THINK back… way back.
Back to that volatile summer of 2017.
Did you know that back then, the UK’s space industry was worth a measly £15bn? Sure, its turnover was greater than passenger rail transport, but it employed little over 38,000 people and we struggled with a mere 6% of the global market share.
For goodness sake, we didn’t even have a space port; not one!
So, what changed? How did we get from that, to this? How, in just 13 years, did the UK come to punch so far above its weight?
Today, in the stormy summer of 2030, as you’re no doubt well aware, our rapidly growing space economy is worth £40bn per annum, employs hundreds of thousands of highly skilled workers and, with space ports from the Outer Hebrides to Cornwall, can launch pretty much anything into space; from primary school science experiments in Earth-observing polar orbits to bored retirees on sub-orbital joy rides.
With the new generation of reusable launch vehicles from SpaceX, BlueOrigin, Virgin, and Reaction Engines, the cost of launching a kilogram into space has fallen from thousands of US dollars 20 years ago, to mere hundreds today.
And as it continues to plummet towards the dozens of USD-per-kilogram mark, the UK has been able to corner 10% of the global space market. It dominates the development, manufacture, launch and in-orbit operation of the tiny CubeSats that have so revolutionised how we gather, access and use the oceans of data that are now so integral to everyday life.
Quietly and without fuss, the UK’s space industry, both public and private, has beavered away in relative obscurity for several decades. Following the end of WW2 we established facilities on the Isle of Wight and in the Australian Outback as we developed a range of missiles and rocket vehicles.
This culminated in the 1971 launch of the UK’s first satellite, Prospero, aboard the Black Arrow rocket from Woomera in South Australia. Ironically, pontificating that there was no future in satellites and no advantage in having sovereign access to space, the UK government had cancelled the project three months before this landmark moment in British industrial history.
Throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, Britain’s understated expertise in the space sector ensured that companies like Marconi – now part of Airbus – used British facilities, workers and supply chains to design and build advanced satellites for both private and military clients.
And then, back in 2010, the UK Space Agency was tentatively established with a limited budget and a staff of fewer than 100 civil servants. Its purpose? Not to colonise the Moon, or send probes to the stars, but to foster and support the UK’s under-utilised space sector.
By 2013, there were the first serious moves to create a legal environment that would enable innovation and growth for the industry. Principal amongst these was the drive to introduce a licensing infrastructure for the creation of space ports, thus allowing multiple privately operated facilities to compete for business.
This is why we now have such a variety of launch sites in the British Isles, each offering launch services and orbital profiles unique to their locations, and launch vehicles from inexpensive sounding (research) rockets to air-launched passenger services.
However, none of this would matter if the private industry of the UK hadn’t taken the bull by the horns…
OK, OK. You got me. It’s not 2030 and the UK does not have a string of space ports along it’s western shores. However, everything you’ve just read is accurate. The history. The current economic data. The projections for future growth, including the current and continuing fall in launch costs, the UK space ports, their locations. All of it.
Today, the UK’s thriving space industry is comprised of every kind of company, from Surrey Satellite Technology – a University of Surrey spin-out that is world leader in small-to-medium satellites – to Reaction Engines Ltd which, with support from the UK government, European Space Agency, US Air Force and BAE Systems, is building its prototype Synergistic Air Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE). This revolutionary, refuellable hybrid rocket engine will enable large spacecraft to take off and land like commercial jets, whilst enjoying turnaround times similar to ocean-going cargo vessels.
In Bedfordshire, BlueAbyss are to construct the world’s deepest pool. This will not only strengthen the UK’s position as a leader in marine training and development but also provide facilities to train future private-sector Astronauts.
Our skill in the digital sector means that we are delivering innovations in the applications of satellite data, from climatology and global logistics to combating illegal plantations in the Amazon basin and improving Ambulance response times on the banks of the Mersey.
Almost all of this innovation has been due to the diversity and flexibility of the UK’s web of supply chains and SMEs. Companies across the advanced manufacturing and digital sectors now realise the applications that their products and processes can have in the space industry, especially as affordable access to advanced techniques like 3D printing and super computing, coupled with falling launch costs, mean that standardisation is beginning to overlap with non-space industries.
Whilst the core of our emerging industry is located around STFC Harwell in Oxfordshire, which also boasts the UK’s only European Space Agency centre, a network of dedicated space business incubation centres and government-backed Satellite Application Centres of Excellence provide outstanding support across the nation.
Alongside the UK Space Agency, the devolved nations’ dedicated space bodies – the Northern Ireland Space Office, Aerospace Wales & the Scottish Space Network – have been invaluable to supporting a world-leading manufacturer of CubeSats on the Clyde (Clyde Space), an advanced ion propulsion facility in Belfast (part of the Thales Group) and a potential space port in Snowdonia.
In the north of England, the largest aerospace hub in Europe boasting a wealth of advanced manufacturing and digital innovation, the recently established Northern Space Consortium is working to unlock the region’s vast industrial and entrepreneurial potential.
With the UK now revisiting it’s industrial and economic strategy as we prepare to leave the EU, there has been no better time for our emerging and established industries to utilise their capabilities in order to expand into the waiting space industry.
It’s an opportunity to secure their own future and the future of skills, innovation and industry in our nation… and beyond.