News Analysis: UK space industry looks to the future in optimistic mood

Britain is in the vanguard as the Space Age enters an exciting new era.

It’s a truism that people take technology for granted, rarely stopping to think how their mobile phone works or why the lights come on when they flip a switch. This seems especially true of space applications, perhaps because the technology is that much more remote; arguably because, in the UK, its achievements are poorly publicised.This could be about to change, though, judging by the positive attitude of delegates at the first UK Space Conference hosted by the newly established UK Space Agency. Under the theme ‘The New Space Economy’, the event at the University of Warwick brought together several hundred space-sector professionals to discuss business, innovation and future prospects.

Even David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, professed his enthusiasm for the space sector, not least because it makes a £7.5bn annual contribution to the UK economy and has shown a 10 per cent average improvement over recent years.

According to Professor Sir Adrian Smith, director general of the Knowledge and Innovation Group in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the sector provides direct employment for some 25,000 people (57 per cent of whom are graduates) and indirect employment for 60,000 others.

As Willetts pointed out, space has benefited from the government’s decision to “ring-fence the science and research budget”, but there is more to it than that. As well as replacing the largely ineffectual British National Space Centre (BNSC) with a real space agency and a dedicated £240m budget, it has established the International Space Innovation Centre (ISIC) and welcomed the first European Space Agency facility (the ESA Business Incubation Centre) to UK shores. Both facilities lie within the Harwell science cluster.

Beyond that, Willetts was proud to announce that he had signed agreements “to work more closely” with Russia and the US and made commitments “to remove barriers to growth”. The latter includes an attempt to level the playing field by reducing compulsory insurance requirements for budding satellite operators and reforming the Outer Space Act, which currently places the onus of ‘unlimited liability’ on UK industry. He also announced that he was “looking to allow Virgin Galactic and Skylon to launch from the UK”.

This government support for space launch technologies is significant considering its long-term policy of eschewing launch systems in favour of ‘more practical applications’, such as telecommunications and Earth observation. Indeed, the very mention of Skylon – a reusable spaceplane designed by Culham-based Reaction Engines Ltd – is a tacit recognition that the project has at last broken the ‘obscurity barrier’.

Skylon’s SABRE engine is unusual because it combusts onboard hydrogen using atmospheric oxygen in the early phases of its ascent, and draws on its supply of liquid oxygen only in the final phase. This saves a significant amount of weight and makes the single-stage-to-orbit design feasible.

An initial investment of £6m has enabled testing of the novel pre-cooler heat exchanger to commence and progress is good. However, in common with other developers of advanced space technologies, Reaction Engines MD Alan Bond is wary of engaging too early with the general media, which tend to expect instant results and flawless tests. Nevertheless, he is upbeat about development, expecting the SABRE detailed design and demonstration phase to be completed by 2014 with operational service in 2020.

Meanwhile, Britain’s contributions to ESA programmes show that communications, Earth observation and space science remain core activities. ESA director general Jean-Jacques Dordain was on hand to confirm the importance of the UK’s role in Europe, not least because of its involvement in Alphasat, the new large comsat platform due to be launched next year, and the inauguration of the ESA centre at Harwell. “I have complained for some time about the lack of interest of the UK in ESA,” he said, “but I have nothing to complain about now.”

Dordain said UK industry would benefit from the growing national involvement in ESA. Europe accounts for 12 per cent of worldwide spending on space, he said, “but Europe’s industry has taken 40 per cent of the income”. He warned, however, that continued innovation would be vital to maintain this advantage.

Bond, though, said the word innovation itself was “very overused” and in danger of becoming a meaningless buzzword. In a tongue-in-cheek attempt at definition, he identified four levels of innovation: Type 4, he suggested, was “a nice gadget” to check car tyre pressures; Type 3 was an improved engine that saved fuel; Type 2 was “a flying car”; and Type 1 was a Tardis. “I regard true innovation as Type 2,” he said, then listed the many qualities an innovator was expected to have before being taken seriously. These ranged from the obvious technical capabilities to being “an orator…politically adept and quite well-heeled”.

Bond’s more serious point was that society needs to be able to recognise innovators in the first place and then provide them with the support and skills they lack.

There’s nothing like a common enemy to unite a crowd, and plenary moderator Phillip Lee MP managed this well – especially considering the “new economy” theme – by drawing attention to a recent cover of The Economist. ‘The End of the Space Age’, it declared, much to the annoyance of Lee, who had “pushed the space sector” in his maiden speech to the House of Commons.

No-one actually burned the magazine on the stage, but it was referred to several times in increasingly disparaging tones. “I wholeheartedly disagree with The Economist,” opined George Whitesides, CEO and president of Virgin Galactic. At a time when the number of spacefarers has exceeded 500, he was proud to announce that Virgin had already taken deposits from 440 customers.

By the time of the first commercial flight, which remains undetermined, Whitesides said he expects to “more than equal” the number of existing astronauts.

On balance, the view of delegates was that far from ending, the Space Age has simply entered a new era. Indeed, Zahaan Bharmal of Google Europe showed delegates that the public is still interested in space by quoting viewing figures for two online videos, a trailer for the ‘Green Lantern’ film, which gained 2.4 million views, and ‘First Orbit’, a reconstruction of Gagarin’s view from orbit, which clocked “more than three million”.

Interest in the first human space flight is not surprising in this 50th anniversary year but, despite the recent unveiling of Gagarin’s statue in central London, the UK space sector is looking to the future. That doesn’t hinge on the success of Skylon, but the first commercial flight of this strange and innovative bird could really mark the dawn of a new space economy. *

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