On the remote island of Unst in the Shetlands, plans for Britain’s space launch ambitions are starting to take shape.
This weekend, Lockheed Martin revealed it had selected the 88ft RS1 rocket, developed by ABL Space Systems, for launches from the island that could begin as soon as next year. For the UK space industry, which has not completed a physical rocket launch since 1971, it could be a historic moment.
But while commercial ambitions for Britain’s booming domestic space industry are gathering momentum, a Whitehall spat over who is in charge of UK space policy is fuelling uncertainty for civil servants, quangos and the private sector.
The government’s ambition is for the UK to seize 10pc of the global space economy, roughly £40bn, by 2030.
In a shake-up designed to help achieve this, the UK Space Agency is expected to be stripped of its mandate over policy, which will be handed to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). One source described it as a Westminster “land grab” for control of the industry, which ministers view as a key priority for growth after the UK’s exit from the EU.
In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph last month, Kwasi Kwarteng, the new business minister, set out his views: “There is a conversation that we’re resolving of where space policy sits within government. I think BEIS has a very strong claim to [it] and I think it will fit in very strongly with our innovation strategy.”
One government source said it made little sense to have policy for such a key sector not in the hands of a minister. Some MPs have said the agency, composed chiefly of technical experts, was too small to manage policy and deliver on projects.
Under the proposed reorganisation, the UKSA, which has a £577m budget, is expected to be refocused into a delivery agency, fulfilling an agenda set by ministers at BEIS. But not everyone is supportive and some proposals for the industry’s reorganisation have been met with scepticism.
In December, the trade body UKspace warned Britain was at risk of being left behind as a third tier space nation.
The UK space sector has been frustrated by slow progress on policy. Brexit saw Britain lose its place working on Galileo, the EU’s £5bn GPS satellite programme.
While the UKSA has been a key supporter of a number of small projects, some insiders are frustrated that it pushed back so hard against the Government’s deal to rescue OneWeb, which is planning to launch a 650 broadband satellite network.
The UK Space Agency was privately critical of the deal last year, which was supported by Downing Street advisor Dominic Cummings, amid concern over the $500m cost.
This Article firstly Publish on www.telegraph.co.uk