UK government has published its National Space Strategy [PDF], a document full of big ideas but according to some, no new funding.
A cynic might wonder if the document has more in common with the Green strategies trumpeted by the regime of current Prime Minister Boris Johnson, such is the amount of recycling contained within.
There's no new spending so the ambitions for 'leadership' may remain ambitions
Taking aside the puffery of Johnson, pictured standing in front of one of US-based Virgin Orbit's rockets – and no, we're not entirely sure what "putting rocket boosters the size of a Saturn V's F1 under British space businesses" actually means either – the document once again lays out how much space is worth to the UK's economy and the billions due to be spent by the British government taxpayer over the next decade.
For those that haven't been following the UK's adventures in the space sector over the last few years, the strategy is more a catch-up for where Blighty stands and where the UK government would like it to go, space-wise. In 2018/2019, the space sector is "worth" over £16.4bn per year, according to the document, and supported more than 45,000 jobs across the nation. Space technologies also underpinned over £360bn per annum in terms of UK economic activity.
Also present in the document is the estimate of the potential growth of the global sector, from £270bn in 2019 to £490bn in 2030. The UK would like a chunk of that and, being strong in the fields of satellite and payload manufacture and integration, the strategy lays out where Britain could take a lead, from debris removal through in-orbit servicing tech.
Front and centre in the document is international cooperation, with the European Space Agency (ESA) getting a hat tip and a promise that Blighty will be "maintaining our role in the European Space Agency." Hmm.
Absent from the cheerleading is the impact of Brexit on the UK's space industry. "The UK has agreed to participate in the Horizon Europe and Copernicus EU programmes under the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement," the strategy boasts, while omitting to mention UK space firms losing out on Copernicus contracts last year, something the UK Space Agency told The Register it was understandably "disappointed" about.
Still, putting the recognition of the importance of international partnerships in black and white is an important step. However, while the document highlights Position, Navigation and Timing services it neglects to mention the likes of Galileo, other than as a footnote regarding "consistently high growth rates" in the UK space sector. It also fails to mention decisions taken by the UK government that have resulted in the exclusion of UK companies from future generations of that project.
That said, in the same breath as that boast of high growth rates came the surprising admission that "the UK lags behind our international peers."
"As a result," the strategy goes on, "whilst the UK sector has continued [to] grow, it is not currently increasing its share of the global space economy."
Back in 2019, then Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency (and now Senior Advisor to ESA) Graham Turnock said the ambition was for the UK to nab 10 per cent of the global market. The strategy appears to suggest that that goal is looking ever more distant.
It's UK government just 'hoping' the private sector can do things
Space Policy/Warfare Expert and Lecturer in International Relations, Dr Bleddyn Bowen, told The Register the admission was a refreshing one, although he noted that "the UK gov thinks it can change that without a hike in public spending. Instead it 'hopes' private sector can do things."
He also called out the highlighting of ESA: "UK space industry, universities, commerce are deeply integrated in the European Space Agency and the wider European space system," he explained, "so seeing this so emphatically recognised is really important given that loads of political elites and civil servants new to the brief of space policy will read the NSS [National Space Strategy].
"As a primer for new people, the NSS is a good recap of genuine successes in the UK space sector in the last 5-6 years or so. But for those of us in this field the NSS doesn't say anything new."
Indeed. Bowen also remarked "there's no new spending so the ambitions for 'leadership' may remain ambitions."
Also missing is much in the way of detail on the UK's Defence Space Strategy (DSS). Approximately £5bn is due to be invested over the next decade on the UK's Skynet satellite communications system and another £1.4bn on "the acquisition and development of new technologies" but the devil will be in the detail, and that detail is unlikely to put in an appearance until the DSS turns up.
Unsurprisingly, UK space companies were swift to trumpet their support for the strategy. NanoAvionics business development manager for UK government programmes, Edward F Jamieson, told The Register: "The importance of small satellite technology, in furthering the development of the UK space industry as recognised in the Strategy, should not be underestimated. We are seeing more emphasis on collaboration in space, both with commercial space and non-space companies, as well as institutions.
"We are looking forward to the outcome of the Spending Review 2021 and subsequent 'Ignition Phase' of the Strategy which will set the already strong foundations for a world-leading and prosperous space industry in the UK."
As well he might. There is currently quite the void between rhetoric and actual spending commitments in this document, making what actually gets committed to in the "Ignition Phase" all the more important.
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The "Ignition Phase" is expected to run from 2022 to 2023, and is all about mobilisation and programmes being funded following 2021's UK government spending review. 2023 to 2030 is the "Thrust Phase" in which the strategy calls for "accelerated progress" culminating in the "Orbit Phase" from 2030. The latter reckons the UK will have both credibility as a space power and leadership as an "influential science power."
While mention of the Galileo-replacing Brexit Satellite navigation system was thankfully absent, other ambitions remained front and centre including a long-held desire to vertically launch rockets from UK soil.
The UK had its own launch capability (admittedly from Australia) but put itself in a very exclusive club by abandoning the technology following the termination of the Black Arrow programme in 1971. 2022, however, could see the first launches from a UK space port.
Companies such as Skyrora and Orbex are vying to be the first off the pad and into orbit.
Alan Thompson, head of government affairs at Skyrora, welcomed the publication of the National Space Strategy, but noted it was currently a stepping stone: "if we are to fully transform into Boris Johnson’s 'Galactic Britain' and become a global leader in the new space race it is time for Government and industry to work more closely together to operationalise the comprehensive and ambitious plan."
While we're not entirely sure about Johnson's "Galactic Britain", nor his summoning of the ghosts of Apollo, Thompson makes a good point: "The strategy highlights important challenges facing the space sector — from insurance to data regulation, finance to sustainability."
Fellow rocketeer and CEO of Orbex, Chris Larmour also gave the unveiling of the Strategy a thumbs-up, noting that "Orbex is already working with the UK government and other partners towards meeting many of the Strategy's objectives, in particular the No.1 goal around capture of the European small satellite launch market, as well as environmental sustainability and space technology innovation."
"We are working towards becoming the first country to launch into orbit from Europe in late 2022, helping to establish the UK as a leader in small satellite launches."
Music to the ears of the Johnson government, we're sure. ®