Tuesday 18 June 2019 5:03 am

Small steps to giant leaps: The new space age is just beginning

Next month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landings, possibly one of the most important moments in human history.

That one small step was not only a giant leap for mankind, it also became a giant leap for technological innovation, as President John F. Kennedy’s mission to put a man on the moon, announced in 1961, sparked a sea change in research and development to meet the challenge.

Today, the space industry retains its ability to generate huge returns on investment. Every £1 of public spending on space research generates up to £4, with additional benefits to the UK economy.

Of course, while space exploration remains vitally important, it is here on Earth that the impact of space research is greatest. The explosion in satellite technologies, combined with a reduction in manufacturing costs, is seeing a revolution in communications activities and Earth observation.

For a government that is committed to its global leadership on climate change, this provides a host of exciting opportunities.

Though people often don’t consider it as part of tackling this challenge, we have the space industry to thank for a range of green technologies that help to measure factors like temperature and sea levels, while providing vital data that leads to greater crop yields and new agricultural interventions.

Already, the space industry is an important emerging market – employing 42,000 people across the UK, generating £15bn worth of income and supporting £300bn of wider economic activity.

We want to increase our activities in space even further, which is why we have set an ambition of 10 per cent of commercial market activity in space by 2030. It’s an ambitious target, but there are clear signs of continued investment. Today, the UK Space Agency has announced that Israeli space tech firm hiSky is making a significant commitment to the UK, establishing a new HQ in London and R&D centre at Harwell.

Here, engineers will develop technology that can integrate satellite telecoms with 5G networks, making satellite communications more accessible and affordable while creating more than 100 jobs.

This is the government’s modern industrial strategy in action, and just one of the ways we are supporting one of the most exciting industries of the future.

Last year, we announced our support for the UK’s first vertical launch site in Sutherland. I am delighted that we will now also seek to build Europe’s first horizontal launch site at Spaceport Cornwall, thanks to a £20m investment from the UK Space Agency, Cornwall Council, and the Local Enterprise Partnership, together with Virgin Orbit.

Since becoming science minister, I’ve had the fantastic opportunity of seeing first-hand the transformative power of space. But it has also become increasingly apparent that we must take a whole of government approach.

This is why I have also announced our intention to create the UK’s first National Space Council, just as the US has done. This recognises the importance of linking the defence and security aspects of space, together with its potential for communications, the environment, transport, and many other facets of our society.

Just as we have made a long-term commitment to increase our R&D spend to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027, with our modern industrial strategy investing over £7bn extra in research by 2022, so we also need to ensure that we have a long-term plan for space.

We are at the beginning of a new space age and the UK is determined to play its full part. Who knows what we can achieve in the next 50 years? From small steps to giant leaps, there is a universe of opportunities.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.