Oral statement to Parliament

The Coalition Government’s Approach to Space

Good morning, everyone. I’m delighted to join you for Space Day at Farnborough. It’s a real privilege to be the minister responsible for space…

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon David Willetts

Good morning, everyone. I’m delighted to join you for Space Day at Farnborough.

It’s a real privilege to be the minister responsible for space - as I’m sure my Italian counterpart, Maria Stella Gelmini, whom I’m pleased to welcome here today, will agree. For my part, I’ve already met the crew of the Atlantis shuttle and a delegation of Russian space scientists. I’ve had Piers Sellers amaze me with his determination to go into space as a teenager - the Russian O-Level he sat all those years ago may come in useful. Like millions of people across the world, meanwhile, I’ve been stunned by those awe-inspiring images from the Planck telescope of the oldest light in the cosmos - light emitted some 13.7 billion years ago. And just yesterday, I had a fascinating discussion with NASA administrator, Charles Bolden, about their plans for a manned mission to an asteroid - as the precursor to landing on Mars.

In a recent speech, I suggested that space was rivalled only by dinosaurs as a means of enthusing children about science. I think the evidence bears that out. 27 per cent of engineers cite space as a significant influence on their career choice. And we all know about the Apollo Effect, where the numbers of US graduates in technical sciences grew significantly some five to 10 years after the start of the Apollo project - the subsequent decline occurring only after the termination of the programme. Indeed, I saw the pulling power of space a few weeks ago in Portsmouth, when thousands of children were utterly thrilled by a visit from the Atlantis astronauts.

It’s been many millennia since Farnborough last hosted a dinosaur day, but let me take this opportunity to reiterate the importance of space in inspiring future generations of scientists and engineers. We are continuing to support the rising stars. Today, I can announce the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has given out Leadership and Career Acceleration fellowships worth a combined £38 million to 46 outstanding applicants, in disciplines ranging from quantum mechanics to robot navigation.

Meanwhile, the achievements of the current crop of space-related scientists and companies are on display all around us. The UK, of course, has a highly successful and innovative sector, but what precisely is the basis for our comparative advantage? This is a question I’ve occasionally pondered during the commute to my Havant constituency, as I’ve thought about the manufacturing that goes on at Astrium in nearby Portsmouth and about the small satellites being built en route in Guildford at Surrey Satellites.

There is no single explanation, but the starting point - I believe - is this. Unlike France, Germany, and several other countries, the UK has maintained a decentralised approach to space. We haven’t established a dedicated mechanism to channel investment into a single “centre of excellence”. Instead, businesses and universities have worked together in a fluid, ad hoc manner within a competitive environment.

In support are those institutions - located at the other end of my weekly commute - who have developed tremendous capability in financing what is clearly a high-risk industry. It’s very easy, given events of the last couple of years, to criticise the City, but we should recognise that space is one area where it’s fully engaged with the UK science base. The Paradigm military communications and the Avanti Hylas broadband satellites are good examples of how creatively-financed public and private sector collaboration can sustain jobs and boost UK capability.

Ours is also a sector increasingly distinguished by imaginative procurement - with customers purchasing services as opposed to hardware. The Ministry of Defence’s most decision on Skynet, for example, has effectively stimulated a new export industry, since Paradigm has been able to sell spare capacity on the satellite which it still owns - a smart way to sweat national assets.

We have a healthy ecosystem for space, rather than a limiting bureaucracy. It’s one in which industry and academia are constantly engaging in different ways - on theoretical projects as well as commercial ventures. Space genuinely delivers in terms of knowledge transfer - and while the same can be said of a few industries, such as nuclear, it’s vital that other sectors do the same as we work to rebalance the economy.

Thinking about how we achieve ongoing economic growth in space, it’s readily apparent that the global context is changing. I’m encouraged by signals from the US - both from NASA and the Obama administration - that they favour a more open space market. After all, such is the scale of federal space investment that winning just one per cent of US spend would increase the size of the UK upstream sector by 50 per cent.

But at the same time, there’s a real likelihood that China and India will be rivalling Western nations as we attempt to cross new horizons in the next few decades. Space puts up mile-high barriers to entry, yet there are now many more players seeking to overcome them. If and when a Chinese or an Indian astronaut lands on the Moon, I imagine it will have a significant impact on the self-perceptions of countries who’ve been in this game for much longer. India has already sent the Chandrayaan-1 craft to the Moon - where it identified water at the poles - fulfilling a personal commitment made by the Indian Prime Minister in 2003.

But all nations with space programmes are now facing tough times - and difficult choices on projects which looked affordable just a few years ago. Now, history tells us that UK space has demonstrated its capacity to innovate at other moments when money has been tight and in the aftermath of earlier unenviable decisions. In 1971, the Heath government resolved that the Prospero satellite would be the only one launched by a British rocket; you can still view the rusty remnants of that programme on the Isle of Wight. In 1986, my colleague Ken Clarke informed his European ministerial counterparts that we would not contribute to either the International Space Station or Ariane5 - though we did choose to invest in Earth observation, telecommunications and space science.

The space sector did not let such decisions halt its development. On the contrary, it focused on scientific and technological excellence upstream, and innovation on the downstream, service-led side of the industry, where growth is now more pronounced - supporting broadband, high definition television, navigation and weather forecasting.

