The U.K. is showing huge ambitions in the space sector as it looks to rise to prominence in this dynamic industry. With many success stories already, the question is whether the industry can go up several more levels over the next few years. Sam Gyimah is the U.K.’s joint minister for higher education at the department for business, energy and industrial strategy and the department for education. He talks to Via Satellite about the U.K.’s ambitions in space.The U.K. is in the middle of a space revolution. It has made a series of high profile announcements this year, including the capability to launch rockets, which will take the U.K.’s space capability to the next stage. The question is — while there is a lot of hyperbole around these announcements, will it ultimately live up to the hype?
Recently, the U.K. government has not had it easy. The Conservative government was elected without a majority, and has to deal with the continued uncertainty around Brexit — which has bought up more questions than answers. However, the success of the U.K. space industry offers a welcome respite from Brexit and other issues that the government faces.
In an exclusive interview, Gyimah tells Via Satellite that the possibilities of space are endless and that he believes the U.K. can play a big role in this area. “As technology evolves and reduces the cost of access to space, there is an exciting opportunity for the U.K. to lead in the NewSpace age,” he says. “The U.K. space sector was worth an impressive $17.5 billion (13.8 billion euros) in 2014 and 2015. It is growing fast and employs around 38,000 people. One fact that astounded me when I started as science minister is that Glasgow creates more small satellites that any other European city. Its satellites — sometimes as small as fizzy drink cans — are capable of everything from monitoring the biology of the ocean to helping African famers increase their crop production.”
To build on these strengths, Gyimah highlights the Government’s modern Industrial Strategy, which has committed $63.6 million (50 million euros) to kick-start small satellite launches and sub-orbital flights from U.K. spaceports. “At the Farnborough Airshow, we confirmed that the first vertical launch site in the country will be in Sutherland in Scotland. And we are considering other locations across the country for horizontal launch sites. We have also passed a new law — the Space Industry Act — to set up a fair, robust regulatory framework, to ensure safety and security throughout the industry,” he adds.
While there are success stories in the U.K. space sector, will we see a company in the U.K. have an impact like SpaceX has had on the U.S.? “We already have major U.K. success stories based on space,” Gyimah says. “The U.K. is already home to a number of world leading space businesses such as Surrey Satellite Technology, which controls a 40 percent share of the global small satellite market. With our recent announcement on the first U.K. mainland spaceport, we are now looking forward to launching our satellites into space. We are seeing innovative new firms coming on to the market like Orbex, which intends to redefine satellite launch services with innovative rockets using low carbon fuels. We are also attracting companies to the U.K. such as Orbital Micro Systems which is relocating from Colorado, and aims to revolutionize weather forecasting using a fleet of small satellites.”
Gyimah admits that the space industry offers incredible career opportunities. He points to the fact that Helen Sharman was the first Brit in space, and more recently how Tim Peake’s journey has captivated people across the world. He emphasizes how working in space is not just for astronauts, and that there are many people behind the scenes in space travel. He stresses that the industry needs more people doing high-tech jobs to support the U.K.’s ambitions. “The space sector is growing fast, with an additional 30,000 new staff required by 2030. The U.K. Space Agency works with educational partners to deliver inspiring resources to schools while talking regularly to employers to find out where the skills gaps are and what jobs need to be filled,” he says.
Gyimah gives an example of how Tim Peake’s Principia mission to the International Space Station (ISS) offered a host of other opportunities to young people in the U.K. He says this mission provided opportunities for students across the U.K. to engage with science and technology through projects funded by the Space Agency. “Reaching more than 1.5 million children and young people, and around a third of U.K. schools in U.K., an education program ranged from workshops in local science centers to a partnership with the Royal Horticultural society saw rocket seeds flown to the ISS and then planted back on Earth,” he says.
The U.K. has also just kicked off the Summer of Engineering campaign to entice and inspire the future generation to take up careers instrumental in shaping the U.K.’s future. Tim Peake recently launched the Holiday Makers Challenge, keeping youngsters entertained through the summer holidays making bridges, designing robots, and exploring how creative and exciting engineering can be. “Our recently announced Women in Aviation and Aerospace Charter also enforces our commitment to seeing gender balance at all levels across aviation and aerospace,” adds Gyimah.
Central to the U.K.’s space ambitions is not only launching rockets, but also offering a one-stop shop to customers looking to launch satellites. Glasgow Prestwick Airport Spaceport Director Richard Jenner tells Via Satellite that having this capability will make will make it much easier and more cost effective for satellite manufacturers and their end user customers to launch satellites and gain access to the information they require. “It will cater specifically for the small satellite business which is expanding rapidly to supply a whole range of new service sectors. The U.K. is already a world leader in satellite manufacture but currently can’t launch from the U.K. or even Europe. Launch involves trips to Kazakhstan or French Guyana, China or India so launching from the U.K. will be much more convenient and reliable,” he adds.
