Ariel 1, the first British satellite, reached orbit 50 years ago. The U.K. Space Agency, on the other hand, is only about 2 years old.

A small executive agency of the British central government, it employs about 40 people on an annual budget of about $400 million. It was cobbled together from the various pockets of the central government that once contributed funds to the now-defunct British National Space Council.

“The key goal is economic growth,” said David Parker, the agency’s No. 2 official. “That is, if you like, our prime directive.”

Parker said the U.K. space sector directly employs around 22,000 people in science or engineering.

The sector has shown resilience amid the sluggish European economy, with average annual growth of 9 percent over the last decade, Parker said.

That is continuing even as some eurozone economies, including Spain and Italy, two key contributors to the European Space Agency (ESA), struggle with debt crises.

Parker, who visited Washington recently for an international space leadership conference, spoke with Space News staff writer Dan Leone.


Can you tell me a bit about the mission of a space agency that neither builds nor operates space hardware?

The U.K. model of space is all about doing it in universities, in industry and in national research laboratories. And it’s not our job to displace them, to become like the French space agency, CNES, with 2,000 people in laboratories doing stuff ourselves. Our job is to help the sector grow organically in the research side and in the industry side.


Can you give an example?

Avanti Hylas, launched a couple of years ago, is a perfect example of what we do. Avanti is a startup telecom operator, a U.K.-based company. We put in, let us say, about $30 million worth of technology money for the payload. On the back of that, they raised more money to build a spacecraft, launch the spacecraft, and operate the spacecraft to provide Internet from space to disadvantaged, inaccessible parts of Europe.


So you’re an economic development engine for the national space sector?

That is one of the primary functions, but the other function is science. Our picture is a joined up story that goes from basic science in space, the technology that enables that, and the commercialization of space technology through to services. It’s kind of a horizontal approach. So everything from missions to Mars, the James Webb Space Telescope, all the way through to a key area, which is the funding and development of novel applications for users that don’t even know it’s got anything to do with space.


Such as?

Well, we don’t do human spaceflight or launches. Where the growth is happening is in applications in space. Integrated applications that might combine satellite navigation with a satellite communications system and maybe some terrestrial data to provide new services like emergency or disaster services because that’s where the economic growth is.

One area we’re particularly interested and strong in is climate science. We’ve had instruments on ESA Earth observation satellites that measure sea surface temperature. We have now a 20-year history of sea surface temperature data showing the trend upward. So we have the capability and the science and the instrumentation. But now the question is: Climate change is happening — what are the implications of that for energy production or agriculture or fisheries? Once you understand the data, how can you turn that into useful information that governments need and even businesses can use? Our supermarkets, they already use weather forecasts to decide whether to stock hot tea or ice cream because of what the weather’s going to be.


Is the U.K. Space Agency a facilitator of international industrial cooperation?

The U.K. is a great place to be a bridge between the European space sector and the U.S. space sector, and the International Space Innovation Centre we have at Harwell, Oxfordshire, is a natural place for organizations that want to set up in Europe. Harwell is where the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory is based; it’s where we have very large science facilities in the U.K. There are 2,000 scientists working in a multidisciplinary environment and 300 of those are in space science. But it’s not so huge that you can’t meet people and interact and develop an understanding of the European space scene and the U.K. space scene by being based there. The European Space Agency has a center there, too.

And despite everything that’s happened financially, remember that the European economy is as big as the U.S. economy. So if you’re only in the U.S. economy, you have the opportunity to double your business by putting a footprint in Europe. You have to have a footprint in Europe to access the ESA market. Just as it’s difficult for U.K. companies to sell to NASA, you have to have a physical footprint somewhere in Europe with real people doing real work if you want to tap into all of the know-how, opportunities, experience and capability that there is in Europe.


Have you pitched that idea to any U.S. companies?

We have talked to various companies, but I’m not going to give any specifics. In many cases they’ll be sort of investment or technology consulting companies looking for capabilities or technologies that could be exploited. In other words, we’re brokering between investors and science and technology people to create new businesses. What we’re trying to do at Harwell is very much about this transfer of science and technology into business. It’s those sorts of companies that are interested in having a footprint in the U.K.


What are some of the big U.S.-U.K. space collaborations going on now?

We’ve delivered the Mid-Infrared instrument for the James Webb Space Telescope. It’s one of the four instruments aboard James Webb. It’s successfully passed its acceptance review and been delivered to Goddard. It’s the instrument that can see farthest back in time. And it will be able to look through the dust and be able to see planetary disks forming around the earliest stars and do some of the sexiest science.

The next space science mission — we’re going to build the spacecraft in the U.K. — is called Solar Orbiter. The $375 million contract for that was signed April 26. NASA is providing a couple of instruments and the launch vehicle for that, which is launching in 2017. That’s going to get very close to the sun so it can look onto the poles of the sun.


Do the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) pose a problem for your agency’s outreach efforts?

Everybody knows ITAR is a problem; it’s no better or worse for any one European country. It’s not a showstopper. We collaborate with NASA all the time. But it’s a U.S. policy and the U.S. has got to decide about that.


Whatever other Euro-American missions there might be in the future, it’s clear by now that the ESA-led ExoMars sample-caching campaign will not be one of them. How is the mission managing now that NASA has officially withdrawn?

I think ESA understands that ExoMars is a very high priority for European member states and a solution has to be found because it’s a steppingstone to further exploration missions. So it’s certainly true that ESA is fully exerting all resources to find the right solution. The discussions with the Russian space agency, Roscosmos have gone very well, and they are getting down to technical-level discussions, which suggests it’s possible to find a good split of responsibilities between Europe and Russia on the projects. Technical problems can almost always be solved. But the financial issues have to be solved, too.


What is your agency’s stake in ExoMars?

We have a $206 million contribution to the ESA part of the budget — that’s out of a total about $1 billion. We’ve also spent about $40 million on the rover, which is the main U.K. technological activity at Astrium Ltd. They have several prototypes of the rover driving around now, demonstrating very sophisticated navigation algorithms and self-location. And we’re doing a lot of technology work beyond ExoMars, preparing for the smarter rovers of the future as well, so it’s been quite an investment. Getting the European rover to the surface of Mars is a key point for us.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.