The new United Kingdom Space Agency (UKSA) was launched to a reasonable amount of fanfare today and according to some, anyone who was anyone was there. Clear proof that I’m not anyone. I’ve written about this before and my opinion hasn’t really changed much. I hate to be a killjoy, but I don’t really understand what the new UKSA is meant to do and quite why we are doing it.
One of the reasons I don’t quite get the logic is that the UK is already part of the European Space Agency (ESA). We spend something like £100 million a year to belong to ESA. What some might not realise is that according to juste retour we get all (or almost all) of this money back, either in the form of industrial contracts or contracts to universities and national research laboratories. Spending some money to try and ensure that these contracts are such that they will benefit the UK economy (i.e., go where we want them to go) is certainly a good thing, but do we really need our own space agency to do this. Also, ESA already carries out a large number of scientific missions and is intending to start manned space flights (one of the future astronauts is British, even though the UK does not – at this stage – contribute to ESA’s manned space flight programme). Is the UK really intending on doing any of these things independently of ESA? I really hope not and I doubt that this is ultimately the intention.
Reading the press release, most of what is mentioned is how important the space industry is to the UK economy. This may well be true, however, my rather cynical view is that it is actually the space industry that has been pushing for the formation of a space agency. Something like 40% of the UK economy is public and the space industry would like a larger chunk of this money. They may well be quite viable without this and have just been chancing their arm, but maybe this industry isn’t quite as self-reliant as we have been lead to believe. Whatever the reason, my opinion is that the real reason for the formation of a UK Space Agency is to try and strengthen the UK space industry, not to do more space science. Make no mistake, this may well be a good thing and making sure that the core of the space industry is secure and allowing them to then grow their business is a perfectly good thing. I just think we should be careful not to confuse a Space Agency that benefits the space industry with one that might benefit space science.
In fairness to what has been reported, there hasn’t actually been much mention of science and what seems to be the goal is growing the space industry from something worth about £6 billion a year to £40 billion a year. Admittedly, they are only investing something like £12 million a year of new money to do so, so if it succeeds it would end up being one of the shrewdest investments ever made. What is worrying is the possibility that the money to fund the new Space Agency will ultimately come out of the current science budget and that the government will actually invest very little – if any – new money. If it is true that the space industry can grow from a £6 billion a year industry to a £40 billion a year industry (and, assuming this is real growth and not just redirected public money, the government can expect to get a large part of this new wealth in the form of taxation.) they should be more than happy to throw new money at this new agency. This makes me wonder if anyone really believes this rhetoric and suggests – to me at least – that the main reason for the formation of this Space Agency is to satisfy Paul Drayson’s ego (and possibly some childish fantasies about space and astronauts).
Since I don’t really like being critical without suggesting alternatives, what do I think they should do. If some investment in the UK space industry will really reap huge rewards in the medium- to long-term then go ahead and do this. As far as space science and manned space flight is concerned (assuming we want to get involved) we should commit to ESA and make sure that our involvement is such that we can influence how the juste retour is reinvested in the UK economy. Of course, some other European countries (Italy and France) have their own Space Agencies, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they started reducing their roles – independently of ESA – sometime in the near future. Maybe they’ll announce something like this in the next few days just to embarrass us.