The U.K. space sector has begun a brand-new era as it readies for commercial satellite launches and spaceflight from home soil. Having provided the world with research, academia, and technology for some years, some are beginning to question the sovereignty of U.K. space activities, making it tricky to discern who relies on who.
In this, we will attempt to examine if the U.K., or any other nation for that matter, ever be independent of another. Collaborations and partnerships are by no means a bad thing, but if a nation was to rely on exports and imports for even a third of its engineering or expertise, can it ever truly rely on itself?
In the 1960s, at the very beginning of spaceflight, this new venture was dominated almost exclusively by the best of enemies, the Soviet Union and the United States. If it were not for that historic rivalry, then perhaps the current emergence of the space industry would have arrived some decades later.
Thanks to the intense competition between them, they both managed to achieve what the other couldn’t; it was a back and forth that resulted in the USSR putting the first man in space, the U.S. putting them on the moon, and so much more. Between the mid-40s and late-70s, the two were the exclusive domineering forces of space. Collaboration was soon to come; by the end of the 70s, nations in Europe and Asia worked with the U.S. and Russia, who worked together in some instances.
This marked the beginning of a new world, which some decades down the line has resulted in the U.K. joining the ranks of NASA, Russia, and SpaceX, all unified under one goal, divided by many aims and yet, inherently reliant on one another, regardless of the intense competition.
But isn’t such a unity, heavy reliance on other space actors, and neglection of own expertise development a disservice?
According to former Science Minister Chris Skidmore, the U.K. is far too dependent on foreign-owned satellites.
In early February, Skidmore told the House of Commons: “Ninety percent of our satellite activities is by foreign-owned [companies]. We really need to look again at what we can deliver for the future.”
His remarks aren’t without merit; they came some months after the U.K. had begun examining alternative global satellite navigation systems to Galileo, a project created by the European Union via the European Space Agency (ESA). This was an unforeseen result of Britain’s decision to leave the E.U., as well as a failure to reach an agreement on the U.K.’s continued participation in the program, bringing to light several other major flaws in U.K. space.
Nick Shave, chairman of British space trade association, UKspace, noted: “Data from satellites has become so critical to our everyday lives that even a temporary disruption would cause an economic blackout of frightening proportions. Building up our own national capabilities is essential for our security, and also an opportunity to create new jobs, driving a stronger recovery across the country.”
The trouble with numbers
As per Skidmore’s suggestion, simply increasing funding to domestic space projects would certainly yield a positive net-result for the U.K., but should it come at the cost of reducing investment to projects that involve other countries?
According to a report from UKspace titled “Securing our Future in Space“, the organisation has revealed that domestic space activities need a gigantic boost. Skidmore notes that compared to other nations, the U.K. spends far less on space than other nations, amounting to a third of what France spends and half that of Germany. Even if one considers a percentage of space expenditures as a part of GDP, the U.K. falls behind its competitors.
Whilst the absolute total figure is hard to pinpoint, in 2019/2020, the U.K. Space Agency (UKSA) had a gross expenditure of approximately £4.5 billion, which included international contracts, operational costs, and so on.
Of that figure, around two-thirds were allotted to international subscriptions, namely to the ESA, whilst only the remaining third was spent on UK-based research and funding for companies and major national programmes such as the Shetland, Sutherland and Newquay spaceports currently in development.
Furthermore, the U.K. has pledged to continue investing around £357 million on average annually into the ESA for the next five years, despite the troubles with Galileo. But does any of this truly spell trouble for the U.K. as an independent space-faring nation?
The benefits of cooperation
Consider this, British space exports, employment, and indirect benefits from satellite services specifically to other industries were valued at £300 billion in 2018. And it can be assumed that this is set to rise, albeit against a muddied backdrop of Brexit and the Covid pandemic. Furthermore, U.K. space exports reached £5.5 billion in 2019, with the sector generating over a third of the income from exports.
UKspace reports that the total space sector is worth an estimated £14.8 billion to the economy, and the wider value, as demonstrated by satellite services, is gigantic. Logistics, transport, weather monitoring, and so on. A wealth of U.K. economic activity relies heavily on satellite technology, and so the concerns shared by Skidmore and UKspace are legitimately valid.
Problems and solutions
The comments and report from Skidmore and UKspace respectively come in a period of uncertainty for the U.K.; a long-delayed national space strategy is due in the next six months, and this, alongside the UKspace report, comes at just the right time.
Looking back, the U.K. used to focus on space as a tool for scientific, commercial, and environmental goals rather than considered space exploration as an end in itself. To be fair, it seems that the British have never had a national passion for space. Instead, they used to collaborate with other players, be it NASA or ESA. But there has been a slight change, and space has now entered the public domain.
At present, the U.K. is preparing to become a nation capable of vertical and horizontal orbital launches, made possible by investments into enterprises with foreign roots. Skidmore would not need to look further than firms like Orbex, which has its major facilities in Denmark; Lockheed Martin, deeply rooted in the U.S.; and Virgin Orbit, which also has strong ties to the U.S.
As part of international partnerships, all of the mentioned companies are building horizontal and vertical launch spaceports in the U.K. to deliver small satellites into orbit. But in view of their affiliations with home countries, one could question where the British taxpayers’ money actually land.
The concerns rise even more with the stronger engagement of foreign players in the U.K. market. Even in the Technology Safeguards Agreement so welcome by the U.K. authorities, there is indeed the risk of the U.S. overwhelming British launches, leading to outsourcing rocket launches to U.S. corporations.
The Technology Safeguards Agreement enables launches of American rockets from U.K. territories, with Lockheed Martin and Virgin Orbit definitely winning from the venture. But the possibility of losing the British launch market to American players is not a myth. There is much space for foreign launches, foreign funds, foreign components, foreign workforce, but no mention of joint projects in the agreement. Won’t this make the U.K. just a supplement to the global space economy?
Despite the cooperation between countries and the benefits derived from investing in projects led by foreign entities, the U.K. should pay more attention to its home initiatives. Increasing funding of local initiatives while still participating in international ones would allow the U.K. to keep its role as leading space power and develop a self-sufficient and competitive space industry.