10 April 2003
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British Space Policy Review
British gov’t invites public consultation of draft
by Carol Pinchefsky
By Steven Fawkes

The British government’s space policy is currently undergoing a review, and the British National Space Centre has invited public consultation on its draft strategy for 2003 to 2006 and beyond.

Before considering the specifics of the proposed UK strategy it is important to consider the underlying paradigm that drives UK Government funding for civil spaceflight, as well as that of NASA in the United States and all other national space agencies. The paradigm on which government funding of space programmes is based remains one in which access to space is expensive, difficult, and dangerous and that national agencies undertake missions to space (using highly qualified and trained astronauts in the case of manned spaceflight) to achieve a public good, either in the form of scientific results or political benefits. Current annual spending on civil space in the “G7” countries is $25 billion per annum (1), all of it coming from taxpayers. This “investment” produces no real economic value although it does serve to keep space agencies in existence and create work for contractors.

The current stated UK space policy has five high-level objectives (2):

1. Help industry maximize profitable business opportunities in the development and exploitation of space systems, which enhance the quality of life and enhance choice for consumers
2. Foster the development of innovative technology, its commercial exploitation, and its application in research
3. Pursue the highest quality astronomy and space science
4. Improve our understanding of the Earth’s environment and natural resources
5. Communicate the results and their significance, to a broad audience.

The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) states: “DTI funding for civil space activities is aimed at securing, developing and exploiting commercial capabilities in the UK” and: “Space is stimulating new opportunities in the economy – in commerce, public policy, science and for consumers….The Government’s goal is to maximise these benefits throughout society. To do this it needs to influence the development of new space systems within the international market and facilitate the establishment of services which exploit them, as well as promoting their uptake and encouraging UK providers to succeed in global markets.” (3)

The UK space policy previously was focussed on remote sensing, as this was held to be a promising commercial market. Let us examine how successful UK government space policy has been in stimulating new opportunities in the economy.

Since 1990/1991 UK government spent £2,022 million (4) (in 1999 £) on space projects, and the 2001/02 budget co-ordinated by BNSC was £169 million (with increases to £178 million in 2002/03 and £192 million for 2003/04). Of the £178 million for 2002/03 over £99 million is allocated to the European Space Agency, ESA.

What effect has this decade of government spending of over £2 billion had in terms of creating true economic value?

In 1999 the UK space industry employed approximately 5,500 full time staff and had a turnover of £365 million, declining from a cyclical peak of over £600 million in 1996. Between 1987 and 1997 the UK contributed £1,077 million (in 1997 £) to ESA and received contracts worth £920 million. It is hard to see that UK government funding of space has achieved its objectives of “stimulating new opportunities for the economy”. Rather, it is a subsidy that goes through a circuitous route to various commercial and academic contractors, and its value (some science and a small amount of employment) can only be defended as a “public good”.

In a similar conclusion the Trade and Industry Committee Report on UK Space Policy in 2000 concluded “UK space policy appears to have failed to date in this central objective” (commercialising remote sensing) “despite more than a decade trying to stimulate commercial markets for Earth observation data, provided at public expense…” (5).

The BNSC strategy document sets out the primary purposes of UK space funding (6) as follows:

1. To expand knowledge in astronomy, planetary, Earth and life sciences
2. To create opportunities for commercial exploitation of satellite systems
3. To advance key public services.

A previous cabinet office review stressed the importance of potential commercial benefits in evaluating different options for space funding. And yet the UK Government in its strategy continues to ignore the largest potential market for space business, space tourism. That space tourism is possible and likely to become the largest business activity in space was highlighted in 1998 by the joint NASA: Space Transportation Association report (7) which concluded:

1. Almost anyone will be able to travel to and from space without difficulty
2. Sub-orbital space flight services can start using existing hardware
3. Tourism is likely to be the largest business activity in space.

Some studies estimate the potential space tourism market by 2030 as $100 billion per annum (8) which may sound farfetched--but consider the size of the civil aviation business which has a trillion dollar turnover and flies 1.5 billion passengers a year (9).

