The British government is expected to make a series of decisions in the next two years to determine its long-term space-spending posture.
Expected reviews in the Parliament, among the U.K. government agencies responsible for space spending, and finally at the European Space Agency (ESA) will go a long way in determining the breadth of Britain’s space involvement in the coming decade.
But unlike some nations, where the space budget is provided to a single agency, in Britain it is 11 separate government departments that feed the British National Space Centre’s annual budget.
For an industry association — the phrase “lobbying group” is considered vulgar — like UKspace, that makes life difficult. It must win support for space programs from government agencies that also have charge of British food and rural affairs policies.
John Auburn, head of the aerospace department at engineering consultancy Vega Group plc, will be on the front line of that effort as the new chairman of UKspace. Auburn’s term lasts for two years. He discussed with Space News staff writer Peter B. de Selding his specific goals for his term.
What is the role of UKspace as you see it?
We want to promote the development of the best possible commercial and political environment for the space sector — not just within the U.K., but also for the export market. Our biggest challenge is to get the public and the media to see the benefits of space investment. It is one of the most sophisticated, high-skilled areas of the U.K. economy and its value is growing. In the next few months we have to make a very good case for space.
What happens in the next few months that is important for Britain’s space sector?
We are facing several important events. There is a parliamentary inquiry under way that is asking fundamental questions about the national space policy, including the benefits of participating in ESA and other international endeavors, and whether the space investment is well-managed by the government.
The inquiry includes a look at whether space is reinforcing the U.K. skills base. Are we encouraging people to take the science and technology courses?
A second coming milestone for us is the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review during which government departments are asked to prove the value of everything they do — not only to justify any budget increases, but to justify everything starting at zero.
And finally we have the next ESA ministerial council meeting in about two years. The U.K. spending review will in many ways prepare for the U.K.’s decisions at the next ESA ministerial.
What are UKspace’s specific goals in terms of funding?
Our goal is to ensure British funding of 30 million pounds ($56 million) per year for ESA’s Artes telecommunications research program. Artes is matched 50 percent by industry funds, so that would give us 60 million pounds per year in telecommunications technology research.
A second goal would be the creation of a national technology program funded at 20 million pounds per year.
How do you like your chances?
The government seems open to our reasoning; our space minister, Lord Sainsbury, has been a consistent supporter. You cannot hope to win much ESA work if you don’t put in your own national investment. The U.K. long ago made a choice: We’re not in manned space, and we’re not in launchers. So we should be fully engaged in those areas we do support, like telecoms research. We have until the end of the year to convince people. Decisions on the Comprehensive Spending Review are to me made next March or April.
Can you point to Artes-related successes in the past?
Artes funding was partly responsible for EADS Astrium winning the Inmarsat 4 mobile communications satellite contract. More recently, Astrium’s Artes-funded work on satellite payload technologies led to the Hylas Ka-band broadband satellite, to be built for Avanti Screenmedia Group for high-speed Internet services. Artes has provided concrete benefits to the U.K. and people need to be made aware of that.
A broad space-based Earth observation program called Global Monitoring for Environment and Security, or GMES, managed by ESA and the European Commission, failed to win much U.K. support at the last big meeting of ESA governments. But British government officials have said this kind of program is what they want to see ESA doing. How do you explain this?
GMES had strong political support at the highest levels of government, where climate change and related issues are a priority. But somehow this support was not reflected in the middle levels of government, where decisions are made program by program. There was a disconnect there.
In failing to support GMES sufficiently, the U.K. also lost the
role of prime contractor for one of the satellites. Is it fair to
say that a more aggressive UKspace might have been able to salvage the situation?
We lost ground on GMES and we at UKspace certainly take some responsibility for this. The budget for GMES was presented to the government’s different departments responsible for space funding much too soon. In particular, DEFRA [the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs], which is one of the agencies funding space, was asked to lead the effort on GMES and was not prepared.
If it happened again, could you avoid a repeat of the GMES problem?
I am not sure a more energetic UKspace would have solved the issues. Some of these problems are structural — the result of not having a space agency. I don’t think we have solved the structural issues.
The British government recently held out until the last minute before agreeing to pay its pro rata share of funding for the Galileo satellite navigation project. Was this political gamesmanship or was there a real risk of a loss of British support?
The risk was real and the support was seriously put into question. The Department for Transport, which is responsible for funding this part of Galileo, had to justify the additional expenditure. Every decision like this is taken seriously.
How do you explain the fact that after all these years, the British public still lacks awareness of the advantages of space investment?
The U.K. is not the United States, and it’s not France. In both those countries space spending seems embedded in the cultures. And of course there are space agencies that are assigned to promote this. We have a different system, and it requires different strategies to make it work.