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For the UK's growing space industry, the sky's the limit

Skyrora ground rocket system test

6 min read

On the same day I was appointed to government as a whip, I was given the honour of being appointed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng to the role of the national space champion, in effect a United Kingdom government trade envoy post to the UK space Industry.

This position was years in the making, as I helped in the procurement process of the satellite system OneWeb, which brought me to the attention of Prime Minister Johnson. I previously chaired the Space All-Party Parliamentary Group for the better part of the last 10 years, which has interfaced me with this industry for nearly a decade.

We have so many examples of successful home-grown space enterprises. For example, a few weeks ago I found myself at the Machrihanish Airbase on the Kintyre peninsula in western Scotland, a reused former military facility once home to 2,000 military personnel and a plethora of RAF and Nato aircraft capabilities.

Space is having an increasingly significant, positive impact upon British society and our economy

I watched the UK rocket company Skyrora perform a static fire test of the complete second stage of the Skyrora XL launch vehicle, the largest of its kind built in the UK for 50 years. This is significant as we were developing this technology half a century ago, and it is private industry in the UK like Space X in the US that is now carrying on the baton.

I watched the 30-strong team prepare for the big moment for a test that will unlock the next development stages in a company that will use improved technology to access a global market and contribute to the UK’s goal of 10 per cent of the global space market, per the UK National Space Strategy, unlocking billions for the UK economy.

Skyrora stands as a strong example to me. This is science and technology working for the British economy. This is indicative of a wider UK space industry that offers more of the same.

Another example: Cardiff-based Space Forge recently raised £7.6m in seed funding, Europe’s largest ever for a space company. They plan to offer the global semi-conductor and pharmaceuticals market new technology, the properties of which could only be achieved through manufacturing in space.

A package will soon be launched from Cornwall. During the launch mission, Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747, Cosmic Girl, will take off from the runway at Spaceport Cornwall, carrying the LauncherOne rocket beneath its wing.

The plane will fly out over the ocean before blasting the packages into space. This will be the first satellite launch from the UK and Virgin Orbit’s first mission outside of the US.

David Morris MP at the Skyrora rocket test

The UK space sector boasts the most educated and youthful workforce in Britain, with three out of four employees holding a degree. It is also growing rapidly, with total income trebling in size since 2000.

The latest figures from the report ‘Size and Health of the UK Space Industry 2021’ show employment in the UK space sector hit 46,995 in 2020, up from 44,040 in 2019 – an increase of 2,955 (6.7 per cent). Sector income increased in nominal terms from £16.4bn to £16.5bn, with exports counting for around a third (32 per cent) of this total.  

Space manufacturing, including satellites, spacecraft, launch vehicles and scientific instruments, grew the most in real terms – up by £23m to £2.27 bn.  

Space costs less than people think. UK exploration activities, through the European Space Agency’s exploration programme, costs about £1 per person, per year, and our return on investment here is just under £12 for every £1 spent.

I feel an awakening is happening in the UK industry. Space is having an increasingly significant, positive impact upon British society and our economy. We must invest in consequential funding and relevant regulation to ensure space will deliver our status as a science and tech superpower.

I have also championed that space needs its own dedicated government minister to bring all the facets of the UK Space industry to the departments of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Transport, and interface with the Ministry of Defence, and sit firmly on the UK’s National Space Council that has been previously chaired by Prime Minister Johnson.

David Morris MP with the late American astronaut Gene Cernan

Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, told me that one day we will return. I’m proud to say the United Kingdom will have a large part to play in that return by contributing to the Artemis Moon Shot programme nearly half a century after Gene left the surface of the moon.

The UK will also play a key role in this mission. We will be able to track the mission in the UK from Goonhilly Earth Station in Cornwall. Goonhilly will also serve (through Tracking, Telemetry and Control) some of the 10 CubeSats onboard, which will be deployed into deep space.

The Lunar economy is set to take off in the next decade – a recent PwC study estimated it to have a value of $170bn (£145bn) by 2040. I want to see the UK playing its part in this, and we have the forward-thinking, innovative companies to capitalise on this opportunity. It is important that we are developing the capabilities and services now – so that we don’t miss this new market.  

The UK has been a key player in the Artemis programme as part of its involvement in the ESA, the European Space Agency. The rocket is now expected to be launched on Friday.

ESA have secured flights to the Lunar Gateway, which are yet to be assigned. The upcoming ministerial meeting, where all the member states decide their future investments in ESA, will see if money is committed to ESA being part of lunar landings. NASA has not confirmed a date for announcing its astronaut selection, but we expect this soon. 

Businesses all across the UK will be involved in building the service module and habitation module of a new space station named the Lunar Gateway to orbit the moon. This will generate economic benefits and high-skilled jobs, demonstrating the UK’s prominence and prestige in the international space programme strengthening our status in ESA.

We are in a very good position at the minute, and quite rightly punching above our weight despite what is going on globally. It is my job for that industry to be heard in government.

David Morris is Conservative MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale, a government whip and the UK's national space champion

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