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NSRC 2020

 
Tim Peake
With the creation of a UK space agency and the selection earlier this year of a British ESA astronaut, Tim Peake (above), there may be greater pressure for the British government to fund human spaceflight programs. (credit: BNSC)

Britain’s new space agency: a provincial subcommittee or a national asset?


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For many years the United Kingdom’s space organization has been a glaring anomaly. No medium-sized power anywhere has failed so completely to set up a space organization that can sit with the world’s other space agencies on an equal-to-equal basis. The British National Space Centre (BNSC) has, in spite of its courageous and occasionally brilliant efforts, failed to have much of an impact on the international space scene.

It is a sign of just how little importance the Labour Government has given to space policy that since they came to power in 1997 this is their first significant action in this domain.

The model for the separation of civilian and military space operations was set by the Eisenhower Administration in June of 1958 when it made the decision to “Provide through appropriate legislation for the conduct of U.S. outer space activities under the direction of a civilian agency, except in so far as such activities may be particular to or primarily associated with weapons systems or military operations, in the case of which activities the Department of Defense shall be responsible.”

Over the decades this policy has been generally accepted as the one most likely to promote international trust and cooperation. Partners in multilateral space endeavors are assured, within reason, that they will not be directly contributing to other nations military programs and that information gained from civil space projects will be shared in an open and comprehensive way. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work.

Under this arrangement, military programs are kept separate from civilian ones. International and allied cooperation takes place on a military-to- military or spy-agency-to-spy-agency basis. For the most part this has been a satisfactory arrangement. One sign that this model has become the international norm has been the recent decisions by India and Japan to adhere to it. Yet, in the past decade the nations of the European Union (EU) have been moving away from Eisenhower’s concept and mixing military and civil space operations in programs like the Galileo satellite navigation system and the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) series of Sentinel surveillance satellites. France is the principal driving force behind this effort.

It was the government of Jacques Chirac that decided that they could not build the kind of pan-European military force they wanted without a strong space component. They also knew that few other Europeans were ready to invest large sums in a military space force that would be under mostly French control and would undermine NATO and the US security guarantee. It was far easier to convince them to put money into ostensibly civilian systems that would form the building blocks of the EU military space force of which France had long dreamed.

The European Space Agency (ESA) now carries most of the burden of Europe’s military space ambitions. Its multinational structure has become ever more complex. It must accommodate member states that want nothing to do with the EU’s military ambitions as well as some that are just as passionate as France is about building a European armed force that has nothing to do with the US and with NATO.

These contradictions will gradually, over the next few decades, cripple ESA’s ability to cooperate not only with NASA but with most of the world’s other civil space agencies. They will never be able to reliably and honestly inform their political masters that they are carrying out purely peaceful space activities in cooperation with ESA. One sign of this is the ongoing spat between ESA and China over Galileo.

The decision to set up a full scale British space agency is long overdue. Sadly it may be too late for Britain to have much of an impact on any of the major, ongoing space programs.

Britain’s new space agency will have as its number one task, according to the government press release, “strengthening the UK’s relationship with the European Space Agency.” It has not yet been decided to what extent Britain will support ESA’s military ambitions. The Labour government has, under the December 1998 St. Malo agreement that was made between Tony Blair and Chirac, pushed the British armed forces into an ever-closer embrace of the EU. However there is an excellent chance that the Conservative party will win the next election this coming spring, and they seem to have other ideas.

It is a sign of just how little importance the Labour Government has given to space policy that since they came to power in 1997 this is their first significant action in this domain. The British space industry has, over the years, been propelled by a few true visionaries such as Sir Martin Sweeting at Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, now part of the European Astrium conglomerate.

The bigfoot mandarins of the British scientific establishment only recently came to the conclusion that the UK needed to participate in human space exploration. This announcement may be a sign that their arguments are having an effect on the policymakers. Perhaps this may result in a small boost in the overall civilian space budget, but no one is holding their breath for this.

The selection by ESA of Tim Peake as the UK’s first official astronaut, in spite of London’s longstanding refusal to fund any human spaceflight efforts, is a sign that the Europeans have real hopes for a change of mind. In his speech announcing the new agency Lord Drayson, the Minister of Business, Innovation, and Skills, said, “I know that BNSC are working on a publicity campaign featuring Tim that will encourage young people to study science subjects in school. Space has a unique capacity to inspire and Tim has iconic potential.” There is also an interesting capacity for ESA to put pressure on the UK to pay up, or else Tim will stay Earthbound forever.

The decision to set up a full scale British space agency is long overdue. Sadly it may be too late for Britain to have much of an impact on any of the major, ongoing space programs. If they want to have a powerful voice in the next generation of civil programs they will need to be ready to provide the funds. For the US, the big question will be how deeply the new agency is involved in the EU’s military space programs and what limits this puts on bilateral and multilateral cooperation.


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