Lost in space

A £40bn space science sector? That’s got to be worth cheering about. Science minister Lord Drayson announced plans to expand the UK’s space industry last week, including a firm commitment to a UK Space Agency, expanded involvement in Earth observation satellites and a boost to funding that will put the UK into the top 10 space-investing countries in the world (it currently lies 21st).

But at the same time, space science research is being cut back sharply. Britain is to stop collaborating in the Cassini programme to study the Saturn system, which has been so successful in returning images and data from the ringed planet and its moons that NASA has extended it by seven years. Other solar system exploration projects are also facing cuts. So, it’s worth asking: what does the government think space science is for?

The UK’s research community is to cease involvement in the Cassini probe

The answer seems pretty obvious: it’s for producing data that people will spend money for. Return on investment is the key. Whether it’s climate data, images for surveying civil engineering projects, monitoring greenhouse emissions, military reconnaisance or other information, or providing telecommunications links and broadband coverage, Earth-orbiting satellites can be parlayed into giving the UK a competitive advantage, whether it’s financial or strategic. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

But there’s another aspect to space, and the scientists arguing for planetary observation also have a point. For one thing, there’s an undeniable cachet to sending exploration spacecraft out into the solar system. The search for knowledge is glamorous, and it attracts bright and curious students into space science; from there, they go into the field of developing technology, and that brings them into the realm of engineering. It’s not as direct a return on investment as a contractor paying for high-resolution satellite images of a train route, but it’s arguably a lot more forward-looking.

It also reflects well on the rest of the space industry. If you’re involved in developing instruments that can withstand the conditions of a trip to Saturn and reliably return information to Earth, then you’re probably going to be pretty good at the more nuts-and-bolts stuff. Think of it like an apprentice piece in centuries past, when craftsmen would produce ornate miniatures to prove their skill: if I can do this, imagine how good a wardrobe I can make. Planetary observation is a shop window.

So far, so airy-fairy. But there’s a harder-edged argument for space exploration investment, feeding straight back into the UK engineering industry. We have a strong and growing research base looking at robotics. Remote operation, alternative power systems, complex layers of autonomy, simplified and miniaturised sensors: all of these, vital for the exploration of neighbouring planets and distant moons, are highly marketable technologies in industry. And space is the ultimate testing ground. If we can do this, imagine what we can do for your UAVs. Or your factories. Or your medical devices.

I recently saw a cabinet minister — often tipped as a rising star — admit in an interview that government was notoriously bad at joined-up thinking. While laudable in ambition, the space science strategy is also an example of just how short-sighted and un-joined-up policy-making can be.

Stuart Nathan

Special Projects Editor