Luton we have a problem

Cape Canaveral, Houston, the Baikonur Cosmodrome… erm… Stevenage. OK, the anonymous Hertfordshire town doesn’t quite have the same cosmic ring to it, but if new calls for the creation of a UK space agency are heeded, Stevenage, home to satellite special




Cape Canaveral, Houston, the Baikonur Cosmodrome… erm…  Stevenage.


OK, the anonymous Hertfordshire town doesn’t quite have the same cosmic ring to it, but if new calls for the creation of a UK space agency are heeded, Stevenage, home to satellite specialist Astrium – could find itself at the heart of a UK space industry that bestrides the world stage.


The voice behind the demands for a UK version of NASA belongs to Royal Society President and Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, who argued this week that such an organisation would provide a hub for domestic space science activities as well as represent UK space science and engineering on the international stage. It would replace the existing British National Space Centre which coordinates UK civil space activities, but lacks the authority to implement national space policy.


Rees also calls for government to play a more prominent role in international space research. While US space policy is set at the highest levels of the US Government, responsibility in the UK is shared by eight different government departments including the DTI, the MoD, and, somewhat surprisingly, Defra.


With Malcolm Wicks expected to come forward with a new UK space strategy in the autumn, it is to be hoped that the science minister thinks carefully about Lord Rees’ comments. Because an effective UK Space Agency with a significantly increased budget would be a very good thing indeed.


The UK is already home to a huge amount of expertise in space technology and involved in some really big projects – such as Galileo and the Lisa Pathfinder mission – but commercial opportunities are being lost to other countries with stronger, more high profile space agencies. For instance, last year we contributed just seven per cent of ESA’s total budget while France contributed 25 per cent and Germany 20 per cent. A bit more help and encouragement to get involved in high profile projects would enable our home grown space businesses to grab a more sizeable share of a global industry worth around $115bn a year. Plus, a revitalised and growing UK space industry would also be a fantastically inspiring encouragement for the next generation of engineers.



Jon Excell