SIR RICHARD Branson opened the world’s first commercial spaceport last month. As his new venture Virgin Galactic recognises, space is an industry where the sky’s not the limit. For too long the domain of superpower rivalry between America’s Nasa and Russia’s Federal Space Agency, space is now giving way to the private sector, funded by billionaires with even greater ambitions. The surprise for many is that Britain has a great future here too. But first it will need to create an enabling regulatory environment, license a spaceport and develop beneficial relationships beyond Europe with Commonwealth and American space agencies.
Elon Musk, a founder of PayPal and now SpaceX, recently expounded on why mankind should become a multi-planet species, helped by his company’s reusable space transportation system. All very exciting. And in the deep future such ambitions may well come to pass.
But before we get to that point, Britain, with its relatively more humdrum expertise in satellite manufacture, ground support and satellite launch insurance has a serious role to play. This £7bn sector seems poised for Bric-style growth of nearly 10 per cent per annum for many years to come. And unlike in America, Britain’s space sector came about despite rather than because of government support.
This was largely thanks to the benign and unforeseen consequence of the UK’s early adoption of satellite broadcasting. This pushed the technological envelope for satellites and what they could deliver to the consumer. As the worldwide, always-on demand for information continued to grow, the UK was also able to draw on the skills of overlapping world-class aerospace and defence industries that brought new possibilities and skills into the nascent space sector.
Much as the progress has been impressive, there are some hurdles that need to be cleared if the British space sector’s momentum is to be maintained and taken to the next stage.
Chief among these is regulation. It is an irony that the 1875 Explosives Act prevented any British research with rockets in the pre-war period, unlike Nazi Germany whose expertise in hitting London with rockets was later used by the Americans to take a man to the moon. Today’s regulatory concern is how to attract space entrepreneurs to the UK to bring about suborbital flight services – not just from Virgin. Britain has a host of internationally recognised aviation regulations but has no safety, environmental or flight regulations in place for what will be a riskier journey out of the atmosphere. With nothing in place, it’s hard for space pioneers to insure and calculate the cost of setting up a cluster of companies that both build space hardware and offer space-related services in Britain.
Secondly, while many agree that Richard Branson’s private sector spaceport in New Mexico will probably be the first of many, not enough is being done to make the case for the next one in Britain. For suborbital space tourism, a spaceport would be best sited for quick access to scenery from space or for polar orbit satellite launch. These requirements point to existing RAF bases in Scotland at Lossiemouth and Kinloss. Another possibility is in southwest England. Space tourists are willing to pay $200,000 a ticket for a mere three hours in space. Crucially though, they will spend much longer within the vicinity of the spaceport and will no doubt have a lot of disposable income that would help the local economy along with everyone who would be employed working there.
Thirdly, cooperation at the state-to-state level is still important. Most of Britain’s existing public space funds are channelled via the UK Space Agency to the European Space Agency. This has not been a bad relationship. But it would almost certainly be in our interest to expand and rebalance the range of contacts and programmes beyond Europe to Nasa and some Commonwealth space agencies. There is great potential for driving down costs for the space programme by working with India, Canada and Australia and not just the USA.
In the new space economy, you can be small and succeed. You don’t need astronauts to be in the space business. The Isle of Man’s ManSat, which provides space services like access to geostationary orbits and associated radio frequencies is a case in point. And Virgin Galactic, a harmonious combination of British management and marketing, American technology and Emirates financing speaks volumes about the future international dimension to space use and exploitation.
Don’t rule out major innovations turning space economics on their head either. Perhaps if Oxfordshire’s Reaction Engines is able to massively lower the delivery cost of cargo to orbit with its Skylon spacecraft from £15,000 per kg to £650 then hotels in space and colonies in Mars will start to look not so far off. But as and until then, David Willetts, Britain’s minister of state for universities and science – and our effective space minister – has a lot on his plate and probably the most interesting brief in Whitehall.
Dan Lewis is chief executive of the Economic Policy Centre. www.economicpolicycentre.com