— The British government, which for years has invited other European nations to view its way of funding space programs as the way of the future, is now considering whether to abandon its current approach in favor of a classic NASA-style space agency,
’s space minister announced July 22.

Lord Drayson, Britain’s science and innovation minister, said his office has given itself 12 weeks to consult with the public, industry, academia and other government departments to determine whether the British National Space Centre (BNSC) should have its own budget, as is the case in France, Germany, Italy and at the European Space Agency (ESA), where three-quarters of Britain’s space budget is spent.

“I’m announcing today a public consultation on whether an executive
space agency would be the best means to carry forward our national agenda,” Drayson said July 22 during the inauguration of ESA’s first U.K facility, located at Harwell, Oxfordshire.
“This is the right time … to ask ourselves whether we’re managing the full range of U.K. space activities in the most effective way — [research and development], business growth, environmental monitoring, basic research — and whether, in view of the broad space community, a single body overseeing those activities makes sense,” he said.

Ltd., which is by far
’s largest space company, immediately applauded Drayson’s remarks. Patrick Wood, the company’s chief technical officer, said in a July 22 statement: “Astrium hopes that a
space agency will lead to a greater integration between government, academia and industry,” Wood said. “Space is a major industrial force in the
- turning over 7 billion pounds [$11.44 billion] and supporting nearly 70,000 jobs nationwide – but its contribution is often overlooked.”

British space-hardware companies have long argued that the current British space program funding setup results in less funding than what should be available for Europe’s second- or third-largest economic power, behind Germany and about equal to France.

accounts for 9.6 percent of ESA’s 2009 budget, well behind
(25.4 percent),
(23 percent), and 
(13.1 percent), and not far ahead of
(6.5 percent), which has been increasing its space budget in recent years.
’s civil space budget for fiscal year 2008-2009 was 268 million pounds, up 12 percent over the previous year, according to BNSC figures.

BNSC is not a space agency, but a coordinating body that relies on investment from 10 government departments with widely different mandates. Most ESA missions are funded by voluntary contributions, and for each program BNSC canvasses its funding organizations to determine interest.

The result is that government agencies involved in the environment are asked to pay for an Earth observation satellite. Agencies concerned with technology innovation are asked to fund telecommunications or research programs.

It is a system based on the idea that prospective users of space programs should be willing to pay for them. If they are not, then the programs do not deserve to be funded.
British officials argued that having a “space agency” in the conventional sense would result in expensive programs without any real purpose other than pleasing the engineers that designed and built them.

But in recent years, as ESA and the executive commission of the 27-nation European Union invested in missions with clear applications, the limits of the British system became apparent.

Even when ESA proposed Earth observation satellites as part of the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program being run with the European Commission, which had the strong backing of
, BNSC had trouble collecting the funds needed to assure a prime contractor role for British industry.

ESA and the French, German, Italian and Spanish space agencies meanwhile have moved toward a more user-based space program — including partnerships with private industry to assure that investments have future market potential — while maintaining a core funding source for space programs in general.

made his remarks at the inauguration of ESA’s Harwell facility. ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain agreed to create the center following negotiations during the November 2008 conference of ESA government ministers. At that conference, which set ESA’s budget for the coming years, Drayson said he “struck a deal” with ESA under which the Harwell center would be built and
would invest 82 million pounds in GMES.

Earlier this year, ESA agreed to select a British national as one of six new astronauts despite
’s longstanding refusal to take part in any astronaut-related programs at ESA. ESA and British officials said
made no commitment to ESA in return for the astronaut selection.

The Harwell center will be devoted to Earth science and climate change, and also will investigate new power sources for space missions, including nuclear power, and robotics for future lunar and Mars missions.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.