Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Onwards and upwards: the future of the British space industry

The past three years have seen monumental progress in the realm of commercial spaceflight. While the vast majority of this growth and innovation has been, and will continue to be, pioneered by American companies, such as SpaceX, other countries are beginning to make strides. Among these is the UK. With a strong scientific base, a burgeoning private space industry, and a government which views space as increasingly important, the future for British space is optimistic.

The private British space sector has grown five times faster than the wider economy and is three times more productive than the national average

The foundation for any successful domestic space industry is a sufficient technical-scientific base. This is an area in which the UK excels in, with a host of world-leading, research-intensive universities, a strong research and development sector, and the second-largest aerospace industry in the world. Perhaps more importantly, however, is that all these elements are highly integrated, improving efficiency, communication, and resource sharing. Aerospace engineering firms, such as BAE, Airbus and Rolls Royce, regularly host career and outreach events at universities, and they fund and share research with organisations such as the UK Space Agency (UKSA), the Defence Science and Technical Laboratory (DSTL), and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Additionally, these firms and organisations are woven into the national security fabric of the UK, with high interoperation and interdependence both with defence firms, such as Babcock International and QinetiQ, and, more importantly, with the government and the Ministry of Defence (MoD). This integrated and dynamic web between academia, industry, and government means that further development of the British space industry has an incredibly firm foundation.

Given this underpinning, the private British space sector has grown five times faster than the wider economy, is three times more productive than the national average, and derives a third of its turnover from exports. This has led the Space Growth Partnership, as part of UK Space, the trade association for private space companies in the UK, to target a 10% share of the global space sector by 2030 – up from roughly 6% today.

Government and private companies both envision the construction of multiple spaceports in the United Kingdom

One area of growth identified by the Space Growth Partnership is low-cost access to space. The government and private companies both envision the construction of multiple spaceports in the United Kingdom. This would allow British companies and the government to launch rockets and satellites in-house, making the process cheaper, easier, and more environmentally friendly, as well as making the UK more attractive for international investment. It would also further strengthen the domestic aerospace industry by investing more in skills and experience. The first of these spaceports, Space Hub Sutherland – which is partly-funded by the UKSA, is likely to begin construction soon, with local permission approved in July and now only being subject to the decision of the Scottish Government.  Situated in the very north of Scotland, it will allow 10 to 12 launches per year, with Lockheed Martin and Orbex, a British company developing Prime, a reusable rocket.

Another spaceport complex is being considered at the Cornwall Airport Newquay. It would be designed for horizontal launches of Virgin Group spacecraft,  involving attaching a rocket to a modified Boeing 747, which would then be released at altitude. Part-funded by the UKSA, it is hoping to be fully operational by the end of 2021 – an optimistic time frame to say the least. This would allow the Virgin conglomerate to bring some of its launches to the UK and, potentially, to launch space tourism flights too.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace noting that the upcoming Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) will see Britain boost efforts to combat Russia and China in space

In addition to the substantial growth that will occur in the private space sector in the next decade, the government has also recently shown interest in developing the British space industry. Recent years have shown an expansion of interest in space from governments across the globe, from Russian and Chinese satellite missiles to Trump’s Executive Order on space mining, and a recognition from intelligence communities of the heavy overlap between space and cyber. Recent government announcements indicate a newfound interest, with Defence Secretary Ben Wallace noting that the upcoming Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) will see Britain boost efforts to combat Russia and China in space. Indeed, the SDSR, now slated for 2021, is likely to see some slashes in funding for conventional armed forces in favour of further development of intelligence, cyber, and space capabilities.

Projects such as ARTEMIS are seeking to develop sovereign HD global imagery and video capability for the UK, and they are likely to receive more funding. The government’s recent £400m acquisition of OneWeb shows that they are putting more money than ever before into their space interests, while also raising eyebrows. Indeed, the fact that the Civil Service warned there was little benefit to the acquisition, which went ahead anyway, suggests some national security purpose is likely to be announced in the upcoming SDSR.

The British space industry, while by no means globally dominant, continues to punch above its weight internationally. Within a few years the UK will have its own launch capability, and, alongside everything else, this will propel the UK well into the 2050s as a strong contender and major player in space.

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