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Stephen Morgan MP: The British aerospace industry is taking a giant leap forward – but needs more support from the Government

4 min read

Back from a visit to the Kennedy Space Station, it is clear the aerospace industry in the UK needs more investment so it can continue to thrive, writes Stephen Morgan MP

As a founding member of the European Space Agency (ESA), and with a lineage of launching satellites into orbit that dates back to 1971, Britain has a strong pedigree of aerospace involvement. Government must step up to the mark and allow industry to continue flourishing. A recent trip to the US ahead of the Solar Orbiter launch, in my capacity as shadow defence procurement Minister, showcased the continuation of British aerospace innovation. 

Around 20% of the instruments needed and £20m pounds worth of funding for the Sun-observing satellite originated in the UK. This, combined with the fact that design and implementation of the spacecraft was undertaken by Airbus UK in Stevenage, means that Britain is at the forefront of a trailblazing mission to better understand the Earth’s life-giver. With an expected mission lifetime of 10 years, the Solar Orbiter will have to withstand temperatures of 600°C when coming within 42 million km from the Sun, which is closer than Mercury. How is the Sun’s magnetic field generated? How do flares produce energetic particles that lead to space storms? What are the measurements of the inner heliosphere? These are questions that, thanks to British aerospace innovation and investment, may be answered by Solar Orbiter. 

Britain’s involvement in aerospace is not limited to Solar Orbiter. From spending time with OneWeb Satellites, where their joint venture with Airbus is constructing a global constellation that will bridge the digital divide, to visiting Reaction Engines – whose SABRE class engines will enable aircraft to fly five times the speed of sound – it is impossible to miss the UK’s contribution to the sector.

But the argument for backing British aerospace transcends research and development. It is also invaluable to Britain’s economy. For every £1 invested in the design and development of space science missions like Solar Orbiter we see around £2.50 to £4 in returns. 

The UK space industry employs around 42,000 people and generated around £15bn to the UK economy in 2016/17. This both provides employment to British people and bolsters our sovereign capability. Thanks to this pool of experts, UK industry regularly secures major ESA contracts to provide mission spacecraft platforms, support mission operations and develop major subsystems.

Portsmouth, the city I am proud to represent in Parliament, is at the forefront of this British pioneering spirit. Home to Airbus, which employs around 1,000 people locally, and Lockheed Martin, which helped develop Solar Orbiter, it is inspiring to see people from my home city play such an instrumental role in space exploration. 

With these considerable benefits in mind, is government doing enough to support British aerospace?  

Unlike the hotbed of UK space industry, the Government is trailing behind other large European nations. In 2018, the UK spent $894m on space, less than half of France’s $3.16bn or Germany’s $2.15bn. If an atmosphere of innovation is to be maintained, the UK government will have to properly invest. Funding is not the only obstacle holding pack the pioneering spirit of British industry. Brexit has some implications. While the European Space Agency is separate to the European Union, will there really be an incentive for foreign investment when such a lucrative market lies just a few hundred miles across the channel? The EU is also the largest fiscal contributor to the ESA. Already this has caused controversy by barring UK access to the Galileo programme. Government must come up with an effective strategy for mitigating against the ramifications of Brexit when it comes to aerospace. 

As it stands, it is UK industry firmly planting the British flag on uncharted aerospace territories. For this to continue, the Government must do all it can to support and invest in the sector. This means proper funding, mitigating against the impacts of Brexit, and supporting the aerospace sector. The Solar Orbiter launch exhibited what British companies are capable of. If we want to avoid being omitted from future projects, the Government needs to step up. 

Stephen Morgan is Labour MP for Portsmouth South and shadow defence procurement minister

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