Can Britannia Ever Rule the Skies? on Thatcher's Orders, Britain Opted out of the Premier Division in Space -- Because It Involved Working with Those Pesky Europeans. but Our Effort Still Has Some Merits. (Space)

By Cookson, Clive | New Statesman (1996), May 20, 2002 | Go to article overview

Can Britannia Ever Rule the Skies? on Thatcher's Orders, Britain Opted out of the Premier Division in Space -- Because It Involved Working with Those Pesky Europeans. but Our Effort Still Has Some Merits. (Space)


Cookson, Clive, New Statesman (1996)


There are two ways of looking at British space policy. Supporters see it as well-focused, realistic and cost-effective -- in contrast to the wasteful and grandiose programmes of, say, the US and France. For space enthusiasts, however, the UK contribution to the worldwide space effort is shamefully mean.

According to figures for civil space expenditure in 2000, the US government spent $33bn (0.18 per cent of GDP), Japan $1.9bn (0.05 per cent), France $1.8bn (0.16per cent), Germany $700m (0.04 per cent), Italy $480m -- and Britain just $240m, or [pounds sterling]180m (0.028 per cent).

Britain's programme is small because it has opted out of the three most expensive areas of space endeavour: manned missions, the International Space Station, and rockets to launch spacecraft. Instead, it focuses on three areas endorsed by successive UK governments. Lord Sainsbury, the current space minister, describes them as: "Excellent science; supporting the commercial applications of space, especially in communications and navigation; and Earth observation and environmental monitoring."

The UK effort is co-ordinated by the British National Space Centre (BNSC), set up as a "voluntary partnership" in 1985 between the ten government departments and research councils that have an interest in space activities. Although the centre describes itself as "Britain's own space agency", other big national space agencies would find it hard to recognise a reflection of themselves. The centre has no facilities of its own apart from offices in one of the Department of Trade and Industry buildings in central London, where it employs about 50 staff. Its director generals have typically been career civil servants with a background in science, but no direct experience of the space industry. The incumbent since 1999 has been Colin Hicks, a chemist who has been at the DTI for the past 12 years. As he acknowledges, it is not a high-profile job. "When people ask what I do and I tell them I head the BNSC, they often look blankly at me," Hicks says.

Hicks is an enthusiast about space -- but not about the interstellar vision that inspires some people in NASA, the US space agency, of sending people out first to explore the solar system and then eventually to planets around other stars many light years away. His enthusiasm is for "putting space to work". Communications, navigation and environmental satellites have already transformed life on Earth and, he says, far bigger changes are in prospect over the next few decades. Britain has a significant stake in all those areas -- mainly through the European Space Agency (ESA) -- and there is more to come.

As well as taking a lead role in Envisat and Galileo (see Charles Grant and Daniel Keohane, page xiv), Britain is an active participant in other missions. They include Rosetta, which will land on a comet's nucleus in 2011; Cluster, launched in 2000, which is studying the interaction between the sun and Earth's magnetic field; the Herschel and Planck space telescopes, due to be launched in 2007; and the Huygens probe, which will parachute on to Saturn's moon Titan in 2005. Britain's highest-profile contribution to space science is the Mars Beagle 2 lander (see Steve Connor, page xvi). If it provides the first good evidence of life on Mars, it will bring Britain enormous scientific kudos for a remarkably modest investment of [pounds sterling]30m.

"We don't need manned missions to provide scientific excitement," Lord Sainsbury says. "We need unmanned space exploration before we think about putting people on other planets."

Asked whether British space policy is at all visionary; Hicks says: "For some people, being visionary means people walking on Mars; for me, it means producing benefits for every single person on Earth." But if you want excitement, Hicks predicts that the new generation of space telescopes, being designed by the ESA and NASA, will detect Earthlike planets with oxygen-rich atmospheres--a sure sign of life-- around other stars within his lifetime. …

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