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With a new Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition goverment now ruling Great Britain, what is the future of the UK Space Agency and other space-related initiatives?

Breaking old habits

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Britain is the only country to have built its own launch capability then abandoned it. As other countries from the Middle East to South America have begun or are planning to enter this field, the UK government has finally started to realize the importance of space economically. No longer is the claim that spending on space is a profligate act as convincing as it once was. Perhaps this sentiment has been responsible for the low-key nature of space missions contributed to by universities across the UK through the decades. Fearing to arouse cynicism and political panic, scientists wisely choose to publicize their efforts selectively and without much fanfare. However, one can point to the media and public interest in the Beagle 2 Mars lander. The public—and, ideally, the wider world—should benefit from developments in space age technology, but this requires the consistent support and vigilant attention of policy makers.

As other countries from the Middle East to South America have begun or are planning to enter spaceflight, the UK government has finally started to realize the importance of space economically.

Several reviews are under way or planned concerning space capabilities by the new UK Space Agency (UKSA) and in government, including a review of the Outer Space Act (as reported in the recent Government response to the Innovation and Growth Strategy). However, it seems that the powers vested in the Secretary of State with responsibilities for outer space under the Act are sufficient to either permit or lay down the prerequisites for Virgin Galactic to operate its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicles from domestic bases. This could potentially incentivize other private sector companies (of which there are several) with advanced designs to approach UKSA about coordinating their vehicle or engine plans for domestic launchers.

Previous governments, through departments or agencies, have taken a proactive role in instigating aerospace projects, such as the Ministry of Supply during the Cold War and the RAE for a number of years afterwards. Both made use of the private aerospace sector, much of which merged into Rolls Royce Limited or BAE Systems. The demand for the technology was recognized and the wheels were set in motion. A British architect, Sir Norman Foster, has designed the new Spaceport America terminal initially for use by a British company, Virgin Galactic. New Mexico is investing many millions of dollars in the spaceport, confident of the economic return. The new UKSA website refers to Virgin Galactic but the host country has not yet taken decisive action to allow this company to operate from Britain. As a result, sites in Sweden and the Persian Gulf seem more probable. The demand for economic growth was central to the previous government’s policy on space and the space sector in the UK has been singled out for its success in this area. With the election of a new government, there is now an opportunity to establish a new industry in the country by supporting its pioneers. It is the companies, rather than government and government spending, that is doing the hard work, and all they require of government is the infrastructure and permission to go ahead.

The government response to the Innovation and Growth Strategy states that it is “also exploring what may be needed to enable reusable launchers to operate from the UK, either for tourism or as satellite launch vehicles. We will complete this review by the end of 2010.” The phrase “launch vehicle” is used once in the report. Furthermore, at its inception, the UKSA website had a page dedicated to launch vehicles but mentioned in one sentence at the end that “Since the 1970s, the UK has had no active launch vehicle of its own.” Thus the reader has to deduce that the new agency will be working closely with Virgin, that the interest the Ministry of Defence has indicated in small launch vehicles is being pursued, and that the agency is aware of Surrey Satellite Technology Limited’s interest in using the WhiteKnightTwo mothership as a satellite launcher.

The support amongst prominent members of the space community has long been there for domestic launch capabilities. Astronomer Patrick Moore commented on UKSA’s launch: “A small step in the right direction […] We had a wonderful opportunity with launchers like Black Arrow and Blue Streak and we threw it away through bad government and bad management.” Colin Pillinger, writing in The Sun, commented on international collaborations “not just Europe and the Americans, but countries like India, which is supposed to be poorer than we are but has recognised that a space programme encourages students to take up science and engineering. We have to be able to say to the likes of China and Japan, ‘Come and join our mission and, yes, we’d like to join yours’. We must not find ourselves having to hitchhike again like Beagle 2.”

The support amongst prominent members of the space community has long been there for domestic launch capabilities.

Last year, documents declassified under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act were reported on, that pointed towards inconsistent and hesitant support for the HOTOL spaceplane in the 1980s despite the involvement of the MOD, the RAE, Rolls Royce and British Aerospace, as well as interest from Europe and from the US government of President Reagan. Certain files have been retained, however, and no response from the defense minister, Michael Heseltine, to an enthusiastic letter from a fellow British minister, Minister of State for Industry Geoffrey Pattie, about the project is apparently available in the declassified documents. Whether Heseltine contributed to the shelving of this project is unknown but Heseltine’s enthusiastic pro-European political leanings are well reported and his support for a European rather than American consortium to take over the Westland helicopter company ultimately cost him his position in the Thatcher administration, whom he later unsuccessfully challenged for Prime Minister.

