UK space agency

A focus on the UK’s advanced space sector has prompted the decision to create a single, unified agency says Lord Drayson

Space directly employs 20,000 people in this country. It contributes £6.8 billion to the UK economy, has grown by around nine per cent per annum since 1999/2000 and is forecast to maintain average annual growth of five per cent until 2020. On their own, commitments made at last year’s ESA ministerial meeting have provided work for UK space companies for at least the next five years.

Space provides the strongest rebuttal to all those people who knock the UK and argue that we no longer have the right stuff when it comes to manufacturing. Think about it. Space is the toughest environment of all, where systems and components are subjected to the ultimate workout – instruments required to function at just a tenth of a degree above absolute zero. When you send multi-million pound kit into orbit, there are no second chances.

We compete in this environment – and we win. A fundamental reason for that is that you’d be hard placed to find another sector where industry and the research base are so wedded together.

As we rebalance the economy, this is precisely the high-value, highly-skilled, technologically advanced area we must focus on: for jobs, for growth, for prosperity.

Hence the announcement that the UK is going to have an executive space agency – a single, coherent organisation to support an industry and a research base that are one of the best advertisements for the UK.

The recent public consultation on the funding and management of our civil space activities found that the current partnership structure has served a useful purpose. Through the existing system – and in the past year alone – the Herschel and Planck satellites are gathering the most detailed information we have about the birth and evolution of our Universe.

But the new agency will put the machinery of government fully behind the sector. It will secure cross-Whitehall decisions and buy-in on space-related issues – including education and outreach – and it will prioritise UK involvement in future space projects.

We need that unified approach to grab a greater share of the global market in space systems, services and applications – and remain at the forefront of advanced manufacturing.

At the moment, I’d venture that the UK is the place to be for space scientists and entrepreneurs.

Next year, we’ll see the UK-led Cryosat mission to study ice thickness at the poles, and  the launch of the Hylas spacecraft, developed by start-up company Avanti Communications, which will deliver broadband across Europe to people unable to use surface links. Meanwhile, a joint NASA/ESA programme of Mars exploration is being finalised with the UK at its heart. What we’ve got to do is build on what the UK already does extremely well, and really go for growth – growth backed by the agency. The late Werner von Braun, arguably the greatest rocket engineer of the 20th century, once made a rather elegant quip. He said: ‘There is just one thing I can promise you about the outer-space programme: your dollar will go further.’ Von Braun’s observation applies in any currency. So let’s get our full pound’s worth – up there and down here. Because, if you look carefully this sector, you can glimpse Britain’s future: built on great science, employing the most highly-skilled physicists and engineers, manufacturing leading-edge technologies in demand worldwide. It’s a great future.

Edited extracts of speech delivered last month at the Appleton Space Conference.

 

BIOGRAPHY

Lord Drayson of Kensington

  • Minister for Science and Innovation
  • 1982 Took a BSc in production engineering at Aston, sponsored by BL Cars at Longbridge
  • 1985 PhD in robotics
  • 1986 – 1991 Managing Director of Lambourn Food Company
  • 1993 Co-founded Powderject Pharmaceuticals
  • 2001 – 2002  Chairman of the BioIndustry Association
  • 2005  Minister for defence procurement
  • 2007 Minister for defence equipment and support and Minister of State for Business and Regulatory Reform
  • November 2007 Indulging a life-time hobby, left government to compete in American Le Mans series
  • October 2008  Returned as minister of state for science and innovation taking a seat in the cabinet.