The incredible value and contribution of the UK space sector – not just economically, but scientifically and technologically through constant striving for innovation – was recognised across the House of Commons during yesterday’s parliamentary debate on the future of the UK space industry.
But among the 23 MPs who spoke – from Conservatives, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Labour, Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party (SNP) – there were also words of caution, including calls for the delivery of the promised national space strategy, greater sovereignty, significant budgetary increases, and clear regulation and licensing processes.
Scottish space industry taking off
The motion was proposed by the SNP’s Owen Thompson, whose Midlothian constituency includes commercial rocket launch company, Skyrora. He pointed to the Scottish space industry punching “well above its weight”, and being home to almost a fifth of the total jobs in the UK sector. Valued at £880 million in 2017-18, the Scottish industry hosts over 130 space organisations.
He also cited the opportunities for Scotland to become a magnet for small satellite launches, but called for clear regulations to be implemented and licensing processes to be streamlined and accelerated.
“I hope the Minister can assure the House that there is a development strategy in place that embraces all parts of the space industry and has a clear imperative around which the Government, regulators and industry can coalesce to ensure the full potential of space ambition,” said Mr Thompson.
Furthermore, he highlighted the need for the space industry to be “environmentally responsible”, with “efforts made to reduce harmful emissions at launches and a role for environmental regulators such as the Scottish Environment Protection Agency in regulating spaceflight.”
Sovereignty of UK space assets
Former Space Minister, Chris Skidmore – who revealed he was affectionately called the “Minister for the Universe” by his daughter, while he held the space portfolio – spoke passionately about the “enormous opportunities ahead in the 2020s”, but reiterated that “we can and must do more.”
While noting that “space is involved in every aspect of our lives”, Mr Skidmore added: “There is a huge issue of sovereignty that we need to tackle when it comes to the UK space industry. 90% of our satellite activity is through foreign-owned satellites, so we need to look again at what we can deliver for the future.”
He also called for greater investment in space. “We are doing well, but we spend roughly £500 million a year, which is a third of the French Government’s budget and half of the German budget. When it comes to a new national space strategy and the future, we need to consider a few things. First, looking at the UK Space Agency, we need to create a separate UK space delivery agency so that the Space Agency is a commissioner that pushes through projects such as horizontal launch down in Newquay. Secondly, we need to double our space budget up to £1 billion a year. We should have a national procurement fund for space worth £250 million a year and a space innovation fund worth £150 million a year. That would ensure that the UK can really be on a par with other European nations and other countries, putting the space industry right at the centre of our vision for a new global Britain.”
David Morris, Chairman of the Parliamentary Space Committee, echoed these concerns, saying: “In future, we must enable our terrestrial sites to have ballistic space ports as well as horizontal space tourism airspace, and hopefully give the Space Industry Act 2018 more teeth as regards dealing with the Civil Aviation Authority, which is actually stifling the space industry.”
Praise for Tim Peake
During his statement, the DUP’s Ian Paisley spoke about Tim Peake in glowing terms, referencing the “inspirational” British astronaut’s biography, which he described as “one of the best reads about the impact that space can have on an individual’s life.
“It challenges young people, in particular, never to be afraid to ask the necessary questions. I believe that that book should be on the national reading curriculum for schools, because it really encourages young people to gain knowledge of space and understand how space can contribute in so many different ways to the nation’s wellbeing. Major Tim Peake is an inspirational character and we are very fortunate, as a nation, to have him,” said Mr Paisley
He also highlighted Northern Ireland’s value to the wider UK space sector, with its regional aerospace cluster contributing £1.3 billion to the overall UK aerospace industry.
A space-powered interplanetary Britain
Labour’s Shadow Minister for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Chi Onwurah, said her party “wants to see an interplanetary Britain powered by a booming space sector. Space is not just for the stars; it impacts every household in the country – from climate change and rural broadband to transport and agriculture. From our smart phones to our credit cards, the UK space sector helps us all to prosper.”
But she also sounded a warning. “A year ago, UKspace set out the urgent need for a coherent cross-Government space strategy. We still have not seen it. Without a clear long-term space strategy, the hard work of our space sector – in developing spaceports and rocket launch pads, and space domain awareness projects and military-grade software, and embarking on satellite projects critical for our vital infrastructure – will not be fully realised.
“If we are to ensure the success of these programmes, we must understand whether we have the industrial capability to do so. Part of unlocking the potential of our space industry is knowing how we organise our industrial base to achieve our goals, and in turn where we will need further investment and finance to encourage outward investment in UK businesses,” added Ms Onwurah.
A global hub for space innovation
In response, Space Minister Amanda Solloway reiterated that investment in new international partnerships “will boost UK space exports and strengthen our collaboration on ground-breaking science and research with other leading space nations, such as the US, Australia and Japan.”
Having referenced the establishment of the National Space Council and some of the many downstream applications facilitated by space innovations and satellite technology, the Minister added: “We have a truly vibrant space sector and we plan to make the UK a global hub for space innovation. We are working with our partners in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to build their local strengths and drive development of their sectors. We will grow our space economy across the Union, bolster our capabilities to protect the UK and our allies, foster innovation and make the UK a world-class destination for global talent and investment.”
Following the debate, UKspace Chair, Nick Shave, said: “It was great to see recognition of space as a national strategic asset in the Commons debate yesterday. We all use space-enabled systems in our daily lives (GPS, weather forecast, transportation, broadband, comms to remote COVID hospitals, etc.), and this will only increase. Our security is also dependent on space. We must invest for our nation’s future and to enable our space sector to compete on the global stage.”
Other contributors to the debate were: Patrick Grady (SNP); Jamie Stone (LibDem); Richard Graham (Con); Angus Brendan MacNeil (SNP); Angela Richardson (Con); Dr Philippa Whitford (SNP); Douglas Ross (Con); Duncan Baker (Con); Christine Jardine (LibDem); David Johnston (Con); Mr Alistair Carmichael (LidDem); Steve Double (Con); Jim Shannon (DUP); Greg Clark(Con); Mark Garnier (Con); Carol Monaghan (SNP); Ben Everitt (Con).