Satellites and space Contents

4Looking to the future

92.We conclude this report by examining how the UK’s space and satellite policy could be further refined in the future, with a consideration of the UK’s relationship with the European Space Agency and the National Space Policy.

A national space programme?

93.As part of this inquiry, we considered whether the UK was striking the right balance between national and European/ international space endeavour. Witnesses broadly agreed that participating in the European Space Agency (ESA) enabled the UK to take part in valuable missions that it could not perform on its own. But this was matched by a concern that the UK space sector, and its ability to contribute to ESA missions, was being harmed by the lack of a national programme—something that other leading European space nations, including France, Germany and Italy have each established and continue to develop.

94.Many witnesses believed that, through developing a ‘home-grown’ programme, British national industries would be provided with a competitive advantage when bidding for European or global contracts. According to STFC, “other nations with large national programmes [were] particularly successful at using their nationally developed capability to underpin international programmes and thereby gain access to the missions their communities need”. It warned that, without a national programme to generate technical and scientific advances, “the UK will increasingly have less to contribute to European programmes, and consequently increasingly lose influence over these programmes’ directions and content”.139

95.Witnesses from both industry and academia stressed the importance of national technology demonstration programmes, as discussed in paragraphs 57–60, and also suggested that a national space programme would provide leverage to participate in bilateral missions. The Mullard Space Science Laboratory noted that bilateral mission involvement “can enhance the relationship with countries in a way that other industries don’t” and that they “tend to be faster and less demanding than [European Space Agency] projects, allowing for greater innovation, training and flight demonstration”.140 According to the Universities of Leicester and Oxford, however, the UK Space Agency does not currently have a mechanism for participation in, or funding of, bilateral projects with other space agencies.141

96.A solution proposed by some witnesses was to establish a modest national programme alongside the UK’s contribution to ESA. Dr Marcell Tessenyi described how “our major European competitors (Germany, France, Italy) all do this and watch in amazement as the UK simply hands increasing amounts of money to ESA rather than running its own programme in parallel”.142 UKspace emphasised that a national programme needed “to be flexible in execution, enabling bilateral and multilateral partnerships”.143

97.When we asked the Minister if the Government had considered the pros and cons of having our own national space programme, he replied that it was “an important bit of analysis”.144 His response, however, focused solely on how ESA benefits the UK and made no comment on the benefits or risks associated with establishing a national programme, alongside our contribution to ESA. Dr David Parker from the UK Space Agency later emphasised that the UK does have a “national space technology programme” that supports the development of technologies at low levels of market readiness.145 Innovate UK welcomed the programme, noting that the “foundations” of a national investment programme were now “in place”. It added, however, that a “good balance in terms of comprehensive national support programme has not yet been reached”.146

98.Over three-quarters of the UK Space Agency’s expenditure is channelled through the European Space Agency which gives the UK a high return. An even greater return could be secured, however, through establishing a strong national space programme that builds on the foundations of the National Space Technology Programme.

99.To place the UK space sector on a stronger footing globally we recommend that the UK Space Agency pursues an expanded national space programme, alongside its contribution to the European Space Agency.

UK space policy

100.As far back as the 1960s and 1970s, House of Commons committees have complained that the Government of the day had displayed an absence of clarity, vision and purpose in its approach to the space age. In 1967, the House of Commons Estimates Committee described British space activities as “a story of wasted opportunities [ … ] There has been no real space policy and no space programme as such”.147 Similarly, one of our predecessor Science and Technology Committees concluded in 1971 that the UK lacked “a coherent overall space programme”, and had instead adopted a “piecemeal approach” which had tended to “lead to gaps and the neglect of important new projects”.148

101. After a long spell without clear direction for the sector, several space strategies were published during 2010–15 Parliament. These included A UK Space Innovation and Growth Strategy 2010 to 2030, published in 2010 and updated in late 2013 by the Space Innovation and Growth Strategy 2014–2030: Space Growth Action Plan.149 Both were produced by a team drawn from industry, the UK Space Agency, the Satellite Applications Catapult, Innovate UK, the Knowledge Transfer Network and academia.

102.Following the establishment of the UK Space Agency in 2011, a Civil Space Strategy 2012–16 was published by the Agency, along with sector-specific strategies, such as the Strategy for Earth Observation from Space 2013–16.150 Aside from the civil uses of space, a separate Government policy on National Space Security was published in 2014, setting out measures to make “the United Kingdom more resilient to the risk of disruption to space services and capabilities” as well as outlining ways to enhance UK “national security interests through space”.151

103.The large number of strategies risked producing a fragmented approach to growing the sector. Stakeholders were generally persuaded, however, that the strategies had helped improve cooperation between Government, industry and academia. According to Stuart Martin from the Satellite Applications Catapult, the strategies have “been very much a framework within which the whole sector can move forward in a co-ordinated and managed way”.152

104.During the current Parliament, the Government published its first ever National Space Policy. The Minister described it as the “first attempt to put in one place the totality of our Government’s policy towards space”, adding that it represented “a significant step forward in trying to consolidate, unify and reconcile different documents that have come up over time, all of which had a bearing on Government policy towards space”.153 Though witnesses did not question the need for such a document, concerns were raised about the lack of detail in the National Space Policy.

