Will we ever have lift off?

Britain is going into space with the mentality of a thrifty shopkeeper.

Timandra Harkness

Topics Science & Tech

How much do you think the UK government spends on space every year? In the USA, it’s £30 per head of the population, per year. France spends £15 a head, Belgium £10 – but in the UK each of us contributes just £3 a year to the conquest of outer space. No wonder poor Beagle 2, dispatched to Mars on a British underdog budget, notched up another heroic failure.

Or perhaps you are surprised to hear that the UK has a space budget at all. Thirty per cent of Britons polled by Mori earlier this year thought that ‘Britain doesn’t have a space industry’. In the first ever Space Pavilion at this year’s Farnborough International Exhibition and Flying Display, the idea of a space strike – a day when all the satellites would be turned off – was a popular joke. Let the oblivious British public do without their television, global positioning system (GPS) and mobile phone services for a day, then ask them about the importance of space.

UK government agencies may only allocate £177million to space expenditure in 2004, but this accounts for only seven per cent of turnover in the space sector – 93 per cent comes from commercial bodies, with 79 per cent linked to broadcasting and telecommunications. In space, it’s the consumer age. This might look like good news for companies such as EADS Astrium, which build and launch satellites for commercial customers as well as the military. But when I talked to Michael Healy, EADS Astrium’s director of earth observation, navigation and science, he was far from content with the UK’s user-led approach, saying that ‘there are lots of things in space where the benefits are not so obvious’.

Frustrated with the lack of media attention for UK space initiatives, Healy comments that ‘technology is not a big story in the UK. Cats and dogs are big’. We share a joke about marketing the forthcoming Galileo satellite navigation system, which is more accurate than the American GPS and potentially capable of landing aeroplanes by remote control, on the basis that it could locate your micro-chipped cat.

The UK government does have a three-year space strategy, and for the first time last year it was even prepared to look ahead as far as 2015. After hearing US president George W Bush’s declaration of the long-term aim to put a human on Mars, 62 per cent of the British public said they ‘liked the fact that the Americans are ambitious in their space exploration’ (though 68 per cent agreed with the statement that America was more interested in the military potential of space).

They’d be disappointed to read what Lord Sainsbury, the UK space minister, has to offer. Page 14 of the Space Strategy offers a triangle of coloured blobs summarising the ‘daily roles of space’ (1). Next to ‘Understanding of fundamental questions about the universe and life itself’ is ‘live access to global news and sport’. If government science policy hinged on ‘finding the answer to life, the universe and everything’, I’d think Cherie had left one crystal too many in the Cabinet Office. But when the availability of Sky Sports News is made equivalent to breaking theoretical ground on time and space, I begin to wonder whether the word ‘vision’ is ever uttered in government circles.

‘We have identified clear scientific and commercial objectives for which space activities are the most effective tool, rather than considering the development of space technology as an end in itself’, the Space Strategy declares. ‘Government policy on space has for many years targeted the pursuit of user-driven research…. This strategy takes this policy to the next level and seeks to focus UK space activities even more on expanding the application of space-based services throughout the economy. The ultimate aim is to create tangible improvements to our quality of life and knowledge, and to make space work for people.’

So there we have it – better consumer services, improved infrastructure for the military and emergency services, and a bit of groundbreaking science thrown in. Feeling inspired yet?

Having spelt out a mission worthy of a nation of shopkeepers, the government strategy then turns its attention to Space as Role Model. ‘Space missions have the invaluable effect of providing a beacon to engage young people’s interest in science, engineering and technology.… The government intends to promote space in education in order to increase the number of qualified professionals available in the economy generally, as well as in space-related careers.’

If only it were that simple. Most children are excited by space. In fact, most adults are excited by space – 70 per cent of those polled by Mori certainly were. Fifty-five per cent thought that the UK should be involved in manned space flight. By the time we make our career choices, though, a fuzzy picture of somebody walking on the Moon before we were born is unlikely to sustain us through years of hard maths and physics.

Government space strategy rejects the long, expensive, risky path to unknown challenges, and opts instead for ‘sustainable improvement in quality of life’. Hardly surprising that young people get the message that setting your sights too high is a lonely and unrewarding path. Let’s hope that the ‘Beagle effect’ continues to provoke our appetite for what Michael Healy identifies as the common factor from Apollo to Beagle 2: ‘the struggle to achieve things.’

Right, I’m off to the NASA stand. I never can resist the chance to try on a space suit.

Timandra Harkness is a journalist and script writer, and is currently writing a feature film about a man going to Mars.

(1) See the draft UK Space Strategy

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Topics Science & Tech


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