UK space tech is boldly going. But is there money for the final frontier?

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton October 18, 2021
The UK’s new Space Strategy is impressive, but some in the space community fear there won’t be enough cash to back the ambition.

An image of earth from space
(Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay )

Since the current British Government came to power, the rhetoric and superlatives used by its spokespeople have been ratcheting up. A couple of years ago, the UK was merely "world leading", typically in technologies where it is a strong second-tier player. Next it became "Global Britain", despite its crumbling supply chains and dearth of trade deals. Then by the beginning of this year the UK was routinely described as a "superpower" in science, AI, quantum technologies, and more, by ministers jostling for promotion.

In difficult times we all need a lift, perhaps. But now the UK has ascended beyond even those stratospheric heights. In October 2021, it became "Galactic Britain". At least according to Howard Nye, President of the Royal Aeronautical Society. (Where next? Britain the Alpha and Omega?)

The context was the launch last month of Britain's National Space Strategy, so Nye could be forgiven for getting carried away. For cynics about to tweet ‘Why go to space when we can't feed our children?', his claim is backed by some surprising facts. Speaking at a 14 October Westminster Business Policy Forum on UK space-tech opportunities, he said:

London Economics data related to the return on investment into the general UK economy from UK contributions to the European Space Agency show a return of around £10 [$13.70] for every £1 of government investment into ESA.

That's good news: a theoretical £3.7 billion ($5 billion) payback from Britain maintaining its £374 million ($518 million) annual contribution - at the time of writing. Staying in ESA while pursuing partnerships with the US and others is one aim of the Strategy.

So, while the single market may now be closed to Britain, its decision not to leave the European space community is being repaid ten times over. That's a big deal, as ESA is the third biggest space agency in the world with a budget of $6.3 billion, after China ($11 billion), and top space-dog NASA ($19.5 billion). On its own, the UK has the tenth largest, UKSA, with a budget of $529 million - nearly 40 times smaller than NASA's. This puts it behind India, Italy, Japan, Germany, Russia, France, and the big three in the space race.

However, its ongoing membership of ESA, alongside its European competitors, means that the UK can claim to be among the top space-faring nations. Yet fellow ESA member France, which has invested five times more cash in growing its space sector than the UK, has managed to leapfrog Russia to grab the number-four spot for CNES, its own national space agency. Make no mistake: this is a sector where money talks, and France has backed its ambitions with a lot more of it.

Making a splash 

Despite this, in 2022 the first commercial rocket launch from Europe will take place from a UK spaceport, and not from France, Germany, or Italy. More accurately, it will be launched from a modified Virgin plane over the open sea, to avoid hitting Cornwall if it fails (five to 15% of rocket launches do, depending on which metric you use). This is one of the UK's space-tech USPs: the home nations are surrounded by water.

But why go to space at all? say the angry Twitterati. The Space Strategy explains:

Space is a vital part of the UK's economy. Satellites and space activities deliver navigation, weather forecasting, power grid monitoring, financial transactions, and better public services. Satellites also support television services to millions of UK households as well as other digital communications.

The UK space sector is growing faster than the rest of the UK economy, and the average worker in the space sector is 2.6 times more productive than in other sectors. It is worth over £16.4 billion per year, employs over 45,000 people, and satellites underpin £360 billion per year of wider economic activity.

That's impressive. By comparison, a government report earlier this month claimed that robotics, identified in 2013 as one of the ‘Eight Great Technologies' that are vital to UK prosperity, would add a modest £6.4 billion [$8.7 billion] to the economy by 2035. Space is worth well over twice that today.

We are observing your Earth

So why is this? Since Sputnik, the first communications satellite, space technology has rarely been about launching humans into the cosmos, though that remains a key aim. In the 60 years since Yuri Gagarin became the first man to leave Earth on Vostok 1, just 553 people have reached orbit, but there are 6,542 satellites circling the planet. The companies and organisations that make them, launch them, use them, and maintain them form a multibillion-dollar community that benefits everyone.

In other words, space technology is about looking at Earth and connecting its people, not just exploring the stars. It's about a world of data, much of it to do with location and the environment. That makes the sector precious, rather than just a rich man's plaything. Even the likes of Musk, Bezos, and Branson are supporting the broader aims, even while blasting themselves or William Shatner into space.

The Strategy continues: 

The UK excels in the manufacture of satellites, spacecraft, highly complex payloads, end-to- end satellite service delivery, satellite communications, and high-end navigation systems. We have ambitious plans to build new leadership in high-growth areas, such as Earth Observation, navigation applications and services, and satellite broadband. And we will work to establish early leadership in potential and emerging markets, such as in-orbit servicing, space travel and habitation, and active debris removal.

Good news. Business is the intended beneficiary of the UK's stake in OneWeb, and ongoing membership of the EU's Copernicus Earth-observation programme is assured - at least "in principle", according to Some Brexit politicking clearly remains.

The Strategy presents some more impressive figures:

Space presents significant opportunities; the global space economy is projected to grow from an estimated £270 billion in 2019 to £490 billion by 2030. Constellations of satellites are being launched to deliver worldwide services. New state and commercial space stations are being planned and built. And space tourism operators are flying their first customers into space.

All true, which is why the Strategy aims to bring together the UK's "strengths in science and technology, defence, regulation, and diplomacy" (though the last two are looking shaky) to pursue what it calls a "bold national vision".