105.Innovate UK noted that the:

most successful countries in building and exploiting space hardware can be characterised as having a clear vision for which capabilities, technologies and missions are important to them. They can then adopt strong focused positions.154

They believed that the “UK could learn from this”.155 In contrast, the National Space Policy was described by Professor Martin Barstow as “much more top level, very much headline stuff”.156 A similar point was raised by Ross Marshall from Clyde Space who, while supporting the growth target set out in the National Space Policy and earlier strategies, was still “looking for clear actions [ … ] What exactly are we going to do about it? It is all quite high level at the moment”.157 When pressed on the level of detail included in the National Space Policy, Dr Parker described it as a “capping document [ … ] which sits on top of the civil space strategy, the innovation and growth strategy and space security” and emphasised that “the policy is a policy; it is not a set of actions”.158

106.There were also conflicting views about whether the UK’s space strategies and policies were striking the right balance between focusing on commercial growth and investing in basic research to advance the frontiers of knowledge; an issue underpinning the space research funding gap examined in Chapter 3. In July 2015, the incoming Director General of the European Space Agency, Professor Johann-Dietrich Wörner, told the journal Nature that the UK Government was focused on getting a direct return from its investment, rather than on fundamental research and the “full chain of innovation”. He argued that there were “very smart scientists in the UK, and you have very good industrial partners [ … ] One should not focus on only one or the other.”159

107.When we asked Andy Green from UKspace about Professor Wörner’s comments, he replied that he was:

very proud he said that—really proud—because for some time the UK space industry and Government have been very smart about the way they operated with the European Space Agency [ … ] Science and innovation are absolutely crucial, but we are right to try to focus that in the areas where we believe economic growth and jobs will come from.160

108.Dr Parker from the UK Space Agency told us that the Space Agency was “very consciously [ … ] joining up the full spectrum from basic science and innovation through to technology development and applications”.161 Professor Barstow, however, considered that there was not currently enough “pull-through” from research into commerce, adding that it was “partly because we have not been pushing that button for long enough to see the real results”.162

109.The UK space sector has historically suffered from a lack of strategic direction and purpose. The UK’s first National Space Policy, setting out the Government’s high-level objectives for the sector, has been over half a century in the making. Its publication last year represented an important milestone but it is regrettable that it failed to include a clear, detailed vision of the capabilities, missions, and technologies the UK should be advancing. This was a missed opportunity which should not be repeated in the UK Space Agency’s forthcoming Civil Space Strategy.

110.We recommend that the forthcoming Civil Space Strategy sets out how the Government’s four, high-level objectives, outlined in the National Space Policy, will be delivered. We also expect the Strategy to address the problems we have identified in this report that could prevent the UK’s space and satellite sector from reaching its ambitious growth targets.


111.Almost 50 years ago, a House of Commons Committee described Britain’s space activities as a story of “wasted opportunities brought about by lack of purpose and the absence of any coherent organisation”.163 Without anything that resembled a coherent national space policy, or a national space programme, Britain muddled its way through the space age, and at times was relegated to the sidelines as other countries leapfrogged ahead. In more recent years, the industry, together with Government and academia, has endeavoured to start a new chapter in the UK’s space story. Building on its internationally-excellent space science research base, and its industrial expertise, particularly in satellites and aerospace, the sector has delivered impressive economic growth figures, outstripping the economy as a whole.

112.With a National Space Policy and Innovation and Growth Strategies now in place, the UK is poised for further success. To reach its full potential, and increase the UK’s share of the global space market from 6.5% to 10% by 2030, significant growth in the downstream, space-enabled services market is required. Overall awareness of the space and satellite sector, however, and its ability to address some of the ‘Grand Challenges’ that society faces, is worryingly low. The sector must become much more outward-looking and increase its engagement with organisations that could benefit from applying space-enabled services to meet their business needs. By capitalising on the downstream market, while continuing to invest in upstream innovations in satellites, the UK will cement its place as a leading space-nation.

139 Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) (SAT0012)

140 Mullard Space Science Laboratory (SAT0034)

141 University of Leicester (SAT0003); University of Oxford (SAT0010)

142 Dr Marcell Tessenyi (SAT0018)

143 UKspace and techUK (SAT0020)

144 Q171

145 Q194

146 Innovate UK (SAT0038) para 28

147 Estimates Committee, Thirteenth Report of Session 1966–67, Space research and development, 27 July 1967, para 91

148 Science and Technology Committee, Fifth Report of Session 1970–71, United Kingdom Space Activities, 27 October 1971, para 22

149 Space IGS, A UK Space Innovation and Growth Strategy 2010 to 2030, February 2010; Space IGS, Space Innovation and Growth Strategy 2014–2030, Space Growth Action Plan, November 2013

151 HM Government, National Space Security Policy, April 2014

152 Q2; see also Q74–75

153 Q164

154 Innovate UK (SAT0038)

155 Innovate UK (SAT0038) para 40

156 Q74

157 Q120

158 Q165–167

159 Elizabeth Gibney “UK shifts its space-science strategy”, Nature vol 523 (2015) p 394

160 Q15

161 Q16

162 Q97

163 Science and Technology Committee, Fifth Report of Session 1970–71, United Kingdom Space Activities, 27 October 1971, para 22

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13 June 2016