Quiet moves herald a new UK space age

Features editor

Take a look at the picture heading this column and imagine it wearing a white coat two sizes too big and a pale-blue hairnet. It’s not my greatest look, but it’s compulsory for visiting the clean room of a satellite-making facility.

Visiting EADS Astrium’s Friedrichshafen site, where the Swarm satellites we discuss in our cover feature (’Gathering swarm’, p24) are currently being readied for pre-flight testing, brings the UK’s achievements in space science into focus.

The construction of Swarm is mainly a joint Anglo-German project; the three satellites’ main structures, thermal and mechanical components, including thrusters and fuel tanks, were made in EADS Astrium’s Stevenage plant, while the control, system engineering, electricals and assembly are being handled in Germany.

Britain’s rise to prominence in space science has been a quiet one. The UK eschewed involvement in manned space flight and its efforts at launcher technology – although successful – were abandoned in the 1960s for cost reasons, a pattern that has become familiar. Anybody involved in engineering in the UK can trot out the sad litany of projects that promised a technology-leading position but were cut short by politicians: Black Knight, TSR-2, Blue Streak, Hotol…

Exiting the glamour areas of space flight has meant that, to the layman, the UK has no active involvement in space.

However, over the years, British industry and academia have built, developed and held onto a leading position in the world of satellites, for both communications and Earth observation.

Such is the success of this sector that if managed to escape the heaviest blows of the treasury’s axe

Such is the success of this sector that it was one of the few to escape the heaviest blows of the Treasury’s axe last month; the science budget was cut by only 10 per cent, while other departments saw a quarter, a third or two-thirds of their funding hacked away.

Although we are still waiting to see how the remaining science budget will be apportioned, the enthusiasm the Coalition government has for space has been clear to see.

Science, universities and skills minister David Willetts has been as keen as his predecessor, Paul Drayson, to point at space as a growth sector for UK industry.

His enthusiasm is probably helped by the fact that Astrium’s Portsmouth plant is in Willetts’ constituency.

Sir Martin Sweeting, head of Surrey Satellite Technology and one of the leading architects of the UK space sector, says in our interview feature this issue that government ’doesn’t always get it right’ when it comes to investing in technology (’Space craft’, p32). Sweeting believes this has been an advantage for his company as it has forced them to be more creative.

But the government is now clearly listening to space scientists. Sweeting’s plans for the UK to take a leading role in supplying communications infrastructure to future research bases on the Moon make interesting reading.

The future, for this sector at least, looks enticing.