To win the new space race, politicians must get serious about funding

Posted On: 
20th November 2019

The UK could yet be a big winner in this new space race, but whether or not this happens will depend on the political choices made today. If we don’t act, then the UK risks standing still as other nations make great leaps forward, says Graham Peters, Chair of UKspace.

The UK space industry is thriving. By acting on UKspace's recommendations, politicians can ensure that this continues to be the case long into the future, says Graham Peters, Chair, UKspace.
Credit: 
PA Images

The 1969 moon landing came after John F. Kennedy boldly set out to overtake the Soviet Union in the space race. In 2019, there is an entirely different contest occurring as rival nations set their sights on the rapidly growing global spacetech market. Established players like the US, China and France are re-enforcing their strategic positions in space, while new initiatives are being driven forward by the likes of New Zealand, Australia, Singapore and Luxembourg. The UK could yet be a big winner in this new space race, but whether or not this happens will depend on the political choices made today. If we don’t act, then the UK risks standing still as other nations make great leaps forward.

To that end, with polling day looming, the various firms that make up the UK space sector have come together to set out the actions that the next government must take to ensure that we capitalise on a massive global market. Our 2020 Manifesto outlines five key recommendations that would unleash the transformative potential of the UK space sector.
 
The first thing that any government must do is commit to raise the level of ambition in space funding from all current sources, especially the European Space Agency. As our future role in the European Union hangs in the balance, nobody in Westminster can afford to be squeamish about putting funding into ESA. For one thing, ESA is an inter-governmental body and not an arm of the EU. It is also a programme that has been exceptionally helpful to UK businesses. Former space ministers such as David Willetts have made it clear that ESA has historically been a very good deal for us that we have played skillfully. Without a commitment to boost current ESA spending levels, many UK firms will face challenges to maintaining international supply chains across Europe post-Brexit and we will lose influence with other ESA members and beyond.
 
The second thing that urgently needs to happen is the establishment of a National Space Programme with a new £150m-a-year Innovation Fund. The NSP’s primary objective would be to ensure that the UK space sector plays an increasingly prominent role in the global space market, building cross-country partnerships and fully exploiting the potential of new technologies in space. Coupled with revolutionary new techniques in computing and artificial intelligence, the UK space sector also offers the ability to take specific and radical action to improve the environment. It means that investing in the sector through the £150m-a-year Innovation Fund could mean a new industrial revolution right here in the UK, creating thousands of new green jobs spread across all our regions, while helping to deepen our trading relationships with partners outside Europe.
 
We are also recommending that the UK’s post-Brexit participation in a new satellite position, navigation and timing system must be secured. The 2019 Spending Review committed to continuing to provide £191m of funding to support Brexit-related activities “including the development of a UK Global Navigation Satellite System option and delivering business stability for company law and audit”. However, the estimated cost of the programme is £5bn.

Finally, we are recommending that the new National Space Council must be given the powers and funding to drive the sector forward. One position on the council could be for a ‘national space tsar’ with a remit to work closely with the science minister and advise on space policy.

Our recommendations come after Boris Johnson acknowledged the long term strategic and commercial benefits that the space sector brings in his first speech as prime minister on the steps of Downing Street. When setting its legislative agenda three months later, the government turned this rhetoric into a statement of intent, committing to making the UK a world-leader in space technology with an ‘ambitious national space strategy’.

The prime minister is not the only politician to acknowledge the enormous potential of the sector and all major political parties look set to embrace technology and increase government investment in research and development. But warm words are not enough and now is the time for action. The UK space industry is thriving. Space-related organisations are growing in number, generating high-skilled jobs and high-quality economic output in the process. By acting on our recommendations, politicians can ensure that this continues to be the case long into the future.