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The UK space programme – a bold and ambitious agenda for Britain?

By SEC Newgate team
04 February 2021

By Nick Jessup

The PM is keen, and the opportunities potentially lucrative, keep watching the skies…

It’s probably fair to say that the UK is not one of the countries that first springs to mind when we think about adventures in space. From Yuri Gagarin to Apollo 11, popular consciousness has always seen the space race as something dominated by Cold War-era superpowers, as the US and the Soviet Union challenged each other politically, militarily, economically and culturally and chose space exploration as a marker of their success and global dominance.

That being said, the UK does have a long and storied history of involvement in space exploration, one that the Government will be keen to remind us all of as it seeks to further its ambitions of capturing ten percent of the global space market by 2030. The UK was a founding member of the European Space Agency, was the third nation to ever go into space, and a British engineer, Francis Thomas Bacon, is credited with creating the fuel cells used on Apollo 11. “Without you Tom,” U.S. President Richard Nixon told him, “we wouldn’t have gotten to the moon.”

An ambitious space agenda is certainly something that the Prime Minister is in favour of.  In November, while announcing an additional £16.5bn to be spent on the armed forces, including on artificial intelligence and cybersecurity, Number 10 announced the creation of a new Space Command, which, based in Scotland, will be capable of launching the UK’s first rocket in 2022. The UK space industry is currently projected to be worth around £15bn, having trebled in size since 2000, and employs some 40,000 people.

Economic growth provides a further pressing reason for investment, especially as the Government pursues its ‘levelling up’ agenda. Plans have been submitted for a space launch facility in Shetland, which could create hundreds of jobs and provide a significant economic boost to the area, and ambitious plans are underway to build a Spaceport in Cornwall, the site chosen by Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit company as a base for vertical launches.

Today, Owen Thompson, SNP MP for Midlothian, will lead a Backbench Business Debate on the future of the UK Space Industry. Scotland clearly has a significant role to play in the development of British space technology, and from a purely political perspective, the Government might hope that they can use this investment as a means of demonstrating that Scotland is an integral and valued part of the UK and the UK’s ambitions for science, engineering and technology. This is an argument that might have to be made loudly and frequently by supporters of the Union if the SNP are triumphant in May’s Holyrood elections.

However, putting location and investment issues aside for the moment, pursuing an ambitious agenda on space travel certainly has the potential to be very exciting, and make good use of the impressive scientific and engineering capabilities already present in the UK. Not only might the Government hope that in demonstrating a more ambitious role in space it can cast aside those who doubted Britain’s ability to forge an independent path outside the EU, but it also might hope that it will provide something for the nation to get excited about, especially after the incredibly difficult year that the coronavirus pandemic has caused.

Today’s debate will likely shed some more light on the next stages in the Government’s plans, and we can expect that this will be an area that the Government remains keen to pursue. Time will tell if the programme yields the hoped-for dividends, but it certainly remains something to keep an eye on for the future.