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Michael Foale
British-born Michael Foale is one of the world’s most experienced space travelers, but he had to become an American citizen to be an astronaut. (credit: NASA)

Parsimony and piecemeal: what future does Britain have in space?

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Inherent capabilities

Collaborations outside of ESA, of course, should be encouraged and are heartening but this is assuming the European Union doesn’t seek to promote itself in such high-profile missions, which means any UK recognition and thus public inspiration will be lost and it will become a grandstand for transnationalist politicians rather than an opportunity for mutually-rewarding cooperation. The lack of tangible, genuinely international support so far for a future Moon base leaves open a huge opportunity for the UK to become a recognizable space player once again. A current review by the Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology into UK space policy indicates, by virtue of the evidence submitted, the depth and breadth of the scientific and technological institutional and commercial expertise and capability extant in the UK today. Legacy capabilities, for instance, exist in the form of Qinetiq (the privatized incarnation of the Royal Aircraft Establishment) and also the world-leading aerospace companies Rolls-Royce and BAe Systems (the latter in which the Government retains a “golden share”, as it does effectively in Qinetiq). As but one example of their continuing prowess, Qinetiq has been pioneering scramjet engines but with little interest as yet from the UK government, who are presently more interested in playing “catch-up” with the US Department of Defenae in long-range airpower, stealth, and drones rather than innovative concepts and designs which —including the swing-wing and vertical take-off—are the UK’s heritage.

Furthermore, Reaction Engines Ltd, the company established by ex-aerospace and HOTOL worker Alan Bond and rocket designer John Scott-Scott, are at pains to proclaim the benefits conferred by an indigenous launch capability, not the least of which are the kind of advertising projects such as single-stage-to-orbit re-usable launchers constitute to the world at large. That kind of advertising brings commercial as well as the less easily quantifiable human interest stimulated at the prospect of world-leading technology.

The lack of tangible, genuinely international support so far for a future Moon base leaves open a huge opportunity for the UK to become a recognizable space player once again.

Bristol Spaceplanes is another forward-looking venture denied government funding despite the potential for ready space access and space transportation at the outset, it is claimed, using existing technology, thus minimizing cost. While the BNSC claims that the UK has made a “hard choice” in not developing launchers, the Russian claim at the end of 2006 of being responsible for 45% of all the world’s launches suggests that while commercial options currently exist abroad to launch British spacecraft, there is seemingly no attempt even being envisaged to bring the free-market credentials of the present-day UK economy to the increasingly important worldwide demand for space access.

Although the BNSC might yet soften to the idea of long-term successes being the fruit of endurance and tenacity through technically demanding launcher programs, the organization is yet to achieve anything like an effective and comprehensive mobilization of British facilities and talent. On the day certain British newspapers reported Stephen Hawking’s calls for colonization of other planets, BBC News reported that the Hinode solar observation probe produced its first image. This has been a collaboration outside of ESA with JAXA and is a significant undertaking by the Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL) in the UK, yet the MSSL’s endeavors did not even get a mention on the BNSC News website. A few years ago Reaction Engines Ltd. accused BNSC of an “arrogant” attitude towards British launch technology and, looking at the MSSL website and their outstanding history of involvement in rocketry as well as spacecraft, one may wonder if this attitude still persists. It seems that a nationally important laboratory that has participated in the most successful rocket program of all time (Skylark) originating in Britain—not to mention Black Knight and the US Delta—is denied even a mention by BNSC.

A 2006 report by the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) stated that the BNSC has “deployed more resources to focus on European issues” but also notes that “UK partnership is often sought by overseas agencies ranging from NASA to those in Canada, Japan, India and Korea. However, since 65-70% of the UK’s budget is spent through ESA, such collaborations often have to be turned down. In 2004/2005, £55 million of PPARC’s £66 million expenditure on space went to ESA.” In not acclaiming the success of a collaboration outside ESA, the BNSC is arguably, if inadvertently, highlighting a more specific shortcoming in Britain’s reasoning towards space activities than the “lack of coherence” conclusion which critiques have leveled at UK governments’ space commitments since at least the 1960s.

In 2004–5, 65 percent of the UK’s civil space expenditure went to ESA, which increased to 67 percent in 2005–6, and around £20 million of this is the mandatory subscription to the organization. As a member of ESA, the UK is subject to its “juste retour” policy of rewarding industrial contracts according to the investment made. Until recent years, the UK has been effectively over-returned, receiving above its proportional share of activities. This itself speaks highly of the scientific expertise resident in the UK and its international reputation. However the 2006 POST report states that throughout 2005 an under-return has developed in the region of £30 million. Regardless of changing levels of return (and leaving aside the fact that the UK spends much less than France or Germany within ESA) it is arguable that the juste retour system is self-defeating from a national perspective in that the country has to divert most space resources to ESA and then has to compete to harvest the benefits from them. Rather than international cooperation, the arrangement more closely resembles inflexible cut-throat competition within a small pool of neighboring countries with strategic planning derogated from the outset.