The flurry of space activity in the mid-1980s did produce the BNSC in 1985 through Pattie, which the Conservatives, prior to forming a coalition government, referred to in their tentative support for the UKSA. The Conservative Minister of State for Trade and Industry in 1987, Kenneth Clarke, was recalled in an ESA history publication as being “extremely hostile” to a planned increase in budget particularly because of the emphasis on “European manned capability”. Again, his influence, if any, on the HOTOL project is not clear. The BNSC, however, until the end had a policy against funding manned space travel, even with the recent selection of astronaut Tim Peake by ESA. Until the formation of the recent coalition government, Kenneth Clarke was a shadow Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills, shadowing the modern incarnation of the Trade and Industry Departmental post, and stood to be placed in charge of the department that oversees UKSA, replacing the then-current Minister with responsibilities for outer space, Lord Mandelson. After the latest general election, however, Liberal Democrat Vince Cable became the incumbent Secretary of State, replacing Mandelson, and Conservative David Willets replaced Lord Drayson, who did much of the groundwork in establishing the UKSA, a Space Leadership Council and several other changes for which Willets recently credited him. Kenneth Clarke is now Secretary of State for Justice, returning once again to government.

It is difficult to trace the exact fate of the HOTOL debacle, with designs being and remaining classified, the RAE eventually being changed into DERA then split up and privatized into DSTL and Qinetiq, and with so much time elapsed that perhaps most of the players involved have retired or moved on. The involvement and capabilities of the various agencies and companies, however, should indicate infrastructure still available to facilitate developments with a goal as ambitious as HOTOL. The UK doesn’t have a space division as the USAF does, nor does it have a DARPA, but the RAF has expressed an interest in launch capabilities and the Assistant Chief of the Air Staff now sits on the newly formed Space Leadership Council (alongside many powerful and influential figures including Will Whitehorn, the president of Virgin Galactic). Furthermore, the RAF collaborates with the USAF in operation of drones and is aware of its own lack of long-range air power in future planning.

Hostility to the visible projects in space exploration—launchers and human space flights—has long been an obstacle in government-backed or regulated UK space activities.

The military angle to space activity detracts somewhat from space tourism and further consumes public funds rather than seeking to generate money as a primary aim. However, countries run by men and women from across the world recognize—usually with regret—the need for defense. The recent launch of the X-37 orbital test vehicle by the USAF and the “prompt global strike” hypersonic cruise missile in development by the US military suggest alternatives to nuclear weapons. In the UK, one of the Liberal Democrats chief objections to their coalition partner’s policies was and is the Trident missile system and the process long under way of spending the dozens of billions of pounds designing a replacement. Options available here to the new government include ensuring that the huge amount of money and effort being invested generates spin-out ventures and technology, using the full access they already have to the American-designed Trident launch system (itself an extremely impressive piece of space-age technology) for other more benign and prosperity-generating effects, and investing at a sustained level in reusable launchers that could be a less destructive and less costly replacement for Trident. The previous government promised to “set up the recommended expert panel to ensure we take full account of industry’s expertise in providing defence and security capabilities from space” in response to recommendations by the Innovation Growth Team Strategy in 2009, so it remains to be seen how many of the responses are now upheld by the new government.

One person who moved on after HOTOL was Alan Bond, who was integral to the project,. He contributed to the design of the interstellar probe Daedalus and later founded Reaction Engines that works on the single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane Skylon. Even Willets, as an enthusiastic incumbent minister, admits that getting funding together to coordinate space policy will take time and, in any case, the estimated billions for a project like Skylon to be reach a usable stage of development seems unlikely to come from government any time soon. From a space tourism perspective, one obstacle to Skylon eventually launching is the outcome of a review the Outer Space Act. From a military perspective, previous governments have demonstrated that when there is a perceived need, they will press on regardless of legislation. However, most people are more excited about the prospect of the UK becoming a viable center for space tourism and the previous government recognized the economic potential of both space tourism and—arguably forty years too late—satellite launch vehicles. However, given that one of two sites suggested for Virgin Galactic to use in the UK is an RAF base, then, at the very least, the new Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, could conceivably direct this base to begin preparatory measures while legislative changes are made. Both the MOD and Virgin Galactic have met previously on the issue of space tourism and now sit with each other together with a formidable array of representatives on the Space Leadership Council.

Hostility to the visible projects in space exploration—launchers and human space flights—has long been an obstacle in government-backed or regulated UK space activities. A willingness to reexamine assumptions about the UK’s position on space and the moves to energize both the private sector and public interest instigated by Prime Minister Brown’s government has been striking. There will be many hoping that this momentum, which can push Britain to the forefront of a new space age, does not slip past the attention of the newly incumbent partnership of politicians who among them bring strength in diversity and, in part, significant experience in wealth generation.