The dawn of the Space Age, from the launch of Sputnik 1 to the Apollo 11 moon landing, was one of the defining periods of the twentieth century. Human space exploration advanced the frontiers of science, yet it also provided a new perspective on humanity’s place in the universe, fuelling scientific curiosity and inspiring a generation. While such activities may seem remote from everyday life, they played an integral role in the development of space technologies, many of which we now rely on: global positioning systems, for example, form the backbone of our emergency systems, while Earth observation satellites allow us to forecast the weather, and understand our climate, with increasing accuracy.
Space has also delivered important benefits to the UK economy. In 2012–13, the UK space economy generated a turnover of £11.8 billion, directly employed over 35,000 people and had delivered year on year economic growth rates of around 8% over the previous decade. We found an ambitious sector poised for even greater success, particularly in the field of small satellites, where we are recognised as a global leader.
The industry’s target to grow the UK’s share of the global space market from 6.5% to 10% by 2030 is highly contingent upon expanding the use of ‘space-enabled services’ by business and by the public sector. Achieving this target could deliver billions of pounds worth of new exports and up to 100,000 skilled jobs. But there is a lack of awareness of the ways in which satellite data can be used by bodies that sit outside of the traditional space sector. This is compounded by the inward-looking nature of the UK space and satellite industry, and its long-term failure to engage with other sectors. The Government, as well as local authorities, could be doing far more to stimulate awareness and growth through applying space-enabled services to help achieve effective and efficient policy delivery. The Space for Smarter Government Programme needs more resources so that it is able to work with Government departments to establish a cross-Government roadmap for using satellite data and developing space services.
The crisis in digital skills, identified in both our Big data dilemma and Digital skills crisis reports, is also apparent in the UK space and satellite sector, with witnesses highlighting it as a factor that may prevent the industry from reaching its ambitious growth targets. We agree with the Minister that Major Peake’s Principia Mission has inspired the nation, and will have done much to encourage young people to think about pursuing a career in STEM. Relying on the inspirational value of the mission, however, is insufficient to tackle the magnitude of the skills crisis facing the sector. It should be a call to arms, not a cause for complacency. Now is also the time to address the missing piece in the UK’s space ambitions and establish an expanded national space programme, alongside our contributions to the European Space Agency.
In other areas, the Government is forging ahead and attempting to place the UK in the vanguard of the next leap forward in space technology—the development of re-useable, commercial space planes. It has plans to establish a UK spaceport and in 2013 it announced an investment of £60 million in the British company ‘Reaction Engines’ and its ‘SABRE’ rocket engine, which is designed to be used in space planes. This was a bold decision, but it has not been followed by solid action. The technical requirements for the spaceport are narrow and risk limiting its use and value to industry. We ask the Government to set out the rationale, and evidence, for its current proposal.
Direct Government investment is an important element of the space and satellite funding landscape and it is vital that funds reach the intended recipient in a timely fashion. None of the £60 million promised by the Government had reached Reaction Engines by the time we took evidence from them in February 2016. The Government seems to have fallen short of the professional standards of investment that we would expect.
13 June 2016