The space between aim and achievement

But this is where things get problematic. Until recently, that vision was very specific: to grab 10% of the global space sector. But now it has become grander, yet vaguer: to be "a leading space nation" by building "one of the most innovative and attractive space economies in the world." There's that Johnson bluster again, with important detail chopped out.

There's no faulting the sentiment, but the shift of focus away from specifics is troubling. You can detect the relentless Whitehall PR machine in the sprinkling of words like "superpower" and "levelling up" through the Strategy document. The Prime Minister's forward adds to the over-sell:

The days of the UK space industry idling on the launch pad are over - this government has the Right Stuff, and this strategy marks the start of the countdown.

While you can reach space on hot air, it demands rocket fuel, skills, and supporting technology, not rhetoric. It demands measurable targets and specific goals. It also demands detailed but light-touch regulations, which can remove obstacles while ensuring public safety. Insurance is part of a complex picture, and spectrum is another. But above all these essential elements is something else: hard cash, and lots of it.

As Nye observed at the forum, the concern is that funding needs have not been identified and allocated to parts of the Strategy yet, after the "countdown phase" to launch. Instead, the next phase will have its budget arbitrarily imposed on it. He explained:

This implies that implementation of the Strategy will be constrained by the Budget allocations that have been made before any real analysis, trade-off, and definition of the implementation options necessary to interpret the Strategy have taken place.

Perhaps such studies are planned in phase two, but there is a lot to cover. For example, setting priorities and intermediate goals, with little time to address the questions in depth and to review, assess, and select the baseline goals to be set over time. [Instead], implementation has to be completed in the ‘ignition' phase, beginning at the start of 2022 and lasting one year.

He added:

Government funding clearly needs to increase to a level that allows the proper implementation of the UK Space Strategy.

Others at the policy forum echoed this sentiment. Every sector thinks it is underfunded, of course, yet the government is seemingly rushing ahead with something that sounds impressive, while setting arbitrary deadlines and ignoring details. And it is doing so without having established what's necessary - practically and financially - to make it work. Despite this, funding (or lack of it) will be set before that groundwork has been done.

It all sounds horribly familiar. But Brexit should have taught No 10 that ambition means nothing if critical details have been left to fill themselves in - unless, like the US and NASA in the 1960s, Whitehall is prepared to keep throwing billions of dollars at its space programme. America blank-chequed its way to the moon, and that's what allowed it to beat the planned Soviet lunar mission. A prototype Russian lander existed.

In space, no one can hear you scream

This is why alarm bells are ringing among innovators and entrepreneurs - and will do so for a fortnight. Why? Because the government's Spending Review arrives on 27 October.

Concerns that No 10 might not have the money - or be prepared to allocate it to projects that make back-benchers nervous - are not without foundation, post-Brexit and mid-pandemic. For example, the IMF this month forecast that the UK economy will be three percent smaller by 2024, while many European rivals will have bounced back.

Recent data from the government suggests the economy is stronger than that; however, the FT reported on 15 October that Chancellor Rishi Sunak may opt to give a pessimistic forecast, based on old data, in order to claim credit for recovery later.  Incredibly - given the need for Britain to be bold in the sectors it backs - that may mean a tighter Spending Review than is needed, purely for party-political ends.

More than 30 science and technology organisations last week urged the government not to renege on the commitment it made earlier this year to boost UK R&D investments by £22 billion. The spur for this was Sunak's recent refusal to recommit to his own spending targets. This led innovators to worry that the UK's aim to be a "science and technology superpower" may no longer be affordable.

The government has also promised £12 billion in new green investments, launched a National AI Strategy, and more. But can it afford any of these things? Is the gravity of the post-Brexit, pandemic economy going to pull down the UK's ambition?

Yet even before COVID-19  and Brexit left the UK economy - still the world's fifth largest - spinning like Apollo 13, the government had over-promised, underfunded, and under delivered many times. Take robotics. As I explained in my report last week, Britain is set to gain roughly 0.5% of the world economic benefit from that technology, largely because it bought just 0.5% of the robots. In 2016, Japan invested 200 times more money in its robotics programme than the UK.

The UK wants to be an AI superpower - and even, from one recent announcement], to overtake the US and China in that sector. But there is more funding available in some venture capital offices in Silicon Valley, and in some Chinese cities, than there is from the UK government.

It's an endlessly repeating story: we have expertise in many areas, but the government keeps pulling its punches when it comes to central investment. Its competitors typically don't.

My take

Being upbeat is no bad thing, if the rhetoric matches the facts. The reality is the UK has been doing respectably well in some fields, has undoubted talent and expertise - certainly among the world's best in space, robotics, AI, FinTech, and quantum technology, where it has strong claims to be in the top three to five.

But those advantages are coupled with historically underpowered investment, a lack of digital skills to fill tens of thousands of STEM vacancies, and post-Brexit, international alliances and supply chains that are strained to breaking point, not to mention drowning in new red tape.

The UK has an opportunity to be bold in space, just has it has in AI, quantum technology, and more. But to succeed will probably demand more money than the UK is prepared to spend. It's almost as if Britain thinks it's bad form to reach for its wallet.

Either way, the Spending Review will reveal whether Brexit is the gift that keeps on taking, and whether the Chancellor chooses to put party before country.

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