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Our ambitions for Galactic Britain must not get lost in space

3 min read

In publishing its National Space Strategy, the government pledged to supplant Global Britain with “Galactic Britain”. It acknowledged the UK has for too long failed to embrace the opportunities the space industry offers. But, by placing our launch capability front and centre of the strategy – vowing to “capture the European market in commercial small satellite launch” as the first of its focal areas in its Ten Point Plan – the government has recognised the potential.

As I have long argued, launch is the single most critical part of the space economy that the UK needs to build out if we are to establish a truly world-leading space ecosystem here in the UK.

I welcome the government’s commitment in the National Space Strategy. The Prime Minister has affirmed that we need to be launching satellites from UK soil “as soon as next year”. Quite right.

The danger now – after publishing such an ambitious, comprehensive and well-balanced strategy – is that the government ticks the policy box marked “space” and doesn’t provide the focus, resources and partnership with industry necessary to deliver it.

We need to forge a stronger and closer collaboration that goes beyond dialogue and becomes a fully-fledged partnership

Now is the time to double down on the intent. We must ensure the strategy is an operational plan rather than just a statement of ambition. The first step towards that goal is to develop a new space pact with business. 

As the National Space Strategy states, collaboration between government and regulators, with business and academia is crucial. We need to forge a stronger and closer collaboration that goes beyond dialogue and becomes a fully-fledged partnership.

We must also resolve ongoing insurance issues. The spaceflight regulations fail to set a clear and binding cap on sector liabilities for launch from the UK, or any potential damage from satellites falling out of orbit. This makes it impossible to secure insurance or to set competitive pricing for launch services. 

The new science minister is aware of this, as he had a meeting with the space sector and, on their insistence, highlighted the problem in the Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) report, which he authored. We need to get this addressed as a matter of urgency. 
We must also address data regulation. Policy is needed, particularly for Earth observation data which is a fast-growing part of the industry. The UK Space Agency, Civil Aviation Authority and Ofcom should work together to ensure streamlined processes for companies in the space sector. The data the UK harvests must continue to be an effective driver for our launch ambition, while at the same time allowing UK world-leading data capture companies to capitalise on this data internationally.

And we must go even further on sustainability. The National Space Strategy rightly doesn’t hold back in recognising the importance of space in tackling climate change, or the global leadership role for the UK in leading efforts to make space more sustainable. But there is the opportunity to go further. Environmental regulators, for example, could play a role in spaceflight regulation, and the UK should take the lead now in pioneering “green launch”.

We should also step up efforts to unlock finance. The National Space Strategy states that “we will work more closely with the financial sector to understand investors’ needs and bring them together with the investment opportunities of our thriving space innovation ecosystem”, but the government needs to do more. 

This means providing match-funding, aligning existing sources of funding with its objectives (including this strategy) and ensuring exciting new resources – like the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) – are focused on the space opportunity.

For UK launch companies, the strategy is lacking detail but is positive. No one is in any doubt about the government’s commitment to deliver its promise to ensure a sovereign launch capability, but the devil is in the detail. I hope to see the above concerns positively addressed to make the UK space industry flourish as it rightly should.

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