The BNSC Strategy is completely silent on the issue of space tourism, the largest potential market for space business. The United Kingdom is in a unique position to use a proportion of its government space funding to promote the growth of this new industry, an industry that could bring much needed growth and innovation to the world economy. The unique position occurs because previous UK Governments did not “invest” in either expendable launch vehicles (ELVs) or the International Space Station ( ISS), hence there is no vested interest in maintaining spending on either of them, unlike in other European countries and the United States. In addition the United Kingdom’s enormous accumulated experience in aviation also puts it in a strong position to take the lead in developing the new space industries. The United Kingdom developed and flew rocket planes as long ago as the 1950s using technology very similar to that needed for sub-orbital tourist vehicles such as Bristol SpaceplanesAscender (10).

The UK government’s vision for space is “the UK will be the most developed user of space-based systems in Europe for science, enterprise and environment. UK citizens will provide and exploit the advanced space-based systems and services which will stimulate innovations in the knowledge based society”. Space tourism represents a huge potential market and a much-needed innovation that could spur global economic growth through the next few decades as IT and telecommunications did in previous decades.

There are two UK teams competing for the X-Prize who require additional funding. (Government funding of more than 10% would make them ineligible for the X-Prize, but achieving the objective may be more important than winning the prize itself.) Funding these projects--which would cost just a fraction of one year’s BNSC budget--would give the UK a global lead in a new industry.

Other areas that need funding include: additional market research on the space tourism market, and promoting collaboration between space and aviation to develop national (and international) standards, qualifications, training, certification systems, finance, insurance and regulations. The need for such collaboration between two separate industries will probably require reorganisation of the DTI to bring aviation and space interests closer together.

Even a small proportion of the UK government’s space budget spent in these areas would help lay the foundations for an economic space business that would create true value for UK companies and citizens. BNSC has repeatedly refused funding of Bristol SpaceplanesAscender project for many years despite independent studies supporting the viability of the project. The fact that government policy claims to be “aimed at securing, developing and exploiting commercial capabilities in the UK” and yet the BNSC has ignored the commercial potential of space tourism raises serious questions about the management of BNSC.

The BNSC is inviting public consultation on the strategy document, and submissions need to be made by 30 April 2003. Interested readers should consider the true role and effectiveness of government funding of space research and whether or not the draft strategy will produce true economic benefits for the United Kingdom. Completely ignoring a huge potential market, one that is now acknowledged by many people and organisations, does not seem to be a rational use of taxpayers’ money.

At least a small proportion of the nearly £200 million per annum to be spent over the next few years should be devoted to, at the very least, exploring a potential new industry that, if realized, would create real economic value and allow many people to enter space. In addition, by greatly reducing the cost of access to space for all, it would also make it possible to perform a lot more science in space for the same money and move forwards to exploring the solar system.


1. The Cost to Taxpayers of Governments’ Anti-Space Tourism Policy and Prospects for Improvement, Patrick Collins http://www.spacefuture.com/archive/the_cost_to_taxpayer_of_governments_anti-space_tourism_policy_and_prospects_for_improvement.shtml

2. Evaluation of Funding for UK Civil Space Activities: Chapter One: Overarching Report, The Technopolis Group
3. DTI website

4. Evaluation of Funding for UK Civil Space Activities: Chapter Two: DTI Financial Support for UK Civil Space Activity

5. House of Commons, 2000, Trade and Industry – Tenth Report http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199900/cmselect/cmtrdind/335/33502.htm

6. The draft UK space strategy: 2003-2006 and beyond: Space for science, enterprise and environment, British National Space Centre

7. General Public Space Travel and Tourism, NASA-STA 1998, NP-1998-03-11-MSFC

8. Meeting the Needs of the New Millennium: Passenger Space Travel and World Economic Growth, Patrick Collins http://www.spacefuture.com/archive/meeting_the_needs_of_the_new_millennium_passenger_space_travel_and_world_economic_growth.shtml

9. Travel Industry Economics, Cambridge University Press, H Vogel, 2001

10. http://www.bristolspaceplanes.com

Steven Fawkes, BSc DipTechEcon PhD CEng MInstE FBIS, is an energy engineer and energy efficiency specialist whose work has changed the market for energy and utility services in the United Kingdom. He has a life long passion for space flight and has been a member of the BIS since 1975. He has been working to promote space tourism for the last ten years and has published several articles on the subject as well as over 75 papers on energy topics.
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Carol Pinchefsky 10 April 2003
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