ANALYSIS: UKSA's bold vision is to be the most modern of space agencies

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When Tim Peake dons his spacesuit and climbs aboard a Soyuz rocket in November 2015, it will not be just another expedition to the International Space Station – at least from the perspective of observers in the UK.

Peake – one of six astronaut trainees selected by the European Space Agency in 2009 – will be only the third British-born person to fly in space.

It has been more than a decade since a Brit last left Earth, and 25 years since a Union Jack made it to orbit. Peake’s predecessor, Michael Foale, was by any measure a star astronaut, with more than 373 days in space between 1992 and 2004 on three Space Shuttle missions and stays aboard both Russia’s Mir and the International space stations. But Foale, a UK-US dual citizen, flew for NASA with a stars-and-stripes patch on his shoulder. Britain’s spaceflight trailblazer, chemist Helen Sharman, made her trip to Mir in 1991.

So, it is hardly a surprise that Peake – a former Boeing/Westland AH1 Apache helicopter pilot and major in the British Army with a degree in flight dynamics – is poster child for the UK’s push to encourage young people to pursue the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. Indeed, in 2009 Peake was appointed a UK ambassador for science and space-based careers.

Anybody could take inspiration from this humble, personable astronaut. Describing his path to space, Peake says ESA’s 2008 call for astronaut candidates looked interesting, so he applied – but as one of some 8,400 candidates who met the basic criteria, he expected nothing. Success, he says, was about moving forward and being in the right place at the right time, career-wise.

However, there is another way in which the stars aligned for Peake – the most remarkable feature of his career as an astronaut being that there is a British astronaut at all.

Since the 1960s, the UK has shied away from participation in human spaceflight – at least unofficially unwilling to pay for it. While dozens of Americans and Russians – and in the ISS era French, German, Italian, Canadian, Belgian and a smattering of other Europeans – have seen Earth from orbit, an unstated UK government policy has kept Brits on the ground.

That started to change late in 2009 with news that, for the first time, there would be a UK Space Agency (UKSA). Significantly, Peake was chosen by ESA about six months earlier, without any UK promise of funding to fly him.

The way ESA works – because there is probably no other way such a transnational organisation could work – is that member states get out what they put in.

ESA’s evident faith in the UK came good late in 2012, when a new surge of cash promised by London helped mightily to grease the wheels at the agency’s major ministerial budget- and agenda-setting conference in Naples. While many cash-strapped ESA members were struggling to sustain contributions, the UK boosted its annual pay-in by more than 40%, averaging £240 million ($400 million) through 2018.

The UK came to account for nearly 10% of the ESA budget, behind Germany and France at a short quarter each, and Italy with nearly 13%.

The extra funding enabled Peake’s May 2013 selection for ISS Expedition 46/47. It also helped bolster the agency’s UK footprint, with the December 2013 establishment of its European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications (ECSAT) at the Harwell science, innovation and business campus near Oxford. ECSAT was even named after ESA’s first director-general, Roy Gibson, who – with the energy of a man half his 89 years – joined current ESA director-general Jean-Jacques Dordain and UK science minister David Willets to lay the foundation stone.

Minutes earlier, Gibson took advantage of the podium at the annual Harwell space conference to urge Europe’s space agencies to achieve more in space by working together. He proposed prioritising services over hardware, avoiding “national prestige projects” and easing the burden on taxpayers by “loosening their grip” on programmes – a clear call for embracing private sector partners.

Gibson’s vision plays well in modern Britain, which has finally created a space agency in the most modern of moulds. However, that it has taken the country so long to reach this stage is an irony not lost on UK Space Agency chief executive David Parker. The UK, he notes, has only had a space agency for three years, but was actually the third nation – after the Soviet Union and the USA – to put hardware into space, with its Ariel 1 satellite in 1962.

A further irony is that while Ariel 1 may be distant history, it is a very good example of how the UK is working in space today. The satellite was actually built and launched by NASA – and soon destroyed by the radiation from a US high-altitude nuclear test.

