IoD Breakfast ‘bite’ (Space: Britain’s New Infrastructure Frontier)

The Institute of Directors (IoD) inaugural space breakfast event was based on a paper provided for the event from Dan Lewis, Chief Executive of the Economic Policy Centre.

Dan invited Andy Quinn, Managing Director of Saturn SMS, as a guest to the event as an industry expert to assist in the discussions. On the panel were Alan Bond, Managing Director of Reaction Engines; Dr Philip Lee MP, Executive Vice Chair of the Parliamentary Space Committee; Dan Lewis, Chief Executive of the Economic Policy Centre and IoD author; and IoD Director General Simon Walker. The event was timed to coincide with the 21st anniversary of the first Briton in space – Helen Sharman.

The key findings of this report include:

  • The £8 billion UK space sector employs around 25,000 people, supporting a further 60,000 jobs indirectly. It has more than doubled in size over the last decade, and if job growth continues at the 15% rate of the last few years, employment in the sector will reach 100,000 by 2020.
  • The UK’s space sector came about largely thanks to the benign and unforeseen consequence of the early adoption of satellite broadcasting in this country, allowing the UK to draw on the skills of overlapping world-class aerospace and defence industries. By contrast, the government has had very little to do with it. The UK Space Agency receives all of £313 million in public funding – a mere 0.73% of the combined global space agency budget of $65 billion in 2010 – making the space sector one of the least subsidised parts of the UK economy. l The end of NASA’s Space Shuttle programme is leading to a private sector space revolution, with a host of companies competing to provide space taxi services. Private sector innovation is rapidly lowering the cost of getting cargo into space. SpaceX, for example, already has contacts with NASA worth over $4 billion to launch cargos to the International Space Station and deliver satellites into orbit. Its Falcon 9 vehicle has lowered the cost per kilo to Low Earth Orbit to just over $5,000, compared with between $18,000 and $60,000 for the Space Shuttle.
  • A spaceport would be a key piece of infrastructure for the UK’s space sector, operating as a hub for space tourism, research and development. Space tourists are willing to pay $200,000 for a mere three hours in space, and will have considerable disposable income that would help the wider local economy. The private sector could help fund the costs of a spaceport.
  • A spaceport would have several requirements, including a long runway and its own undisturbed high altitude air corridor, which narrow down the location options. Lengthening the runway of an RAF base in Scotland or Northern Ireland would be a possibility, while the South West of England could represent an alternative prospect.
  • Crucial as a spaceport is, the UK’s space sector needs a proper regulatory framework for journeys out of the atmosphere. Britain has no safety, environmental or flight regulations in place for trips into space. With nothing in place, it’s harder for space pioneers to insure and calculate the cost of setting up – and hopefully clustering – upstream companies that build space hardware and downstream firms that offer space-related services in Britain. Options are being examined for regulatory control of UK-based spaceflight, and it is essential that this moves forward as quickly as possible.
  • Most of the UK’s existing public space funds are channelled via the UK Space Agency to the European Space Agency. Wider international cooperation, particularly with America’s private space entrepreneurs and NASA, could help to bring costs down and tangible results up.
  • In the new space economy, you can be small and succeed. The Isle of Man is an excellent example of a small economy with a thriving space sector, with 30 of the 54 companies working on satellites located on the island, and a cluster of companies handling the financing, insuring, leasing and legal ramifications of space assets. For the UK, there is plenty of scope for further cooperation close to home.

Andy’s comments:

The presentations and discussions were enthusiastic and encouraged debate in terms of lack of media coverage and enquiries as to what the Government is doing about a framework to allow the likes of Virgin Galactic to operate from the UK. The paper hit the mark in the first instance in that the near term goal should be to progress a regulatory framework and indeed the UKSA-UK CAA spaceplane workshop is addressing this issue. Secondly, that a Spaceport is a key enabler for the UK to embrace and develop space-related business and as a future home for suborbital spaceplane operators. ‘Spaceport Scotland’ utilizing RAF Lossiemouth’s base would be a prime site for suborbital operations for example.  Alan Bond provided a summary of the SKYLON project and its potential to bring down the cost of access to space. Dr Phillip Lee from the Space Parliamentary Committee stated his case for Government investing in the Space Industry – we now need this to materialize to move projects such as Skylon and Spaceport Scotland forward.

A part of the infrastructure will be to derive the appropriate regulatory framework for the UK. US-based companies such as XCOR and Virgin Galactic are lobbying for the UK and other countries, such as Spain and Sweden, to adopt the FAA-AST approach of Launch Licensing. This approach incorporates waivers (to the effect that the vehicle has not been certified by the Authorities and that sufficient information has been divulged by the operator to provide space flight participants with an understanding of the safety risks involved). On the other hand companies such as Reaction Engines (Skylon Orbital vehicle) and EADS Astrium (suborbital vehicle) do want their vehicles to be subjected to a certification regime. So this provides for an interesting debate and one that needs to be addressed in the very near future in order to lay the foundations of the selected approach such that design organizations and operators can attract investment. I believe there is a harmonized approach that will suit both antagonists (those for and those against certification) and that this will provide a safer solution whilst not ‘killing’ the industry.

Posted in Andy's updates, Opinion.