Editorial: Britain Gets With the Program

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The British government’s plan to create a national space agency is welcome news, even if the aim is not necessarily to increase the amount of funding available for the country’s space activities. Currently the United Kingdom’s focal point for space is the British National Space Centre (BNSC), which coordinates space investments by a dozen government agencies but has no program budget of its own.

By contrast, the national space agency, which British government officials hope to establish before the end of 2010 pending agreement on the scope of the organization’s activities, would have its own budget. The idea is to increase Britain’s clout in dealings with the European Space Agency (ESA). British industry officials suspect that not having a unified space agency with funding behind it hurt the country in negotiations on the distribution of work on the ESA-managed Sentinel environmental monitoring satellites, for example.

The idea behind the BNSC structure, that space programs should be driven by specific user requirements — and funded directly by these users — rather than engineering ambition remains valid. Budgetary and other pressures have led ESA as a whole to migrate toward this philosophy in recent years — the Sentinel program is an example — and this has made it more palatable for the British to buy into the ESA system.

Britain is ESA’s fourth-largest contributor — some 90 percent of its 270 million pounds ($440 million at Jan. 18 exchange rates) in annual space spending goes to the agency — and has significant industrial capability, much of it under the corporate umbrella of Europe’s multinational Astrium company. As a practical matter, increasing Britain’s chances of winning ESA work will generate stronger domestic support for space activity given its potential to create more jobs and, in turn, boost local economies.

That alone is reason enough to create a national space agency. At the same time, such an organization would be better positioned than the BNSC to raise the profile of space both within the government and throughout the country. While the impact this would have is harder to measure, it can only be icing on the cake.