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 70

Submission from Andrew Weston, University of Warwick

  Based on historical evidence and current analyses I submit the following recommendations to the Committee in the hope that members will both be able to address the shortcomings of UK space policy in the current and longer term interests of the country and to re-awaken a belief that the UK has a future in space alongside any nation and a sense of how neglected British involvement in space has been over the past 30 years.

  My own background is not in space science but as a researcher it is ever striking how through existing space policy the country effectively has set itself a technological upper limit on what it is prepared to do. It is hoped the following enlightens on these restrictions.


  Abandonment of the UK's original space project was primarily on economic grounds eg universities being built in the 1960s. The fact remains however that this diversion of resources was not intended to be permanent. The UK economy has grown consistently since 1991 and anyway is more stable than the post-war three or four decades.

  A recent report by the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology summarised important concerns:

    —  It recognised concern over the amount spent by Government despite UK policy being tightly objective-based. "China, India and Japan have rapidly expanding space programmes. In October 2005 China completed its second human space mission, while India is developing an indigenous launch capability."

    —  Collaborations are often sought by countries with major or expanding space programmes but "since 65-70% of the UK's budget is spent through ESA, such collaborations often have to be turned down. In 2004-05, £55 million of PPARC's £66 million expenditure on space went to ESA."

  An expenditure of £200 million on civil space activities puts Britain, according to a BBC News Online article, 16th in the world behind India and far behind France.

  Labour and Conservative MPs have remarked on current investment in the space sector at the end of last year:

    —  Conservative MP Nigel Evans, "Britain will be seen as a country that really isn't interested, that's not committed to the space industry. When there are other collaborations in the future Britain won't even be thought of."

    —  Labour MP Bill Olner "It's no good the government giving warm words and reassurance. That's got to be matched by investment."


  The Parliamentary report also remarked:

    —  "A report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee into government support of Beagle 2 pointed to a lack of oversight of the project both on the part of ESA and of the UK government, although it praised the government's enthusiasm for the project."

    —  "Some concerns remain over a lack of `joined-up thinking' across government and lack of appreciation of the benefits of space."

  In view of calls having been made across the government that the UK must be able to compete economically with China to survive, it is essential that the UK allocates funds to whichever collaborations serve the public and national interest best rather than an unthinking bias towards solely European collaboration. It simply does not appear to be a coherent, "joined-up" approach to divert most space resources to ESA and then have to compete to harvest the benefits from them. If, as the National Audit Office thought, that the BNSC is an efficient and praiseworthy structure through which funding is coordinated then it makes more sense that the coordination of space strategy is also undertaken at a national level at all times which evidently it is not at present.

  The report recognises the possibility of a UK space agency as a national coordination body but which would require adequate funding to be successful. The validity of such an organisation has been lent support by recent comments from British-born astronauts, academics and organisations who lament the effective decline in the UK's historic space ambitions despite the current economic revival:

    —  A Royal Astronomical Society report warned that the UK could become isolated on the international stage if a re-evaluation was not conducted of the government policy not to fund human exploration of space. Co-author Dr John Dudeney: "The UK is the fourth largest economy in the world. We have an amazingly rich and diverse capability in engineering and science; we have an enormously powerful capability and it could be used in this context to great effect."

    —  British-born astronauts, with suspected significant loss of national public interest, have to obtain foreign citizenship and wear foreign badges on their person to fly into space. Astronaut Piers Sellers has recently voiced his support for UK funded astronauts.

  The inspirational value of seeing British efforts in space is hard to quantify despite the obvious interest in the Beagle 2 mission. Speaking of the Surrey Satellite Technology constructed Galileo satellite precursor Giove-A launched last year, University of Surrey vice-Chancellor Chris Snowden remarked: "This is an international stage we are on today in higher education, so having a successful programme like this heightens the level of interest for students. I hope it will encourage them to pursue this type of career. I think it shows that the UK can still be at the forefront in science and space technology despite what we see going on in the rest of the world."

  However, the problem of coordination seems to be summed up by Ian Waddell of Amicus who stated last year in relation to the impact on the UK space sector's industrial and high-level skill base: "The underlying problem to all this is that there isn't a coherent space policy in the UK ... The DTI's contribution is only one part of the total UK space budget; and the other departments don't see space as being that important to them in the grand scheme of things."

  The delivery of public benefits and wealth creation through space and the ability of the UK to be a technological leader cannot be achieved if the arrangement under which space strategy is ultimately directed represents derogation of control. This does not represent international cooperation which could be achieved by a national space agency in full control on a case-by-case basis but cut-throat competition—within a small group of regional neighbour countries—from the outset which to an area so vital to the future of the nation appears extremely self-defeating. Turning down collaborations with willing potential international partners as a result looks bad in itself and surely bodes extremely badly for the future.


  British involvement in launchers for satellites and orbit payloads ceased in 1971 shortly before the ascendancy of commercial launches through Ariane (largely a product of initial British investment), NASA and Russian launchers. C N Hill estimates that up to 20 of the satellite launches for 1999 would have been within the capability of 1960s-1970s UK launch technology alone and that given investment in a suitable launch site and starting from existing blueprints of UK projects a launch capability would still be feasible. Satellite design and manufacture is the major component of the British space industry and is a beneficiary of the national investment into the original launch facilities.

  Additionally, work was started on a re-usable innovative single-stage-to-orbit launcher (Hotol) in the 1980s but was cancelled by Margaret Thatcher's government in 1985. The ability to de-classify the designs for this project remains with the government of today and the technology has been taken forward in the form of Skylon by Reaction Engines Ltd ( ). Furthermore, launch technology exists today in Trident (its American predecessor Polaris was also upgraded by the UK). With modification—eg boosters—this system is a candidate for a launch vehicle. With a debate on today's nuclear deterrent replacement imminent and one option being to upgrade Trident, what might be described by some as a "necessary evil" might be more palatable if the technology had a wider, more pro-active use to the economy and progress.

  Re-establishing a national launch capacity in some form is thus likely to provide economic gain and to provide a legacy of capabilities in an area that is only set to increase in usage in the future. It would provide the opportunity to bid for launch contracts within the EU and outwith benefitting the UK economy and expand the worldwide market thereby providing the widest possible benefit.

It is surely a lazy assumption that space is any less the UK's concern than any other country in view of the space-faring plans of a multitude of nations including China, India and Japan. Prioritizing future technologies in the past has led to the staple transport, energy and defence means that we rely on today. It is incumbent upon the political leadership of the present to make such an investment in the future.

  "As so often in the development of new technology, economy in expenditure has resulted in too little being done to achieve success and the money, time and effort that has been expended has been spent to little purpose. It seems to us to be a classic case of `penny wise, pound foolish'."—Select Committee on Science and Technology, 27 October 1971 on Britain's involvement in space.

REFERENCES  UK Civil Space Activities (2006); 262. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.

  "Space expertise on the line" BBC News online:

  "UK space effort `starved of cash'" BBC News online:—politics/4462788.stm

  "UK `should have own astronauts'" BBC News online:

  "UK should `reverse astronaut ban'" BBC News online:

  A Vertical Empire: The History of the UK Rocket and Space Programme 1950-1971 (2002). Hill, C N.

  Backroom Boys: the secret return of the British Boffin (2003). Spufford, F.

November 2006

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