The sky is not the limit

Partly it’s the old problem of British engineering not proclaiming its successes loudly enough, so it’s worth reiterating the numbers: Britain has a space industry that supports 70,000 jobs, according to its trade association, UK Space; the industry is also worth £6bn per year at the moment. This is projected to grow to £40bn over the next ten years.

So the UK Space Agency (UKSA) clearly makes sense. Space is big business and it pervades every part of everyday life: broadband internet depends on it; your mobile phone wouldn’t work without it; the satnav in your car stops you getting lost because of it. It’s also increasingly important in scientific research: Earth observation is a vital discipline for keeping watch on our climate and predicting how and where it will change. Having a single agency keeping watch over all these diverse strands will make it easier for space engineers, aerospace engineers and researchers to keep in touch, and for anybody who wants to work with the UK on space projects to contact the right people.

But space engineering doesn’t exist in isolation, any more than any other branch of engineering does. It’s a sad indictment that many see the more scientific side of space, particularly deep-space and planetary exploration, as the more frivolous part of the discipline — something to satisfy the idle curiosity of scientists; interesting, sure, but not of much actual use. But as we’ll be pointing out in our next issue, that’s nowhere near the truth.

Sending technology to another planet is about the most demanding application anyone can imagine, and planetary exploration missions are a pressure-cooker for development. They focus and accelerate research, and what comes out of that is a rapid way of turning fairly abstract scientific ideas into a working piece of engineering. And that means intellectual property, which in turn means commercial applications.

It’s important to put planetary research into context as a way of attracting people into science and technology careers and training them; as a way of accelerating technology development and forcing people to think about allying science with engineering; to make it seem as vital as the more obviously business-oriented stuff of communications satellites. This is a vital area for the UK to be in, playing to many important strengths, notably in low-volume, high-value manufacturing, where we are carving out a place as a world leader.

It’s not rocket science.