UKspace Chair, Graham Peters, identifies the challenges facing the space sector during the COVID-19 crisis, and highlights the importance of maintaining the UK’s sovereign space capabilities so we can protect Britain’s way of life.
The start of April marked the ten-year anniversary of the creation of the UK Space Agency and the Space Innovation Growth Strategy target to capture £40bn of the world’s commercial space revenues by 2030. Over the last decade, this objective has provided a rallying point for the sector and brought political interest over four successive governments. More recently, the Size and Health of the UK Space Sector, published in January 2019, provided evidence that space infrastructures also provide wider economic benefits to the UK economy by underpinning £300bn or 15% of UK GDP.
We ended 2019 with a record increase in subscriptions into the European Space Agency. On the back of strong interest in space from the Prime Minister, there were new announcements from Government that the UK would create a new Space Command and set up a National Space Council. The new year continued the trend; in March, Government stated its aim to negotiate a continued role for the UK in the EU’s Copernicus programme, and in the recent Budget (on 11 March), the Chancellor announced that the Government would establish an ambitious national space strategy and launch a new National Space Innovation Fund.
However, just as we all now have to adapt to working from home, COVID-19 provides a new set of challenges and opportunities for the rest of 2020 and beyond, to which the sector must respond. Over the next decade, raw economic targets on their own will not be enough to maintain political traction. The UK space sector could look very different after the economic shock caused by COVID-19; we have already seen the impact of economic markets on the fortunes of high-profile ventures like OneWeb, and others may well follow. The words Recovery and Bounce-back alongside Levelling-up are likely to overtake Growth as the key words in our vocabulary and the role of space in supporting the UK’s ambitions.
Influenza Pandemic was identified as the top risk in the UK’s National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies published in 2017. The fact that we are now in the midst of one the largest health and economic crises in a generation, brings to life the reality of risks that we face as a nation, and the fact that risks registers do not just live only on the pages of documents. It brings home other lessons too: the importance of strong working between government and the private sector, information sharing internationally and bold action by governments to support society and business.
It also underscores the need for strong indigenous capability and capacity in the face of other nations, quite understandably, prioritising their own needs.
The ability of space to underpin other sectors in the economy will therefore remain one of its key virtues, and that is particularly true of the role space infrastructures play in supporting national resilience. Indeed, the UK’s space companies are already supporting the response to COVID-19, including using satellite communications to support our health service and enabling hundreds of ‘pop up’ GP surgeries. They are also providing positioning data for new smartphone apps being developed for the NHS to allow tracking and tracing of victims, as well as supporting logistics and distribution systems to maintain the flow of food and medicines.
But space can offer more. Last month our Stratospheric Green Growth Report highlighted the role that space will play in mitigating another risk – climate change – whilst also generating “green jobs” across the country. There are many other ways that space can help to prepare for and mitigate other key risks identified in the National Risk Register, whether that be natural hazards: from flooding, wild-fires and poor air quality; or major accidents affecting our key transport, power and communications infrastructures; or man-made physical or cyber attacks on key infrastructure and services.
Joint working across government, industry and academia will remain as important in the future as it has done over the past decade. As the UK develops our new space strategy, we must place greater emphasis on maintaining and developing sovereign capability across all space domains so we can respond to national risks. By doing so, the UK space sector will help to underpin the British way of life whilst acting as a means to stimulate innovation, drive job creation, secure investment and generate the exports needed to ensure the sector bounces back quickly once COVID-19 is defeated.