Historically, the UK has cooperated with other countries rather than worked on developing its own space industry. Back in the 1960s, when the Space Race began, the USA and the USSR were the two major forces to be reckoned with. Other states could not offer such enormous budgets and scientific potentials at the time, so they formed partnerships with one giant or another.
The UK, in particular, joined the 20th century Space Race in the 1970s. Now, however, the world seems to be on the brink of yet another race — this time, a friendlier but an equally competitive one. One more trend that goes back to the first space race is the global reliance on international partnerships. The UK is not an exception; with US companies, like Virgin Orbit and Lockheed Martin, lining up to use UK’s spaceports yet to be commissioned, the country still depends on foreign capital and investment.
Can such partnerships really benefit the UK and the development of its space industry? While there is nothing wrong with teamwork and collaboration, there are two sides to every coin. Below, we’ll try to analyze how the UK’s space coin may flip.
How Much did Cooperation Cost the UK?
Obviously, developing the space industry requires investment. In this regard, the UK lags behind its neighbours. In contrast to France and Germany, the UK’s space budget amounts to a third and a half of what those spend, respectively. In addition, UK continues to invest in European Space Agency projects — even though a local UK Space Agency is already formed.
Satellite data is a pressing concern here. As former Science Minister Chris Skidmore noted, 90% of the UK satellite activity is led by foreign companies. That figure does not make any sense, especially if we consider that Scotland has enormous scientific potential and already produces more satellites than any other region in Europe.
To some extent, the UK’s investment in ESA projects can be justified. Before Brexit, the UK could rely on EU satellite data. Now, however, is the right time to invest in local navigation systems, like GNSS. However, the UK has pledged to keep investing in the ESA projects over the next five years, contributing £357 million a year to a foreign space entity. What’s even more vexing, out of the UK Space Agency’s £4.5 billion gross expenditure, two-thirds are allocated to international contracts, and only one-third goes to local research and funding.
What Stands Behind the Numbers?
On the bright side, the UK’s investment in developing its space industry — even relying on international contracts — seems to pay off. In 2018, the UK’s entire satellite industry was worth £300 billion. In 2019, space exports reached £5.5 billion. According to recent reports, the UK space sector generates £14.8 billion for the economy.
Once again, satellite technology plays a major part in this growth. Today, nations rely on satellite communication for most daily operations — from phone calls to online banking. To gain independence in this area, the UK will need to produce satellites as well as to launch them.
To this end, a total of seven spaceport projects, both vertical and horizontal ones, are currently pending application. Facilities with the most potential include Sutherland, Shetland, and Newquay. The UK Space Agency is actively investing in these sites, but given that only a third of its annual £4.5 expenditure stays in the country, it’s no wonder that spaceport construction is going so slow.
Why Isn’t Cooperation Effective?
The lack of funding and effort to develop an independent space industry is the main reason why the UK, despite its strong scientific potential, is not yet a space superpower. To be fair, the situation seems to be changing at the moment — the only fact that spaceport projects are under consideration already inspires hope in the future of the UK space industry.
On the other hand, the UK still plays an assistive role in the international space sector. Even currently proposed spaceport projects rely on foreign investors and launch providers. Orbex Space, originating from Denmark, has an eye on Sutherland Space Hub. An American aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, with its long history of US defence contracts, has stated its intention to launch from Shetland Space Centre. Even non-traditional, horizontal launch sites rely on American launch providers. Spaceport Cornwall, on the basis of Newquay airport, should become home to a notorious Virgin Orbit.
Even though Lockheed Martin and Virgin Orbit are seriously invested in the UK spaceport construction, it is not yet clear whether such collaboration will benefit the UK in the long run. The Technology Safeguards Agreement signed between the US and the UK presupposes American launches from British soil, which is definitely a benefit for large American players like Lockheed Martin. On the other hand, it is not yet clear where the British taxpayer money will end up, and some are concerned those funds will simply fill American pockets.
Besides, no one can ignore the US’s possibility of taking over the UK launch industry and using the newly built UK spaceports as their foreign launchpads. Especially so, if we consider that the UK has fewer rocket manufacturers than the US. So, even locally produced UK satellites may need foreign rockets to send them into required orbits.
All in all, the UK’s budding space industry still relies on foreign talent and investment. Right now, there is too much room for foreign launch providers, foreign funds, and foreign human talent. While collaboration and sharing the resources is not a bad thing per se, no country can gain space independence if it relies on even a third of foreign resources. As we have seen, the UK depends on more than a third. So, the most reasonable conclusion is to put more effort into developing its own space industry. This would imply funding local aerospace companies — both in the satellite and rocket building niches — and, of course, allocate more funds and effort to the UK spaceport construction.
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