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To Boldly Go - But On A Tight Budget
by Staff Writers
London, UK (SPX) Dec 02, 2010


Britain's space experts are keeping their fingers crossed that their Pounds 250m a year budget won't fall victim to the public spending cuts. Dr David Williams, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, tells Dean Carroll why the sector is such good value for money and how it could help create thousands of jobs

Despite the refusal of successive British governments to get involved in the expensive arena of manned space flight, the UK is hoping a renewed strategic focus in the sector can help to create an extra 100,000 jobs over the next decade.

Charged with leading the push for growth is the first chief executive of the revamped UK Space Agency, an organisation previously known as the British National Space Centre. Describing the transformation in process, Dr David Williams insists it is more than a rebranding exercise.

"Government has recognised that space is an essential part of the infrastructure of the UK. The primary role of the new agency is bringing together the budgets on the civil side that allow us to maintain the technical competence in space technologies," he says.

"It wasn't happening in quite the same way before, it used to be a partnership and the money was split between various organisations which effectively made their own independent decisions on which programmes to enter. Our role now is one of strategic oversight to control what is happening. There is no additional investment in the short term, the existing spend on space will stay at around Pounds 250m a year."

At least Williams hopes it will when the coalition government announces its plans in the Comprehensive Spending Review this autumn. He is right to be confident though, space has been exempt from the worst effects of previous economic down-turns.

This is, partly, because contracts entered into with European Space Agency (ESA) partners usually stretch over a decade or more of spending commitments.

Such expense is justified, says Williams, by the rapid growth of private sector companies like Astrium, Surrey Satellite and Virgin Galactic - spurred on by expertise and funding from the public sector. Indeed, the crossover between business and the state when it comes to space is reminiscent of the close cross-sector links seen in the defence industry.

Some 70,000 people already work in the British space industry. Trade bodies claim that the sector could grow from the current Pounds 6bn a year to Pounds 40bn annually, given the right incentives and encouragement by ministers. Williams, too, is optimistic.

"It is a realistic goal that we will strive for - only time will tell but growth has remained impressive throughout the last 10 years," he says.

"We are on the right trajectory and that is why government is behind us. If you don't have ambitions, then you don't get along the road."

In April next year the agency will open the Pounds 40m Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, in Oxfordshire. The central hub is designed to bring together academics and business, with site offices being rented to the private sector, in order to hone new opportunities and technologies while connecting electronically with other space campuses in Leicester, Surrey and Nottingham.

Although Pounds 5m of the funding was due to come from the now abolished South East England Development Agency, Williams is adamant that enough investment already exists to go ahead. But he does admit to concern over how future funding will be managed without regional development agencies.

"There is sometimes the feeling that the government is London and big business-centric, but we have to keep in contact with the regions as it were," he insists. "You don't just chop everything off; you make sure that valid projects maintain their funding. Local councils and businesses must have more say. There are groupings that exist that need to come into play."

As a former university lecturer and research scientist, you detect a note of disappointment in Williams' voice as he talks of the failure of the UK to enter into manned-space flight. He maintains the government line that this would be too expensive and, instead, tries to focus on other ESA successes like the Herschel Space Observatory.

It recently produced an image of the universe 3.7 billion light years ago and is seen as a key scientific breakthrough.

"Where the country has been involved in programmes, it has always been at a good level - areas like the climate, earth sciences and the universe as well as telecommunications and navigation; the UK has done its share, we have done well," says Williams, who is also chairman of the ESA Council - its governing body.

"What we haven't done is enter the manned programme or the International Space Station so we are below other countries when it comes to total spend, but that is a choice by successive governments not an accident. A lot of our effort in space exploration is now going into rovers, robots and remote technologies."

Astronauts aside, there may yet be a mass of British citizens going into orbit as space tourism develops - with firms like Virgin in the vanguard.

"There are some regulation issues we will have to deal with because of the safety aspect, but space tourism will come in the next three years," says Williams.

"Although it will remain at the top end of the expense market to begin with, history has shown us that those things that were possible a generation ago for only a few people are now possible for everybody - and that could eventually be the case with space travel. It is inevitable, but the timeline is difficult to unravel."

With the agency now having lift-off, it is clear that Williams is destined to complete his organisation's mission of job creation and technological excellence - albeit on a restricted budget.

related report
Space projects "prevent weaponisation"
The chief executive of the UK Space Agency claimed joint space programmes between nations could be used as a blueprint for global diplomacy in other sectors.

"I hope we never have to worry about the weaponisation of space and the one thing the International Space Station has done is bring together Russia, America, Europe and Japan into a cooperative programme where there is interdependency that creates peaceful relations in the same way as you get trade interdependency, " said Williams.

But two years ago, China deliberately exploded one of its satellites - creating concern among some commentators who felt it could be the beginning of another 'star wars' strategic defence initiative - similar to that pursued by US President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. ; "China wanted to test the idea of taking out satellites in orbit and it created enormous space debris, which was a problem," said Williams.

"There is a constant discussion about this and everyone agrees that space should remain weapon-free. The problem, of course, is that if you use a bomb-type weapon - you take out yourself as well as the opposition so there is a self-regulating mechanism there. It would be difficult to be selective. My view is that space should remain a non-weapon area as it were.

"I don't think rogue states would be able to develop the technology anyway. Building a launcher that can actually get into space is still a bigger challenge than most people realise. It can still only be done by a handful of states and it is very difficult to do successfully so there is a technology barrier."


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