For anybody with a longish memory it may seem an odd thing to say, but spaceflight is a high-profile affair in the UK. On the shoulder of astronaut Tim Peake’s blue European Space Agency jumpsuit is a Union Jack, prominent as the former Apache helicopter pilot tours the country to talk about his six-month International Space Station mission, which ended with a return to Earth – and a big, smiling thumbs-up – in June. Friendly, energetic, articulate and built top-to-toe of the purest right stuff, it’s hard to imagine a better front person for a sustained effort to turn young people on to science and technology careers – and generally promote a UK space industry that is, truly, surging.
Like any of his colleagues on the space station, Peake worked pretty much flat-out to keep the laboratories working, maintain the station and communicate the wonders of Earth from orbit to eager followers on the ground. He also racked up a first or two, including running the London Marathon on an ISS treadmill.
But the big first, of course, is that he was up there at all. For decades, the UK had played a low-key role in space; until Peake, the British government paid for no astronauts’ flights or training – and so there were no British astronauts. Then, the government decided, back in late 2012, to boost its annual contribution to ESA’s budget by more than 40%, to average £240 million ($400 million) up to 2018. In terms of financial support, the UK now ranks, among ESA funders, just behind Germany, France and Italy. Explicit support for the astronaut programme followed, and hence Peake – who was selected for ESA’s astronaut corps in 2008 – was chosen in 2013 for this year’s mission.
It’s too early to say when or even whether Peake will fly again, but looking back a bit further, the real question is, why did it take so long for the UK government to so visibly recognise the economic value of spaceflight? The most recent available figures show the sector to have been worth nearly £10.4 billion in 2013-14, after steady growth over a decade – from a little less than £4 billion in 2000; the UK Space Agency is currently surveying firms to peg the current level, but whatever that survey turns up, it is likely to show further growth.
With growth come expectations. The UK Space Agency – a unit within the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills, and founded as recently as 2010 – is expecting the UK’s share of the world space economy to rise from around 6.5% today to 10% by 2030. That’s a target of £40 billion in annual revenues and 100,000 new jobs.
UK Space Agency chief executive Katherine Courtney, appointed in April to replace David Parker, who now heads ESA’s human spaceflight and robotic exploration operations from Amsterdam, says her initial impressions – she has a background in telecommunications and has worked in government roles since 2003 – is of a “flourishing” sector that “punches above its weight on the world stage”. That, despite the fact that the UKSA is still an emerging organisation with a small budget.
She points out that the UK is a world leader in small satellites, and in technologies and applications for Earth observation. She also notes that, significantly, the UK is well ahead of many other spacefaring nations in understanding that there is an ongoing, and dramatic, change in the space business. We are, she says, moving away from an era of big, long-term “institutional programmes” to a time of entrepreneurs with new business models and new sources of funding.
Some desirable projects are inevitably large-budget jobs, and will demand government leadership; big scientific research infrastructure, for example. But, she says, even in those cases there is lots of room for small companies in the supply chain, partnerships with academia, and so on.
Broadly, Courtney sees a “disruption like the shift from mainframe to laptop computers”. So the UK government’s priority – indeed hers, as UKSA head – is to not hamper this fluid sector, but to put regulations in place that manage the risks. “Because,” she adds, “there are risks.”
Critical to understanding the value of space to the UK economy is to recognise that of its £10 billion-plus turnover in 2013-14, just £1.2 billion came from so-called “upstream” projects – that is, hardware. The rest was downstream: services. As Parker noted to FlightGlobal in 2014, to see the value of space in hardware – rockets, satellites, big radio dishes – is a misconception. And, he added: “It has taken many of us a journey to understand that.”
Hardware, however, is a big part of the space sector development equation – and an activity where the UK shines. Colin Paynter, head of Airbus Defence & Space in the UK, sees UK government investment in satellite communications technology as having paid off dramatically. Government and Airbus research and technology money, he says, has leveraged an alignment of interests to build a formidable capability in both satellites and payloads, to the extent that around 40% of Airbus’s satellites’ design and build activity is in the UK.
Telecommunications, he says, has been a big success story. Airbus technology is unique in Europe – only really rivalled by Boeing – in being capable of reconfiguring a telecoms satellite in orbit, and Paynter reckons the UK’s military telecommunications is “probably the best in Europe”. Meanwhile, the Airbus-built Eurostar E3000 telecoms satellite platform is UK-made and commanded a quarter of the world market in 2015. Variants account for around half the satellites orbited in the past 15 years, and an improved version, he promises, will be unveiled “around year-end”.
In visible hardware, Airbus UK’s presence is felt across applications. Scientific Earth observation satellites like the ESA’s Sentinel-5 Precursor or its deep-space bound Solar Orbiter Sun-monitoring spacecraft come from Airbus in Stevenage. Stevenage is also responsible for the surface rover for ESA’s second ExoMars mission, now scheduled to fly in 2020. Airbus subsidiary Surrey Satellite Technology is a global leader in small satellites, and also makes the timekeeping payloads for Europe’s Galileo navigation satellites.
But as an industrial strategy, the value of space as a government investment goes much further. As Paynter notes, space – and that £10 billion or so revenue racked up in 2013-14 goes way beyond Airbus – has been a poster child for the benefits of long-term planning. Space, the figures show clearly, has been growing through the post-financial crisis recession, and the sector features very high value manufacturing and high productivity. Also, says Paynter, space turns up uses that don’t stop with the original concept; in terms of new applications and new business opportunities, satellite navigation is a gift that keeps on giving.
Will the UK government continue to support its space sector in budget-constrained times? The track record suggests it will, but the real test will come in December, when ESA member states meet at their key “ministerial” conference to hash out priorities – and budgets – for the next several years. How far is the UK government willing to go? Paynter is optimistic that London will maintain its financial support of ESA: “I think the UK is a good place to be and I hope the government sees that.”
For the UK Space Agency, Courtney simply says that the government’s recent comprehensive spending review ringfenced the UKSA budget, so the “funding envelope” is known, but the ministerial conference represents a “large and significant investment”. As for whether or not to support an extension of the ISS until 2024, she adds that it is simply too early to say what the UK position is, as ESA’s proposal is as yet unknown. The UK, she says, would anyway keep its cards close to its chest.
Whatever the future holds, Tim Peake has captured public imagination and, says Courtney, the UKSA has a “great opportunity” to continue that engagement now that he is back on the ground. Industry, she adds, can and is sharing in that opportunity – for example through an outreach centre being established at Airbus Stevenage, where the public can “touch space” – or at least see a Mars rover up close.
To Paynter, the value of that investment is clear; when it comes to highlighting the excitement of so-called STEM careers in science, technology, engineering and maths, he says: “The cost of Tim Peake has paid back many times over.”