Grant Shapps: Building back better must mean an enhanced sovereign space presence for Britain

14 Jun

Grant Shapps is Transport Secretary, and is MP for Welwyn Hatfield.

Take a trip to the Science Museum in London and there you will find a piece of space antiquity – the first and last home-grown British satellite launch vehicle, called Black Arrow.

It hangs on its side in the display hall, some 40 feet of shimmering metal, a sombre rebuke to this nation’s stillborn ambition to become an independent space power.

Black Arrow holds the dubious distinction of being the only UK launcher to place a UK-manufactured satellite into orbit. It did this only once, on 28 October 1971, when it inserted the Prospero satellite into low earth orbit.

Even as it roared skyward from the Woomera test range in Australia, Black Arrow’s death warrant had been signed. The United States was offering cheaper rides on its launchers and so, just as we ceded leadership in jet airliners to the Americans, we allowed our homegrown rocket capability to wither and die. The project was cancelled, and with it the hopes of British scientists and engineers who had nurtured ambitions of reaching the high frontier since the end of the Second World War.

In doing so, the UK achieved an unenviable distinction: being the only country to achieve independent satellite launch status and then abandon it.

So far, so bad. But, quietly, this country is experiencing a renaissance in space, one that this Government hopes will see the UK capture a ten percent share of the £400 billion market in satellite manufacturing, launching and servicing over the coming decade.

Space is where it is at. As our modern world becomes ever more driven by data, the satellites that collect and distribute this digital gold are rocketing skyward in their thousands. There are some 2,600 operational satellites in orbit, most of them American, Russian and Chinese. But this number will grow to tens of thousands in coming decades as mankind leans ever more heavily on these payloads for communications, commerce and earth monitoring.

Space is currently directly worth some £15 billion to the UK economy, a vibrant, expanding sector employing some 40,000 people directly. But its impact reaches far into the rest of the economy. The industry body UK Space estimates that it supports some £300 billion of national output through telecommunications and other services, and this figure is set to grow to £340 billion by 2030. There is nothing otherworldly about space – it is a vital national resource.

So, it was hugely exciting to join the Prime Minister at one of this country’s new spaceports, at Newquay in Cornwall, just before the start of the G7. In front of us lay a massive replica of Launcher One, which will propel a host of small satellites into orbit from British soil next year. Strapped to the inner port wing of a giant Boeing 747, the two-stage rocket will be carried from the Cornish coast to an altitude of some 35,000 feet over the North Atlantic before separating and igniting.

British spaceports are ideally located for small satellite launches, allowing insertion into sought-after polar orbits, and with ready access to the ocean, where launches can take place safely. We are determined to make the UK one of the go-to destinations for space launching, and with that in mind we have designed launch regulations that are the most flexible in the world.

There is more to come. This administration is committed to new vertical-launch operations from the Shetlands and Sutherland in Scotland and Snowdonia in Wales, as well as Cornwall.

The British space sector is one of the most innovative, highly skilled, and high-value industries in our economy. And it is spread around the country, seeding well-paid jobs in areas we are targeting as part of our levelling-up agenda.

As the Prime Minister said in his speech to the 2020 Conservative Party Conference, the country faces a clear choice as we embark on our economic recovery from Covid-19: to return to the status quo or to build back better. And better must mean an enhanced sovereign space presence.

Space is opening up. Once dominated by governments, it is now an expanding arena for private enterprise. As rocket and satellite technology becomes more compact and affordable, companies like Space X are getting in on the act.

The UK has benefitted enormously from joint ventures in aerospace. But we must not be afraid to go it alone – to mine our essential national genius for invention. In Brexit, we affirmed our position as a sovereign, independent nation, unafraid to pursue our own path. So, let’s not repeat the mistake of the past and, doubting ourselves, leave the prizes to others.

Satellites currently support around £52 billion of output in the North, for example, and over £40 billion in the Midlands. But future growth depends on decisive action by industry and government. Latest international figures show that we are trailing Russia, the US, India, Germany, China and Canada in the proportion of GDP devoted to space. This must change. We cannot have other countries controlling our access to the commanding heights of the future global economy – and those commanding heights are to be found above the atmosphere.

Virgin Orbit is a US-designed system, but we can build our own pathway to space. And we have one which could be a game-changer. First, though, we have to learn from the past.

The UK was Western Europe’s leader in space in the 1950s and 60s. Blue Streak, a ballistic missile design, was turned into a reliable first-stage launcher but then abandoned. It was followed into the technological dustbin by other projects: Black Knight, Black Prince and that sad museum exhibit, Black Arrow.

Why did we squander our early space leadership in Europe? Well, money is always a factor. But it was also a failure of ambition in government. France suffered no such qualms and snatched European leadership in space launchers with Ariane.

We have scientific and engineering talent in abundance here in these islands. We just have to nurture it.

And that game-changer? Right now, British engineers are working on SABRE, an air-breathing engine that can transition to rocket mode, achieving hypersonic speeds five times the speed of sound. A spaceplane powered by SABRE would make most conventional single-use rocket launchers obsolete. London to Sydney would take two hours.

There’s a problem, though: engines operating at Mach 5 melt. So, our engineers have come up with a unique cooling system which can lower the temperature of the air entering the engine from in excess of 1000 degrees Celsius to ambient temperatures – and within 1/100th of a second!

Dan Dare? Not at all. This is British technology at its cutting-edge best.

Can we succeed in such ventures? Our vaccination programme is proof of what can be achieved when science and industry is backed by the power of the state. This Government believes in harnessing private and public enterprise to realise great goals.

Great nations do great things. Our mastery of the oceans brought us enormous wealth and influence. We need to do the same in the limitless ocean of space.