Editorial | Britain Steps Up in Space

by

The lead-up to the European Space Agency (ESA) ministerial meeting Nov. 20-21 in Naples, Italy, had been dominated by the twin palls of key member states in financial crisis and an impending clash between France and Germany over launcher investment priorities. But that was before Britain crashed the party with a welcome bit of unqualified good news: a pledge to increase its annual investment in ESA by 25 percent for the next five years. The Nov. 9 announcement by George Osborne, U.K. chancellor of the exchequer, was a huge surprise given the fact that Britain has been dialing back spending in so many other areas.

Mr. Osborne credited David Willetts — as minister for universities and science, Willetts will lead the British delegation to the pivotal ESA conference, which will set agency spending priorities for the next several years — with making the case that increased investment in space will have a multiplier effect on the nation’s economy while boosting international competitiveness. Having been thus convinced, he agreed to increase the United Kingdom’s annual investment in ESA to 301 million euros ($383 million) per year through 2017, which will place the country fourth behind France, Germany and Italy as ESA’s biggest contributors.

In what appears to be a quid pro quo, ESA will be moving its telecommunications directorate from the European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, Netherlands, to Britain’s ESA facility in Harwell. ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain said Britain’s planned investment will promote growth in Europe’s space industry at large, and that the country is now poised to take a leadership role in key sectors.

Advertisement

Not bad for a country that just a few years ago didn’t even have a funded space agency. Until April 2010, British space spending was spread across several government agencies, with coordination provided by the British National Space Centre. The establishment of the U.K. Space Agency with its own budget signaled Britain’s intent to become a bigger player in ESA and to stake claim to a larger share of agency spending for its domestic industry.

The U.K Space Agency is expected to focus its increased investment primarily on telecommunications-related programs, which makes sense given Britain’s industrial capabilities in this area. This is in keeping with the nation’s traditional focus on the practical side of space activity.

As Mr. Osborne so aptly put it: “We are now at a watershed, where space is transitioning from a celebration of science endeavors into a capability that impacts our everyday lives.”

Those who work in the space industry have long recognized that concept as a truism. But to see it accepted and acted upon by a senior government official who carries the power of the purse is a true sign of progress; kudos to Mr. Willetts for being able to make a compelling case in these highly challenging fiscal times.

Budgetary clouds promise to hang heavily over the ESA ministerial conference, with competing — and possibly incompatible — agendas to be debated. The ministers will have their hands full, particularly when it comes to resolving differences between Germany, which wants ESA to invest in an Ariane 5 upgrade, and France, which would rather skip the upgrade and proceed directly to a brand new vehicle dubbed Ariane 6.

But Britain, by bringing in new money to back its more-limited agenda, should draw nothing but applause from other ESA members.