The UK Is Too Reliant on Foreign Space Effort
As the UK is getting ready to compete in the new space race, many experts point out that the country over-relies on foreign space initiatives. As former Science Minister Chris Skidmore said to the House of Commons in early February, foreign companies manage 90% of the UK satellite activities.
However, all daily operations — from making phone calls and browsing the Internet to map navigation and banking — are tied to satellite data. Even if the county relies on 30% of foreign satellite data, such a country cannot be considered independent. In the UK’s case, this figure is far more than 30% and accounts for way more than satellite data since the UK also invests in the US companies like Lockheed Martin. And, as Skidmore reasonably points out, even a temporary disruption in satellite data could greatly affect the country’s economy. But what should the UK do to gain the much-needed space independence?
Why Independent Space Industry Is Important for the UK
The UK has a very strong scientific base, but it has put little effort into making use of it so far. To be fair, the country never had too much interest in space exploration. Its focus has always been on commercial, scientific, and environmental aspects of space tech.
Now, however, the situation is changing. For the first time since the original space race between the USSR and the US, countries worldwide start to realize that they can no longer play sidekicks to one of the space superpowers. The UK is not an exception, which explains forming the UK Space Agency in 2010 and developing new space initiatives.
Satellite data is the foundation for intelligence, research, defense, commerce, navigation, natural disaster monitoring, and plenty of other activities crucial for state sovereignty. So, relying on one’s own space expertise is crucial for state and space independence.
What’s more, a country that can offer end-to-end space services — from building satellites to placing them in required orbits — stands a chance to significantly replenish its budget and allocate some of the funds to further space industry development. With a growing demand for satellite launches, such a huge competitive advantage cannot be overlooked.
What Has the UK Achieved in Space Exploration so far
Despite the obvious advantages of developing its own independent space sector, the UK keeps allocating most of its space budget to international partnerships. Even after Brexit and losing access to Galileo, the UK has pledged to keep giving £357 million a year to the ESA projects for the next five years. In 2019-2020, the UKSA gross expenditures reached £4.5 billion, but only one-third of this amount was spent on local projects. The other two-thirds were granted to strengthen the international partnerships.
On the whole, there is nothing wrong with partnerships and international collaboration, but so far, it looks like the UK’s space priorities are somewhat misplaced. Even as the country develops its spaceport projects, most development funds go to foreign companies that plan to launch from these facilities. The latter include Danish-originating Orbex Space developing Sutherland Space Hub, US-aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, interested in Shetland Space Centre, and another US-based company Virgin Orbit, with its eye on the horizontal launchpad in Cornwall.
On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with delegating some of the spaceport construction work to foreign companies, especially if they plan to launch from these facilities. On the other hand, the Technology Safeguards Agreement, presupposing the use of American rockets in British spaceports, may result in massive US launches. This, in turn, would mean that the UK is nothing more but a launch site, which is definitely a plus for Lockheed Martin, but far from an advantage for the UK’s local space sector development.
Where Should the UK Space Sphere Move
The solution to such over-reliance on foreign partnerships is obvious — the UK should invest more in its own space projects. Ideally, the UK space budget should be increased without damage to current international partnerships that account for two-thirds of current UKSA expenditures. Given potential profits the local space industry could generate in the next decade, such an investment is totally worth it.
Spaceport development is another pressing matter because there has not been much progress on this initiative since it was put forward in 2014. Out of seven currently proposed sites, not a single facility has a construction permit. So, it would make sense to offer more government support to speed this process up.
Offering local aerospace companies — both launch providers and satellite makers — a chance to occupy future spaceports can also solve the UK space dilemma. It is no wonder that local private investors are in no rush to support foreign companies like Lockheed Martin and the rest; neither are British taxpayers confident about this development because, with the US launching from UK spaceports, it is not quite clear where their money will go.
On the other hand, stimulating local aerospace startups (of which there are plenty) can bring in more private investment to spaceport construction. There is also a chance that current spaceport opponents will see things from a different perspective when they understand that their home companies benefit from these launch sites. After all, there is a difference between developing one’s own space expertise and using a foreign one.
So far, it looks like making the UK space independent is the surest path to success. Right now, the UK does not invest enough in the development of its own space companies and initiatives but chooses to rely on foreign resources. This is a potentially risky path that may do the UK’s economy a great disservice. In contrast to that, building its local spaceports and encouraging local aerospace companies to develop a full range of services — from building spacecraft and deploying it into orbits — is the only way to ensure the country is truly a sovereign space-faring nation.