National programme needed to boost UK spaceport

As the countdown to Major Peake’s return to Earth on June 18 begins, the Commons Science & Technology Committee has warned that his Principia mission must be a call to action and a catalyst to drive the UK’s development of a national space programme and spaceport.

The Spaceport will enable take-off and landing of reusable space vehicles, such as Skylon and Virgin Galactic.
In July 2014, the UK Government announced its intention to build a Spaceport, which will enable take-off and landing of reusable space vehicles.

The UK is recognised as a world leader in small satellites, but a lack of ‘flight heritage’, due to a dearth of flight opportunities, risks holding back development, according to the Commons Science & Technology Committee.

The MPs recommend that the Government swiftly addresses the missing piece in the UK’s space ambitions and establishes a national space programme, sitting alongside the UK’s existing contributions to the European Space Agency.

Chair of the Science & Technology Committee, Nicola Blackwood MP commented: “For the last six months, attention has rightly been focused on Major Tim Peake and Britain’s role in human space flight.

“But it’s important to remember that our space and satellite SMEs also need to access space, usually via unmanned missions, in order to test the innovative products they’ve been developing, like the small satellites used to observe the changing biology of the oceans. Without this ‘flight heritage’, space SME’s struggle to get their ideas out of the lab and successfully commercialised.”

“The UK has, so far, only taken small steps towards launching a national space programme that would enable our innovative space and satellite industries to get the ‘flight heritage’ they need.

“Now is the time to take a confident leap towards that goal and build on the foundations of the National Space Technology Programme.”

UK spaceport

Nicola Blackwood MP, chair, Science & Technology Committee.
Nicola Blackwood MP, chair, Science & Technology Committee.

According to Blackwood, the Government’s plans for a UK spaceport will help “keep the UK at the forefront of developments in spaceplane technology, describing it as a “bold ambition” which now requires “solid action”.

The MP continued: “The Government’s technical requirements for the spaceport have focused on establishing a horizontal launch capacity for suborbital flights, without a vertical launch capacity.

“These narrow parameters risk limiting the use, and value, of the spaceport to the space and satellite industry. The Government must urgently set out the rationale, and evidence, for its spaceport proposals.”

UK space sector awareness

Despite a distinguished history, excellence in R&D and innovation, and impressive economic growth figures, the Committee heard that awareness of the UK’s space and satellite sector was worryingly low.

An artists' rendering of the world's all-electric propsulsion satellite, ABS-3A, on-orbit and operating in space - image courtesy of Boeing
While DEFRA was singled out as a ‘trail-blazer’ for using satellite data to assist with flood modelling and response, other Departments were lagging behind. – image courtesy of Boeing.

While the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was singled out as a ‘trail-blazer’ for using satellite data to assist with flood modelling and response, other Departments were lagging behind.

It recommends that the Government does more to stimulate awareness – especially among business – through using satellite data, and other ‘space-enabled services’, to help it achieve more effective, and efficient, policy delivery.

Blackwood concluded: “Over the last decade, the UK has built on its internationally-excellent space science research base, and its industrial expertise, to deliver impressive economic growth figures across the space sector, outstripping the economy as a whole.

“The target to grow the UK’s share of the global space market to 10% by 2030 highlights the continuing drive and ambition running through the industry.

“Further growth, however, risks being undermined by the worrying lack of awareness of this success story. Businesses that sit outside of the traditional space sector could benefit from using space services and satellite data, yet they don’t know these opportunities exist.

“The space and satellite industry must become more outward looking and engage with other sectors. The Government should to lead the way by ensuring that satellite data is applied much more widely to help it achieve effective, and efficient, policy delivery.”