Therefore, part of the problem in the UK making effective and nationally rewarding contributions to the next Moon mission is an evident costly and unthinking bias of investment towards the European program at the expense of exploiting what is a global frontier and drawing upon the common interests of interested countries across the world. As has been described, this has led to the BNSC failing to publicize a space science success-story from a home-grown center of excellence. UK space policy is essentially based around delivery of commercial benefit and scientific and public interest objectives. However, without the ability to formulate and direct space strategy and, as the space programs of China and India quickly expand and UK civil space spending remains inordinately low, the UK is unlikely to achieve these goals in the longer term let alone out-innovate other countries, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, has famously spoken about on several occasions. This would most obviously be rectified through the establishment of a national space agency that chooses international collaborations largely on a case-by-case basis and with a budget commensurate with this role.

Ghosts of Mars?

The philosophy behind the formation of such an agency would necessarily take into account factors beyond just the vested interests of chief executives from companies comprising the existing space industry in the UK (crucial that they are nevertheless) if it is to make a substantial wide-ranging investment in the country’s future. The current UK outlook on space activities ostensibly holds a healthy economy as a major concern, but public interest is an important factor that is overlooked despite warnings from MPs, British-born astronauts, academics, and representatives from professional bodies and learned societies.

UK space policy is essentially based around delivery of commercial benefit and scientific and public interest objectives. However, without the ability to formulate and direct space strategy the UK is unlikely to achieve these goals in the longer term let alone out-innovate other countries.

The economic significance of public interest in space is of course the inspirational value of the young seeing the spectacle of space technology advances and experiments and being attracted to a science and technology career in their home country. As science and technology graduates increased significantly during the short program of NASA Moon exploration, the 1997 NASA Mars Pathfinder mission generated huge interest on both sides of the Atlantic. Greater still was the fervor surrounding the discovery of organic matter and then a possible fossil-like residue in Martian meteorites the year before. Building on this work—to which they had been an important contributor—the British team behind the Beagle 2 mission to Mars were able to attract exceptional levels of funding (by UK standards) largely on the basis of the mission rationale. Britain was effectively at the vanguard of searching for life on the Red Planet—on any other planet—with only the second biological experiment sent there and with an instrument far more powerful in this respect than the NASA Viking landers had.

As some mitigation for the failure of Beagle 2, the UK has signed up to ESA’s Aurora Mars exploration program. However, any expertise gained from building the lander or the unexpected (but equally valuable) lessons from the postulated crash landing cannot be plowed back into a replacement vehicle because the first Aurora mission is quite different and in any case will arrive later than ambitious life-searching NASA craft. The question of life’s existence elsewhere in the solar system—something that piques a remarkably common human interest—was for a short period within potential reach of being another successful British exploration achievement but has now been lost, along with the public interest. The high profile of the UK in bioscience research does not extend accordingly to aspirations in space, just as the possibility of extraterrestrial energy sources is an avenue that can’t easily be exploited by the same country whose politicians show little reluctance to exhibit their green credentials.

In founding an agency capable of setting goals, selecting collaborations, commissioning projects and missions, and being able to feed the lessons of those experiments (hard to digest or not) back into the system where possible, lessons can be learned from the approach taken by James Webb who, it is argued, was largely responsible for making NASA by far the leading space exploration agency it still is today. Webb from the start insisted to his political masters on running NASA the way he determined would be best. The result of this was that he removed the deleterious effects of short-term political expediency from the equation and created a massive future-focused resource upon which civil and defense interests in the United States could draw for decades in the future, as indeed they still do. Keenly aware of the emotional capriciousness or indifference to space exploration, Webb also made astute decisions in the location of new key facilities realizing that high-value employment opportunities suited the politicians who voted on his organization’s budget and the communities they represented. The near-total orientation of the British governing infrastructure towards winning the Second World War provided a momentum that facilitated rocket launch, high-altitude and re-entry research, and led to a significant expansion of the space science research capability in the UK and which the successful satellite manufacture industry in this country is a beneficiary of. Webb instigated a similar expansion of the capability of the USA in space activities bringing a wide range of upgraded research facilities under the NASA banner. The remaining question, therefore, is whether there is today such a momentum to energize the space-related scientific and technological base in Britain.

Concluding remarks

The world will surely expand into space in the coming decades and the question is whether Britain wants to make a contribution to its exploitation reflecting recognizably our nation.

NASA was created almost as a symptom of the shock arising from the apparent technological advancement of the Soviet Union evident after the launch of Sputnik in 1957. In contrast, the response of Britain to the rapidly emerging outputs and ambitions of East Asia—most notably India and China—does not extend to a joined-up reassessment at the highest level of the opportunities provided by the final frontier to the long-term future well-being of this country and the shortcomings of the current approach towards exploiting them.

Perhaps until Britain realizes that a single floor within the DTI does not constitute a nation planning for its future, space will remain the domain of those perceived to be eccentrics and more importantly will be regarded as an unnecessary expense—with devastating long-term consequences for our country. The world will surely expand into space in the coming decades and the question is whether Britain wants to make a contribution to its exploitation reflecting recognizably our nation. Regarding the criticism of space activities being “high risk”, Francis Spufford, author of “The Secret Return of the British Boffin”, speculates that “interplanetary exploration needs to be conducted as a campaign, not as a brilliant one-off”. Professor Colin Pillinger of the Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute, Milton Keynes, talks about NASA’s ethos of getting back on the horse before losing nerve. As a country we either lose confidence when things don’t go the way we want or we dust ourselves down, pick up the pieces and, taking the long view, reap the rewards of persisting through the school of hard knocks as NASA has done.


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