Submission from Andrew Weston, University
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.
1. UK SPACE FUNDING
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."
2. A NATIONAL
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
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
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 competitionwithin a small group of
regional neighbour countriesfrom 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.
3. AN INDIGENOUS
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 (
http://www.reactionengines.co.uk/ ). Furthermore, launch technology
exists today in Trident (its American predecessor Polaris was
also upgraded by the UK). With modificationeg boostersthis
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.
Civil Space Activities (2006); 262. Parliamentary Office of
Science and Technology.
"Space expertise on the line" BBC
News online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4479756.stm
"UK space effort `starved of cash'"
BBC News online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/ukpolitics/4462788.stm
"UK `should have own astronauts'"
BBC News online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4929054.stm
"UK should `reverse astronaut ban'"
BBC News online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4351688.stm
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.