UKspace Vice Chair, Nick Shave, states the case for the development of a coherent national space strategy and provision of appropriate funding for the UK to be considered a Tier 2 spacefaring nation by 2030.
As we work through the unprecedented times caused by the COVID crisis, most of the UK’s space sector companies, their employees and families have adapted to remote working over the last month or so. The sector continues operations, but there has been negative business impact unfortunately, as with many other industrial sectors.
We have seen some great response actions from British space companies in support of the crisis, highlighting the importance and utility of space systems and services. These include use of satellite communications to support the new NHS Nightingale Hospitals, and greater availability of satellite services for crews to contact their loved ones from merchant ships around the globe, supporting the welfare of sailors and enabling global trade, which is so critical at the current time.
It is also great to see that £2.6 million has been made available by the UK Space Agency, in a joint initiative with the European Space Agency (ESA), in support of NHS England to fund a number of projects to develop hi-tech space solutions to respond to the COVID challenge. We look forward to further innovation to help respond to the crisis via this programme.
As a sector, we must now look towards bouncing-back as we come out of COVID. We are seeing steps to remove restrictions in some countries to get industry fully firing again. The next few weeks and months will be critical. Government and industry need to work together now more than ever to ensure (i) the strategic importance of space is recognised cross Government, and (ii) we capitalize as a nation on the significant international growth potential if we play to our national strengths across the sector industrial and science bases.
To date, the UK has followed a diversified approach to space, which, in retrospect, has hampered coherence and limited sector growth. The UK Space Agency is hosted within the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, but the majority of space-related infrastructure investment is by the Ministry of Defence (MOD). There is co-ordination between the UK Space Agency and MOD, but is it enough? Other departments also have key roles to play including the Home Office, FCO, DFID, DEFRA and DIT, coordinated by the Cabinet Office.
A key decision for Government now is what ambition should we have as a space faring nation in a post-Brexit and post-COVID world?
We cannot aspire to be a “Tier 1” space nation such as the USA or China, since this is above our financial means. But we can sit alongside France, Germany, Italy and Japan at Tier 2. The foundations are there, but we have a minimally funded national space programme, a relatively modest investment in ESA, and one major national programme in the Skynet military satellite communication system. France invests at least 10 times what the UK spends nationally and Italy around five times. Both countries also invest significantly in sovereign and military space capabilities and contribute more to ESA than the UK.
The time has come for the UK Government to recognise that space is a national capability of strategic importance. We cannot afford not to invest properly in the sector. To ensure we maintain required skills and capability in a similar way to ship-building, a cross-Government Space Industrial Strategy is needed urgently to protect our world-leading strengths in specific capabilities such as satellite communications services, satellite payload development and small satellites.
The Prime Minister announced the formation of a new National Space Council on 4 June 2019, which was a welcome development for the sector. Understandably, COVID has hampered plans recently, but the Council is still not established. The current Government has also mooted a potential UK Space Force. The Prime Minister has personally and publically called to “get going on a national satellite navigation system”, a utility underpinning so much of our critical national infrastructure.
There is ambition in Government it seems. The National Space Council formation offers the opportunity to ensure policy coherence and coordinated investment across all of Government. As we emerge out of the COVID crisis, now is the time to act to build a coherent national space strategy, backed up with appropriate funding. UKspace stands ready to work closely and alongside Government to achieve these crucial steps. We will play our part to work towards the objective of moving the UK to a Tier 2 space faring nation by 2030. Such ambition will, we believe, enable benefits such as material sector economic growth, thousands of new high tech jobs around the country, and many strategic international collaboration opportunities to boost international trade.