U.K. Space Agency (UKSA) Head of National Spaceflight Policy Jacob Geer says that while this was the start of a new space age in the U.K., there is a lot of hard work needed to make this a reality for both government and industry. “The UKSA is ready to work closely with any companies interested in participating in this new market. We are not limited to just those companies and spaceports that we announced funding for — we want to see supply chain companies, other launchers, and potential customers all setting up in the U.K.,” he says.
Geer says that when the UKSA opened up the call for grant proposals, it had 26 submitted proposals for U.K. spaceports accompanied by launch vehicle operators. He said this supports its confidence that there is strong industry backing for U.K. launch service business success. These grants are intended to accelerate the development of a U.K. spaceflight market, attracting operators to develop small satellite launch and sub-orbital services to launch from what could be multiple U.K. spaceports. “U.K. spaceports are well placed to host new commercial launch and sub-orbital flight services with the right geography to access a range of valuable polar and sub-synchronous orbits, popular among the many new small satellite constellations being planned which are forecast to create a $12.7 billion (10 billion euros) global launch opportunity over the next 10 years. Global forecasts show an increase in demand for commercial satellite launch services from 2020 onwards, and we are working quickly to help U.K. companies seize this opportunity,” he says.
Geer believes the commercial launch demand is worth a potential $4.83 billion (3.8 billion euros) to the U.K. economy over the next decade. Government and military customers could increase this even further, he says. “Our space sector relies on international collaboration. But this is unequivocally about supporting U.K. industry. The ability to launch from British soil will create new opportunities for British satellite companies and scientists to access space, and support British manufacturers and engineers participating in the launch sector. At the Farnborough International Airshow in July, we additionally announced a $2.5 million (2 million euros) fund to support horizontal spaceport development in the U.K., in locations such as Snowdonia, Ayrshire, and Cornwall,” he adds.
Having the ability to launch satellites could have a tangible impact on local economies in the U.K. Geer paints an example of this. He says that small-satellite launch from the U.K. could capture a share of this estimated $4.4 billion (3.8 billion euros) market from 2021 to 2030, creating new, high-skilled jobs and helping local economies. “Focusing on Sutherland alone, the Highlands and Island Enterprise (HIE) Agency internal estimates that the project will create 40 highly skilled jobs in the northern Highlands location, and when accounting for the wider supply chain developments, a total of around 400 new jobs will be created. Jobs like these, combined with the wider revenue generated by launch companies, are substantial additions to the U.K. economy,” he says.
To Be Successful
So, what will be the main challenges to make this ambitious launch program a success? Geer says speed will be a challenge. “The U.K. needs the capabilities required for space launch to be built up rapidly enough to enable U.K. launch companies to capture key parts of the small satellite launch market. The government is playing its part by developing the legislation and regulatory environment required for launch quickly, and providing initial funding to kickstart industry activity,” he says.
Jenner says the U.K. needs to get the legislation right and in place at the earliest opportunity. He says the U.K. needs to ensure that it supports potential U.K. based and funded launch operators, and that they are encouraged and enabled to get into the business. “We don’t want to rely on U.S. and other foreign operators to bring in their systems. We also need to ensure that horizontal launch operators and locations are encouraged and funded as this is where the main growth will come from,” he says.
Over the Next 12 Months
Over the next 12 months, Gyimah says the U.K. will take further steps to enable spaceflight from the U.K., and he hopes to see a new Industrial Strategy space sector deal that will build on the U.K.’s global leadership, and create a hub in the U.K. for new commercial space services. It is also pleasing to hear that despite living in a more fractious political period, space still seems to have the ability to cross political divides and unite people. “Space unites everyone, regardless of political party. The enthusiasm felt across parliament for our world-beating space industry is tremendous, and we are all incredibly aware of the numerous benefits investment in space can bring to life on Earth.”
Is the Price Right for Young People in the UK?
One of the big issues in the U.K. politically is the cost of higher education, which is likely to be a key battleground when there is the next general election in the U.K. Many perceive the cost of higher education to be too expensive now with students having the possibility of going tens of thousands of pounds into debt before they even take their first job. I ask Gyimah whether the high cost of university education is likely to stop young people doing degrees and joining the space industry. “Not only is our space industry one of the best in the world, so too are our universities,” he says. “We boast some of the best in the world for space science, from the University of Leicester to the Mullard Space Science laboratory at University College London, our reputation for excellence is justified. We’ve continued to help students access the courses that they want through tuition fee loans which cover their fees, and by freezing the maximum tuition fees universities can charge for the second year running. In addition to this, students don’t start paying back their loan until they are earning $31,800 (25,000 euros).
Gyimah admits the space sector is changing globally, and the U.K. is working hard to stay at the forefront of these changes. “Whilst we are getting better and better, so are many other countries around the world. International competition is increasing, and we must not be complacent. It’s vital that we continue to work in partnership — government, industry, and academia — to build on our strengths through our modern Industrial Strategy and address issues early on,” he adds. VS