What can you get for a couple of hundred million pounds these days? Well, you could probably pick up a half-way decent football club, a few streets’ worth of houses in one of the more expensive parts of London or a minuscule stake in Tesco.
In the case of the UK, £200m gets you a space programme. This hardly astronomical sum – in public spending terms at least – is the amount invested by the nation each year in space research.
The Commons Science and Technology Committee this week issued a welcome rallying call for the government to adopt a more ambitious and co-ordinated approach to space, and even to consider reversing the UK’s long-standing refusal to get involved in manned space missions.
The MPs on the committee rightly avoided too much of the ‘to boldly go’ and ‘reach for the stars’ type stuff that reinforces sceptics in their belief that spending on space is a racket by sci-fi dreamers to extract more cash from the hard-pressed public purse.
Instead it identified the practical benefits a thriving space technology community can bring to the UK in terms of income, skills and jobs.
The UK already has an impressive record in space science and technology, despite government backing that can at best be described as lukewarm. What rightly concerns the Science & Technology Committee is that without a more ambitious approach, the UK will fall dangerously behind not just the mega-spenders of the US and China, but also other European nations that already invest significantly more.
Space research, with its emphasis on high-value, transferable technologies in areas such as robotics, propulsion and materials is exactly the type of field in which the UK should aim to excel over the next 50 years.
Beyond the economic benefits, it will become one of those areas that defines a nation as either technologically cutting-edge or distinctly blunt. We don’t want to end up among the latter.
Andrew Lee, editor