David Willetts: New businesses, faster connections, better data, tighter security. There are so many reasons to commit to Space.

19 Nov

Lord Willetts is President of the Advisory Council and Intergenerational Centre of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science.

Britain can emerge from Covid more confident of what our scientists can do, more innovative, and hence more prosperous. That means backing the key technologies of the future. In the past, we have failed to exploit them.

One reason is that public funding has stopped too soon, before a new technology is fully commercial. Other countries, notably America, continue to provide public backing to support new technologies for much longer, reinforced with smart procurement. I have met American tech entrepreneurs with a contract to sell their new product to the Federal Government long before the first one had been successfully produced. It is all part of securing America’s lead in key technologies.

As Science Minister, I identified eight great technologies where Britain had a comparative advantage and there were global business opportunities. We backed them with funding to help get them to market and several unicorns, worth over £1 billion, have emerged as a result. They would not be thriving today in Britain were it not for that early support. Now Kwasi Kwarteng has identified seven key technologies which I hope he will be backing after the boost to science and technology funding in the Budget.

Space is a key one of these commercial opportunities in high tech for the UK. There is something special and exciting about space. Look at how Tim Peake has become a national hero. Attitudes to space tell us something important about a country’s willingness to look outwards. Britain was one of the original leaders in the space race. The Americans launched our first satellite for us 60 years ago (and subsequently disabled it with an atmospheric nuclear test). We launched our own satellite for the first and last time from Woomera 50 years ago.

Sadly, we then made the mistake of thinking of space as a useless luxury which wasn’t for us. You can still see on the Isle of Wight the decaying remains of a British rocket testing facility.

But Space is actually a key part of the infrastructure of a twenty-first century nation. Satellites collect the data that determine our weather forecasts. They enable us to track climate change and monitor natural disasters like floods. They give each one of us accurate information about exactly where and when we are. They synchronise financial transactions. They help our utilities to operate. They enable us to communicate across the globe.

Even through the decades when public interest and support was low, Britain’s entrepreneurs continued to do their bit. We don’t have the capacity to launch any rockets – at least not yet. So we had to hitch a ride on someone else’s launch vehicle (no wonder a Brit was the author of the wonderful Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy). That meant we had an incentive to develop lighter cheaper satellites where we are now a world leader.

And this gives us an opportunity. The new space race is to launch constellations of small satellites – hundreds if not thousands of them in low Earth orbit (LEO). Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the Prime Minister’s boldest move to get us ahead in that race, when the deal was concluded taking a stake in OneWeb which is developing such a constellation.

These LEO constellations have crucial advantages. Because they are much closer to Earth than traditional big satellites much further away, the signal travels so fast that the problem of the slight time delay, latency, disappears.

This matters if you are running a B and B in the Scottish Highlands or starting a business in the West Country – or indeed if you are a teenager in Cumbria trying to play a video game with a broadband link only available by satellite. OneWeb has entered a partnership with BT to deliver the manifesto pledge of broadband access in remote areas.

OneWeb was put on the market because of the financial difficulties of its main investor SoftBank. More than ten percent of its constellation was already up in orbit – putting it ahead of the competition. And its headquarters are not in the American West Coast or a corner of Shenzhen, but in that hot-bed of high tech Shepherds Bush, London W12.

The Prime Minister decided that the British Government should bid and, in partnership with the Indian mobile phone operator Bharti Airtel, together paid $1 billion. Investors from France, US, Korea and Japan followed Britain’s lead, and now OneWeb has $2.6 billion of funding so it can complete its first constellation.

It is already more than halfway there, so the UK is now second only to the US for the number of satellites we operate. OneWeb should be providing a service North of 50 degrees in the next few months and a full global service by the end of next year.

The deal is already paying off, and the Treasury has made a healthy profit. But, even so, is it a dangerous encroachment of the state into business? We are only doing the kind of things America does all the time. Elon Musk is a great entrepreneur, but look at the funding he gets from the American Government in grants, soft loans and guaranteed contracts.

Governments can’t plan the economy sector by sector and intervene in every one. But it is an important role of Government to make some big strategic decisions about key technologies to invest in. They won’t all come right, but when they do they yield fantastic long term benefits. And these technologies are inherently disruptive – they aren’t propping up old industries. Indeed, they are often a new competitive threat to big incumbents.

