David Morris: How ARIA can help launch the British space industry into orbit

22 Apr

David Morris is Member of Parliament for Morecambe and Lunesdale.

In October 1957, Dwight Eisenhower sat stony-faced as he watched Soviet news reports announcing the triumphant launch into orbit of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1. Russia had astonished the world and gained a new strategic advantage.

Within weeks, Eisenhower had authorised the creation of a new agency – the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) – to execute research projects to expand the frontiers of technology and science. “From that time forward”, the Agency states, “the United States would be the initiator and not the victim of strategic technological surprises.”

A few weeks’ ago, in the midst of a different kind of war – this time against a global pandemic rather than a Cold War adversary – the Government announced the launch of the UK’s equivalent organisation: the Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA). A new research body to fund high-risk, high-reward scientific research, ARIA will seek to emulate its US forerunner, which provided the breakthroughs that led to the Internet, GPS and automated voice recognition.

Free from Government meddling and bureaucracy, and with a war chest of £800 million, ARIA will be able to call its own shots and take big bets.

If the Government gets it right, ARIA’s impact could be profound. Not just because it has money to invest, but for three big and much broader reasons: the UK is home to tech-driven industries ideally positioned for ARIA’s involvement; ARIA can help disrupt economic sectors that need shaking up; and because ARIA’s approach can be a beacon for the sort of regulatory environment that will enable the economy to flourish now that we have left the EU.

Just like its US forbear in 1957, ARIA should lift its eyes upwards – to space.

Largely hidden from the headlines, the UK has seen the steady and extraordinary development of a world-leading space industry. Trebling in size since 2010, the economic output for space in the UK is now estimated to be £300 billion, employing 40,000 people across the nation in high-skilled jobs. More satellites are manufactured in Glasgow than anywhere else in the world outside California. Indeed, 40 per cent of the small satellites in orbit are made in the UK.

Our space industry has become the crucible for technological innovation in Britain. Companies in the sector are racing towards creating the technology to launch satellites from British soil, inventing eco-efficient fuels, and developing ways to remove space junk. The UK now has the ecosystem that can drive exponential growth in the sector. We have the universities, deep expertise in AI and data, the manufacturing base, and highly innovative businesses. Once we have our sovereign launch capability, connecting the UK to near-earth orbit, the final piece of infrastructure will be in place.

So it’s the ideal time for ARIA to come into the market and further power its growth and utility. Our space industry could lead the world in “environmental space” – involving the sustainability of space, sustainability in space and, most critically of all, the sustainability of Earth from space. Thirteen of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, including 75 targets and 61 indicators, require the involvement of space. In the year of COP26, the UK should open up space as a new front in our mission to tackle climate change.

ARIA’s impact will only be truly transformative, however, if it succeeds in working with the smaller companies pushing the boundaries of innovation. Again, look across the water to ARIA’s longer-established cousin in the US, now called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In December 2018, DARPA challenged the US space industry to scrap the need for cumbersome and expensive launch infrastructure (think of the huge scaffolding at Cape Canaveral) and develop ways to launch small satellites quickly and cheaply. Within two years, a Californian launch vehicle company, ASTRA, had outsmarted bigger rivals and successfully launched into space from Alaska.

Britain has over 1,000 companies in what’s called “new space” – the term given to the innovators and entrepreneurs whose use of technology has expanded the market so dramatically from what was originally a collection of big aerospace firms. These are the companies, whose success will define the UK’s future economy, that can really benefit from ARIA’s encouragement and involvement. As we have learned from other sectors with big established players, markets need stimulation and disruption to be truly dynamic. It’s exactly what ARIA should be doing.

Finally, ARIA can help influence the regulatory environment in which it operates. Again, looking at the British space sector, regulating authorities are struggling to make decisions at anything like the speed that companies are pursuing their technological advancements. As a result, the pace of progress is being held back, just when it should be accelerating.

The Government is trying to address these issues through initiatives like the Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGGR), but ARIA can play its part too, acting as an exemplar intelligent regulation, showcasing how business and government can be highly aligned. Our Space sector badly needs this right now.

As the legislation to establish ARIA works its way through Parliament, it’s the right time to consider how the new agency can pursue a new age of technological discovery. There is little doubt in my mind that space is where its potency will be greatest. ARIA needs the British space industry to show just what it can do – but don’t forget that our space sector badly needs ARIA too.