For instance, I am pleased to tell you that the UK Space Agency will launch the UK’s first cubesat that’s being built by the Scottish company Clyde Space Ltd. It’s called UKube1 and is roughly the size of a shoebox; you can view one at the UK Space Agency stand. These nano-satellites are designed to be a quick and cheap method for testing technology prototypes - and I very much like the idea of open competition among companies and academic groups to produce the most creative ideas for payloads. Nano-satellites are also ideal as a training tool for young engineers, and they represent a growing segment of the market with export potential. On top of this, Clyde Space are now selling spacecraft parts online - one of the first firms to do this anywhere in the world.

With so much good work going on, I’m determined to strengthen the UK’s capacity to innovate - and I’m not going to waste everyone’s time and effort by tearing up decisions reached under the outgoing government. The creation of the UK Space Agency is a positive development in reducing bureaucracy and streamlining decision-making on space; the job now is to get the Agency up and running. I’m also glad to be co-chairing the new Space Leadership Council alongside Andy Green, and I’ve gained a good deal from reading the Innovation and Growth Strategy - as well as the separate analysis of the sector produced by my department.

Yet, in these austere times, we clearly cannot commit to every recommendation contained in the Strategy. I recognise that countries like the US and Germany are increasing their R&D spend on space - yet their fiscal crisis is far less serious than ours. That’s why I cannot reasonably support a doubling of space expenditure ahead of the Autumn spending review.

But there are things that the Space Agency can do to address commercial issues which do not require direct financial investment - by looking, say, at export guarantees and improving cross-government support for export opportunities. I also want to examine the ways in which space technologies can help us to deliver both better public services - for it’s here that the industry has real potential to benefit from the absolute emphasis on value for money. Then again, whenever I think of procurement in a space context, I’m reminded of Alan Shepard’s nervousness when perched atop a 1961 Redstone rocket that “every part of [the] ship was built by the low bidder.”

Broadband by satellite is a key feature of the Growth Strategy, and one on which the coalition government is keen to make progress. Satellites, like Heineken, can reach parts of the country that other technologies can’t, and with corresponding export potential. When Hylas1 goes live later this year, users will have the choice of broadband by satellite at speeds of up to eight megabits. It’s great that British technology is driving these advances. The Government’s approach to delivery options for the Universal Service Commitment and superfast broadband rollout is technologically neutral. Our purpose is to make sure that consumers receive a service that works and which has been procured efficiently.

Besides broadband, satellites are helping to make infrastructure around the world safer, cheaper and greener - including the collection of space debris. I want to see the best ideas from space contributing to improvements in transport, to the building of a smart energy grid, to provide mapping facilities for the emergency services and other users. Integrating space data to create new commercial services is a key thrust of the new ESA programmes we’re supporting.

It’s also a major aspect of the International Science and Innovation Centre, which will open at Harwell next April. I can announce today that the Government has signed a contract worth just under £5 million with Astrium to establish the Earth observation hub at ISIC, part of an overall public investment in the Centre of £12 million. It will serve as a hub to link regional space capabilities and promote knowledge-sharing between academia and industry. ISIC will operate at arm’s length from the UK Space Agency, so that it becomes a common facility within the Harwell campus. At Harwell, the new ESA facility is already working well, especially in climate change science and related applications. Soon it will have an incubator for new space businesses and for projects on space exploration. This is a fantastic additional catalyst for UK space.

Earth observation, of course, is a field in which the UK plays a leading role, including projects like Cryosat2 - which is measuring both the shape and thickness of Arctic and Antarctic ice with unprecedented accuracy, and is examining how melting polar ice affects ocean circulation patterns, sea levels and global climate. There is also a growing demand for monitoring deforestation from space, with the UK Agency set to open discussions with its Indonesian equivalent.

However, across the UK government, there is currently a splintered market in the purchase and use of Earth observation data. As a direct response to the Innovation and Growth Strategy, I have asked the UK Space Agency to work with industry on how to achieve smarter government procurement of data, potentially through a single contract. I’m also keen to know whether the UK has a sovereign need for its own EO satellite system, and - if so - whether this can be procured through an anchor tenancy with industry. Anchor tenancy has served the country well in satellite communications and stimulates industry to develop effective, commercially-minded solutions.

Where competition is not a driver and where costs can be shared, meanwhile, we should seek to collaborate with other countries. On the one hand, international activities often create opportunities for British innovators; on the other, they are essential for research.

To re-boot our relationship with NASA that stretches back nearly 50 years, I signed an agreement with Charles Bolden yesterday to examine areas of possible cooperation in space science, exploration and Earth observation. I hope this will lead to a greater interchange of people and ideas between the US and UK space programmes.

Later this afternoon, UK officials will also sign an agreement with Russia, paving the way for both scientific and commercial collaboration in space between our two nations. That’s two agreements to add to discussions in 2010 between the UK and China, Kazakhstan, Peru, Jordan and Bahrain, to name but five. And next week, I’m in India, where I’m hoping to build on a recent memorandum of understanding when I meet their minister for science.

In conclusion, I have genuine grounds for optimism about space. I’ve presented four pieces of good news today: EPSRC fellowships for promising postdocs; the UKube sat soon to be space-bound; the Earth observation hub at ISIC; and the agreements struck this week with Russia and the US.

We have tremendous talent coming through. We have new business coming to the UK. Only yesterday, ESA confirmed that it had awarded Infoterra, the geo-data company, a further three-year, €7.5 million contract for its Multi-Mission Processing and Archiving Facility based in Farnborough itself. And I can reveal today that preliminary evidence from the UK Space Agency’s biannual study into the size and health of the UK Space Industry suggests growth this year in the region of eight to nine per cent - a very positive figure.

We will do all we can to help the space sector on its upward trajectory.

Published 21 July 2010