The first generation of the satellites are being manufactured in Florida, but the real opportunity comes with the second generation planned for service in the next five years or so. Developing these could create a British supply chain. We need big UK-based primes which can place the contracts that help our successful small start-ups to scale up and reach the big time.

Becoming a serious player in Space is the kind of strategic decision which governments have to take. The Prime Minister may have been inspired by the example of his great predecessor, Benjamin Disraeli who faced a similar choice. The Egyptian Khedive, owner of the Suez Canal, had gone bankrupt. The Canal had been constructed by the French and the expectation was that they would obtain it.

But Disraeli swooped and bought half the company from the Khedive for £4 million (borrowed from Rothschild’s). It was a crucial reinforcement of our links to India. Gladstone was outraged, of course – but Queen Victoria loved it and the bold strategic move commanded wide support and helped keep Britain as a global power. Now there is a similar chance to be a world leader in today’s most important space race – for small satellite constellations.

There are national security angles to this. American and China have long seen technology this way, but we have been wary.  Last week’s test by Russia of an anti-satellite weapon was a signal to the West that it sees our capability in this area, which it cannot match, as of real strategic significance. The Prime Minister’s new Science and Technology Council crucially brings security and economic aspects of technology together.

We have a space industry stretching from Goonhilly in Cornwall to the North of Scotland. It encompasses Guildford Harwell, Leicester and Glasgow. It is a truly national endeavour and, with this investment in a world-leading LEO, constellation it achieves global significance.

Nick Shave: The PM’s new space strategy has lifted off ambitiously – now we need to ensure it reaches the final destination

6 Oct

Nick Shave is the Chair of UKspace. This is a sponsored post by UKspace.

As Her Majesty delivered the 2019 Queen’s Speech, the Prime Minister enthused about putting “rocket boosters under our space programme” and the Government unveiled plans to launch a comprehensive UK Space Strategy. Last week that strategy was published, just in time for the biennial UK Space Conference. Crucially, given that satellite technology is key to monitoring and managing climate change, the promised document has also come before COP26 kicks off.

The industry’s verdict on the long-awaited strategy? It’s a promising start but ministers still have significant work to do.

There is certainly no shortage of ambition. Upon publishing the document this week, the Government set out the aim of building “one of the most innovative and attractive space economies in the world”. To make that happen, however, the new strategy must focus efforts on expanding our world-leading strengths in science and engineering into new and emerging growth markets worldwide.

This requires the Prime Minister to turn warm words into sustained investment with industry in new strategic and commercial projects. That means serious and sustained funding in space has to be baked into next month’s Comprehensive Spending Review.

With the right investment, what we need is a cross-government, sustained National Space Programme. And we need this urgently, just to stand still. Space keeps our country moving and working, enabling all mobile services, transport systems, business communications and working from home. Satellites operating in orbit right now are responsible for over £300bn of our national economic activity, including enabling internet-based communications, sat-nav and GPS services as well as digital business.

The sector is also key to the growth that will be defining the future world economy, including in areas like clean energy, robotics and artificial intelligence. In addition, space jobs are spread around the country, so growth in this sector supports the ‘levelling-up’ Prime Ministerial priority.

Space will also be critical to delivering Net Zero. Space-based technologies and space-derived information are central to climate knowledge, science, monitoring and early warning. Indeed, 35 of the 45 essential climate variables defined by the heads of UN Climate Change are measured from space. In the future, new applications of satellite data, combined with satellite positioning and communications technologies will help drive down carbon emissions in commercial aviation, global shipping and smart, green cities of the future, as well as delivering the capabilities required to manage the devastating effects of the climate emergency to communities up and down the country and around the world.

By investing in satellite technology to tackle climate change, the UK could be a big winner in the new space race. As previous work by UKspace has shown this could enable a green jobs revolution here in the UK with roles ranging from extreme weather data scientists, natural disaster hotspot monitoring, environment investment analysts for the agricultural sector, space-data enabled crop management and efficient air traffic control systems.