Parker, speaking exclusively to Flight International at the London headquarters of the government’s Business, Innovation and Skills department – which oversees UKSA – likes to observe that the UK space economy is worth about £9 billion yearly – and £8 billion of that comes from services. To see the value of space in hardware is a misconception, he says, adding: “It has taken many of us a journey to understand that.”

Today, he says, ESA is evolving partly in response to this UK vision – it is less a technical agency, and more about services and value. Parker also sees UK influences in the priorities of the Canadian and Japanese space agencies.

The UKSA’s influence on Japan’s JAXA is notable, he says, because while that agency has a much larger budget, much of its money is tied up with launchers and hardware.

UKSA, meanwhile, is driven by “end-goals” – and everything UKSA does, it does in partnership. It lacks choice in that regard, however, as the agency has just 60 employees – to be increased to 70 “soon”.

Moreover, Parker stresses, UKSA is “rather selective in where we spend our money”. Of the agency’s £308 million budget for 2013-2014 – rising to nearly £314 million for 2014-2015 – the lion’s share is spent through ESA. UKSA is the top contributor to ESA’s telecommunications budget – the ground support and data services hosted at Harwell are substantial – and to its robotic exploration budget. The UK agency is also the number-two contributor to ESA’s space science and Earth observation budgets. UKSA also makes “some discretionary contribution” to the ISS budget.

These priorities all match the UK’s space strengths in industry and academic research. For example, UK robotics and software engineers – working principally through Airbus Defence & Space at Stevenage – are leading development of the Mars rover ESA will launch in 2018.

Meanwhile, Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL) is probably the world’s leading maker of satellites – at least in unit terms – and a pioneer in small satellites for Earth observation.

UKSA’s contribution to ESA’s launchers budget, however, is zero. Parker does not see that changing – there are many good launchers flying, so it makes no sense to spend “precious pounds” on new rockets. However, access to space is a more complicated issue, and here the agency is a central player in the UK’s evolving relationship with space technology.

For example, Parker wonders if SSTL’s business is held back by a lack of low-cost access to space? While he does not know the answer, he says UKSA is looking at both this problem and the broader question of small launchers. As for whether or not rockets could be launched from the UK – the Russians launch to polar orbits from inside the Arctic Circle, so technically it is certainly possible – that has not been ruled out.

“The interesting point for the UK space industry is that we’re talking about these issues, where 10 years ago we wouldn’t,” he adds.

Where the UK space sector will be in another 10 years obviously remains to be seen, but the government’s – and UKSA’s – strategic vision is ambitious. Expectations are that the UK’s share of the global space economy will rise from the 6.5% that prevailed when the agency was established in 2010, to 10% by 2030. Such growth would translate into a UK sector with £40 billion annual revenue and the creation of 100,000 new jobs.

By 2020, this so-called Space Growth Action Plan looks to have the UK’s share up to 8%, with turnover of £19 billion at today’s currency rates.

To get there, Parker’s focus over the next five years is, above all, to “stay on track”. That means sustaining development at Harwell, maintaining leadership positions on ESA’s Copernicus Earth observation and Galileo satellite navigation programmes, encouraging more overseas space companies to invest in the UK and to encourage more UK space business exports.

All these goals look achievable – for the moment at least – given government bullishness about space, which sits comfortably inside its broader aerospace industrial strategy. As Parker points out, there are clear reasons why UK-based space companies are thriving.

Some of those reasons are not space-specific, including instead a healthy economic environment and the fact that UK universities produce quality, highly skilled graduates.

Amplifying those underlying qualities are the existence of a long-term space sector plan, enthusiastic support for ESA, the excellent infrastructure at Harwell and a “positive regulatory environment” that makes the UK an attractive place to license and operate satellites.

Meanwhile, Parker is quick to point to the “exciting opportunity to inspire and inform” that is Tim Peake’s upcoming mission.

Whether appealing to a nascent generation of scientists, or to politicians, regulators and entrepreneurs, there is surely no substitute for a sprinkling of stardust.