What on Earth is the UK Space Agency for?

Timandra Harkness reports from the anti-climatic UKSA launch, where no one seemed to be reaching for the stars.

Timandra Harkness
Writer

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There was a sad moment at last week’s inauguration event for the new UK Space Agency. After secretary of state Peter Mandelson and science minister Lord Drayson had given their speeches, the audience was invited to ask questions. One brave soul on the front row asked what the UKSA’s longer term vision was – say, for the next 50 or 100 years? And a ripple of embarrassed laughter spread through the hall.

To his credit, Lord Drayson followed the official answer – the 20-year goal of increasing the UK’s market share from six per cent to 10 per cent of the world space industry – with his personal vision for the next century: to see human beings on Mars. Given that the first people stepped on to the moon 40 years ago, an achievement which itself came within 12 years of putting the first man-made object into space, Drayson’s vision of humans on Mars is not that ambitious. Still, it was a welcome glimmer of something beyond a business plan.

Of course, it’s a good thing that the UK finally has an executive agency for space, our equivalent of NASA. To date, the British space programme has been coordinated by a low-key committee juggling the demands of different government departments and the academics and companies who actually do space science and technology. Since pretty much all our activity in space demands international cooperation, the lack of a government body to negotiate our involvement in, for example, the European Space Agency (ESA) was an embarrassment, if not an obstacle.

However, it’s a pity that the UK’s own NASA launched with such a small-minded mission.

The foundation of NASA in October 1958 – about a year after the USSR’s Sputnik mission had frightened America into taking the space race seriously – clearly had a sense of purpose beyond export markets. But while it may have been all about fighting the Cold War, NASA aimed to do that by going far beyond what any human being had done before and to snatch the mantle of universalist aspiration from the Soviet Union. And it worked, briefly, as millions around the world followed the audacious Apollo 11 mission on television and identified with the all-American guys who left the first human footprints on another sphere.

The UKSA’s mission is mainly about extending a profitable industrial sector that is already defying the recession. Over the past decade the space innovation sector grew by nine per cent annually, more than three times as fast as the UK economy as a whole. It brought in about £6 billion in 2007.

This is largely thanks to cautious decisions in the late twentieth century to stay away from expensive and risky human space exploration, or even developing the launch vehicles that actually take stuff into space. Instead, the UK government and the technology companies chose to focus on satellite technology, a large and growing market. Of the UK’s annual space turnover, 26 per cent is from telecoms and 66 per cent is connected with broadcasting.

Again, it’s not a bad thing that thousands of people in the UK are employed in highly skilled jobs, producing stuff to go into space and making money. Knowing that the government spent only £269million on space in 2008 to 2009, including budgets for the Ministry of Defence, the Met Office and all scientific funding, may be a disappointment. That’s about £4.50 per year for each person in the country. The UK’s public investment in space is 0.014 per cent of its GDP, compared to 0.05 per cent in Germany, or India’s 0.1 per cent.

But in order to raise public money to spend on going to Mars, for instance, somebody does have to be producing something. The Innovation and Growth Team, an industry-led group working with government and academia, came up with a strategy earlier this year. The government responded quickly, agreeing with almost all the recommendations – all except the one about putting a lot more public money in, in fact. Since the strategy is sold entirely in terms of government priorities – economic growth, security, telecommunications infrastructure and dealing with climate change, mainly – it’s not surprising that the 20-year plan is focused on these areas. Space science and inspiring the young to study science are in there, too, but almost as an afterthought.

Still, even on the UKSA’s own terms, its horizons are narrow. For example, the strategy spells out all sorts of ways in which space exploration can, and should, be environmentally friendly:

‘Satellites provide low-carbon solutions to terrestrial problems! Once in orbit satellites need very little electrical power and since that is solar power this significantly reduces emissions of greenhouse gases here on Earth. The manufacture and launch of a satellite have only a modest carbon impact. Indeed, the satellite launch produces less CO2 than a transatlantic flight. Once in position the satellite does use a small amount of fuel but typically averages around three million miles to the gallon!’

The UKSA proposes a range of green uses of space research, covering, among other things, telephony, broadband and HDTV (so much greener than doing it through cables). But mostly it’s about gathering information on what we’re already doing, so that road pricing, smart meters and monitoring of carbon emissions can be used to modify our un-green behaviour.

Where are the plans to generate solar power in space and then beam it down to Earth? Where is the aspiration to use orbiting reflectors to diminish the heating effect of the sun? Even without mining Helium 3 on the Moon, or terraforming Mars, there are plenty of ambitious projects we could be aiming to develop in the next 20 years.

Of course it’s unfair to contrast the UKSA in 2010 with NASA in the 1960s. Today, NASA itself has just launched the Shuttle Discovery, the first of just four remaining Shuttle missions before the obsolete fleet is pensioned off, with no replacement planned. NASA, too, has turned its energy to Earth observation, security and the International Space Station, a low-orbiting laboratory whose purpose is less and less clear.

The other slightly sad moment at the UKSA event was when the UK’s solitary astronaut-in-training, Major Tim Peake, stepped forward in his green flying suit to press the ceremonial red button. On the big screen, a countdown began. The invited school kids at the front joined in, and the couple of hundred scientists, hacks and industry types mumbled along self-consciously from 10 to zero.

Then the UKSA’s new logo appeared.

It’s a good logo. But to inspire a new generation of scientists, engineers and astronauts, let alone the rest of us, we need to launch more than a brand.

Timandra Harkness is a writer and broadcaster. Visit her website here.

Previously on spiked

Sean Collins was excited by the discovery of water on the moon. James Woudhuysen urged a return to the moon, and looked back on the launch of Sputnik, and with it, the beginning of US self-doubt. Henry Joy McCracken reckoned that there should be more to space travel than delivering groceries to the international space station. He also advocated a a mission to Mars. And in 1997 he wondered why we still haven’t walked on Mars?  Joe Kaplinsky criticised Stephen Hawking for his fear-mongering defence of space travel. Or read more at spiked issue Science and technology.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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