The latest available figures show that the UK space industry continued to grow before the pandemic hit. Total UK space industry income grew to £16.4 billion in 2018/19, a growth rate of 2.8 per cent per annum since 2016/17.  But the rate of growth is slowing, with the forecasted estimate for 2019/20 at £16.6 billion, a growth rate of only 0.8 per cent.

If we do not fund the space industry at the level needed to unleash its potential then we can expect growth to slow further. This would prevent us from moving forward while other nations make great leaps forward, spelling disaster for the UK’s international standing in this highly strategic sector. It would also prevent the Prime Minister from making real progress on meeting his priorities here in the UK. This really is a golden opportunity to invest in order to reap significantly larger benefits in return.

The National Space Strategy is welcome and offers hope, but the reality is that space is now a global, strategic contest and the UK is falling behind, spending less of its GDP than our peer competitors, like France, Germany and Italy. In the Indo-Pacific region, China is forging ahead with significant civil, commercial and military investment in space, highlighting the strategic nature of the sector.

We need to get on the front foot with world-leading space capabilities, technology and services to sell to the rest of the world and to protect our interests. With the right investment, the new space strategy can ensure we do that and ministers will be applauded for putting space at the heart of Government policy.

Yet, while we now have lift off towards boosting the UK’s role in the new global space race, we still have a long way to go to reach our destination. To get there, we now need serious investment and a strategic National Space Programme to further embolden ministers to seize the opportunity offered by the space sector.

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.

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.

David Morris: The Government’s OneWeb investment will give the UK a greater stake in the space industry’s future

23 Nov

David Morris is Member of Parliament for Morecambe and Lunesdale.

In March, as Covid struck, OneWeb, a UK-based, Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Satellite system, found itself plunged into financial difficulties. Its backer, SoftBank, withdrew $2 billion of funding from the enterprise. The result, as many feared, was collapse and a retreat into US Chapter 11 protection.

But crisis soon turned into opportunity. With 74 satellites in space, and having secured valuable global spectrum priority and orbital rights, OneWeb was eyed by US, Canadian, European and Chinese buyers. Would the UK step up? It had been ejected from Galileo post-Brexit and risked being shut out from shaping the LEO satellite future if the Europeans stepped in. Europe wanted its own LEO and here was its chance.

The UK Space Agency was as lukewarm as a lost pizza in lockdown. It briefed and wrote letters disavowing the benefits of investing in OneWeb. But behind the scenes a wider assembly, including the Parliamentary Space Group, could see the bigger picture and the decades-long opportunity of owning a slice of space. In spite of the horrors of Covid, the challenge of budgets hit by £30 billion in bounce-back loans and the pressures of a national furlough, this Government found the courage and vision to look to the post-Brexit future. 

The Treasury and others analysed and looked beyond short-termist naysayers. The Prime Minister took critical interest in how this addition to the UK Space industry could help unite our kingdom. Advisers recognised that in our connected future, for societal resilience, we needed to control our access to space.

At home we could connect the unconnected, add resilience to networks, back-up transport links, plan for the driverless car and level-up digital access across the UK. We could put connectivity where it’s needed – not just in our cities – as well as ensuring that subsequent generations of LEO Satellites are built here. Providing tech innovation is a good reason for post-grad young scientists to stay, and it allows universities to develop and experiment.

Most importantly, the UK would have a powerful satellite platform to share with our allies and friends post-Brexit – to balance US, Chinese and Russian systems.

The successful bid for OneWeb, in partnership with Bharti Global, operators of the massively successful Airtel Mobile network, will see each party inject $500 million into the venture for an 84.4 per cent share in the company. India is a leading space nation and we are delighted to work alongside such gifted friends. We are building a new future together.

The next launch will be in December and 36 satellites have been built and are ready to go. In just six months, after five launches, the UK and much of the Northern Hemisphere will have satellite service available.

By the close of 2022, OneWeb will span the globe, headquartered in the UK and serving society on land, sea and air. Work will be underway on a LEO resilient back-up to GPS satellites, called PNT (Position, Navigation, Timing) – saving the £5 billion previously sought by industry to build a Galileo rival, just as its resilience is compromised.

This project brings the Conservatives much closer to their vision of levelling-up – from the Heavens – and with success, a sky-high valuation will deliver for the UK taxpayer.