UKspace Chair, Graham Peters, considers what the key initial steps are required towards developing a UK National Space Programme.
In 1962, John F Kennedy made an historic speech about the United States’s ambitions in space. “We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
Well of course they did win and since those first steps, services from space have become woven, often unnoticed, into our everyday lives.
The achievement of the lunar landings is a testament to a clear vision, drive, innovation, bravery, resilience and of course teamwork.
And it is teamwork that is key to the growth of our space sector here in the UK, initiated under the Space Innovation & Growth Strategy in 2010 and working today as the Space Growth Partnership (SGP). Day-to-day, the work of the SGP is being conducted by a delivery team of individuals wanting to make a difference. They have come together from the membership of UKspace trade association, UK Space Agency, Department for International Trade, Satellite Applications Catapult, Innovate UK and academia.
The delivery team focusses on the aligning activities of the partner organisations around enablers to growth: areas like trade and exports, people and skills, regulation, access to finance, inward investment, places, routes to market and research.
Plans for Government to create a National Space Council, announced in June during President Trump’s visit, recognise the importance of space across government. It promises a more joined up approach across departments. It is a first step towards a coherent and sustained National Space Programme as envisaged in Prosperity from Space, the sector’s blueprint to stimulate growth published by the Space Growth Partnership in May 2018.
Going forward, there are four key ways space can benefit UK PLC and this helps shape where we should be making our investments: prosperity, security, global influence and the environment.
In terms of prosperity, we are all living through a period of digital transformation. Few sectors in modern economies are untouched by digital services, and a significant portion of these are enabled by space. Every time we go to work, watch TV or ask our smartphone for directions, we depend on space.
To quote again from JFK’s speech on the benefits of the Moonshot: “The growth of our science and education will be enriched, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school.” How right he was.
London Economics estimates that the UK space sector already enables other sectors in the economy to create £300bn of added value each year – that is 15% of GDP. This is set to grow significantly as the pace of change accelerates – just think for a moment about the needs of autonomous driverless cars and ubiquitous 5G.
Turning to security – we must protect the contribution that space makes. Dependence on space infrastructure as part of the digital economy is recognised around the world, whilst satellites also provide a key capability for the military. Past wars were won by control of the seas and later the skies, whilst now it’s as much about control of cyber and space as superior weaponry. For this reason, the US’s stated aim is to “dominate space”. The European Union seeks “Strategic Autonomy in space”. The UK has an opportunity to join up our civilian and military space interests to take advantage of our security expertise, our leadership in small satellites and the ground-breaking research being conducted around the country in fields like Artificial Intelligence and quantum technology to play a major role in global security.
Third is projecting our global influence. We must invest to ensure that we retain the space capabilities we have established over decades so we can continue to play a prominent role globally as a key industrial and military partner. Collaboration and international partnerships will be crucial to the UK’s success story, building on a strong tradition of working with our allies, whether it be the ‘5 Eyes’ partners of USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, our European partners or our Commonwealth cousins. Co-operation on space has the ability to build and cement the deeper trading relationships that are going to be key to a knowledge-based, export-led, post-Brexit British economy.
And importantly the Environment. The UK has set out its stall as a leader in sustainability and Climate Change. Space and satellites have a massive contribution to make. They help the understanding of the science of climate change, monitor its environmental effects, and provide the information needed to police the measures being taken to combat it – including monitoring land use, deforestation, emissions and carbon dioxide levels. Space can contribute to greener behaviours in the way we use our cars or the routes taken by aircraft. And space provides the key tools used by the international community to respond to disasters when they strike.
But the “environment” does not finish down here on Earth. Unregulated use of space will lead to congestion and space debris that will threaten the satellites on which we depend for critical communications, imagery and navigation. The UK can play a leading role in developing the behavioural norms needed to govern activity in space, an increasingly congested and contested but currently much less regulated part of the global commons than air and sea. Our efforts also need to leverage new developments in robotics, in-orbit assembly and manufacturing, and even in-orbit component recycling to ensure that space is kept safe, clean, regulated and used for societal good.
After the summer break, we will be going into bat for fresh funding for, amongst other things, the next ESA Council of Ministers, as well as a first wave or “pathfinder” for a National Space Programme. To succeed, we must be politically relevant to the new leadership in Westminster, demonstrably authentic in claims we make and able to provide concrete evidence around the types of projects a national R&D programme will fund to build on these four themes.
That is why the UK Space Agency, on behalf of the Space Growth Partnership, is performing a consultation to collect evidence on the exciting projects that a National Space Programme can unlock, ideally from teams of organisations working together. Ideas you all provide will help us to sell the request for fresh funding to HM Treasury. Success is not guaranteed, but we intend to win a new programme of funding that will be our first steps towards a sustained National programme.