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February 3, 2022updated 30 Mar 2022 9:56am

Reach for the stars: The UK’s post-Brexit race to space

The UK space industry has unique strengths. Whether the government's strategy can take it beyond the stratosphere is another matter.

By Greg Noone

The OneWeb executives watched nervously from mission control as their rocket blazed into the grey skies above Kourou, French Guiana. Nestled inside the Soyuz ST-B’s bulbous fairing were six of the company’s satellites, the first of 648 it planned to launch into low Earth orbit. Together they would form a constellation capable of providing high-speed internet anywhere on the planet below, at costs competitive enough to render terrestrial connection alternatives obsolete.

Just over a year later, OneWeb filed for bankruptcy protection in a New York courtroom. By then, the company had successfully launched 74 satellites into orbit. Financing, however, had proven difficult to secure, a situation that worsened with the onset of the pandemic. Eager to sell, OneWeb’s executives began knocking on the doors of as many buyers as they could. One of them belonged to the British government.

“We said, we have a global asset that would put Britain on the map, give you the connectivity you need going forward,” OneWeb’s head of government relations Chris McLaughlin would later tell Sky News. “Are you going to wake up one morning and discover it has been bought by the US, Canada, China or [the] EU?”

McLaughlin and his team may not have realised they were preaching to the choir. OneWeb’s proposal meshed perfectly with the UK government’s broader strategy for nurturing the country’s space sector, and likely appealed to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Periclean penchant for expensive infrastructure projects. OneWeb obtained not only a £400m bailout but also Johnson’s personal assistance in securing additional funding from India’s Bharti Enterprises.

Many at the time were confused as to what benefit there was for the taxpayer in rescuing an ailing satellite company. Since then, however, advocates of the sale feel vindicated. OneWeb has attracted billions of pounds of new investment – enough to dilute Whitehall’s controlling share to just 24% – and unveiled plans to build its future satellites in the UK. “I think if they wanted to sell their stake today, you would see an amazing return on it versus when they entered,” says Richard Franklin, managing director of defence and space at Airbus UK, a close partner of OneWeb’s.

Indeed, the government’s National Space Strategy hails OneWeb’s rescue as contributing toward ‘making the UK a world leader in space,’ a goal that will lead to huge benefits for the economy and society at large in areas including communication, navigation and near-Earth observation. Even so, “it’s very hard to put your finger on any particular strategy that is being promoted within that document,” says Sa’id Mosteshar, director of the London Institute of Space Policy and Law (ISPL.) Little can be found, he says, on what money will be invested where, or which sub-sectors it wishes to augment.

Similar uncertainty clouds the UK’s future in space. The government has said it aims to capture 10% of the global space economy for the country by 2030. And while it may be argued that making a corner of outer space forever England would suit the country’s soft power aspirations, it still remains unclear whether Whitehall has what it takes to launch the British high-tech companies into the stratosphere – and beyond.

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uk space strategy

A OneWeb rocket carrying 36 satellites being prepared for launch in Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia. (Photo by Sergei Savostyanov/TASS via Getty Images)

OneWeb and the UK’s space strategy

Even so, the UK still punches above its weight when it comes to space, says Carissa Christensen. Not only does the country possess an enviable high-tech research and manufacturing sector, with significant strengths in advanced computing and engineering, but also world-class universities producing talent in all these areas year after year. As such, adds the CEO of BryceTech, “the UK has been a significant player in the space economy for a long time in various ways,” both attracting big-name satellite and aerospace companies Airbus and Thales Alenia Space to its shores while cultivating homegrown firms such as Sky and Inmarsat.

Such firms are the vanguard of a much wider hive of high-tech manufacturing and research activity within the UK economy generating £16bn a year and supporting 46,000 jobs. About 3,500 of those are at Airbus, explains Franklin. “That’s a mixture of services, small satellites, large telecoms, exploration, and the military side,” he says. “We’re across a number of domains, so it really does drive a lot of R&D.”

The UK government also spends less on space, as a proportion of the country’s GDP, than its nearest competitors in space, France and Germany. “On the one hand, you can argue that that indicates the UK should spend more,” says Christensen. France, for example, already has an advanced, heavy launch capability at its facility in Kourou. On the other hand, given the UK’s innate strengths in R&D, its smaller state-led contributions “maybe indicates [it] is getting good value out of what it is spending.”

The creation of a national space agency, together with the UK government’s promotion of a native launch capability, also shows its seriousness of intent when it comes to space argues Christensen. “There are very few nations that can conduct launches from their own shores,” she says. While the UK is so far concentrating on creating small, commercial spaceports, their very existence will prove central in defining its identity as a spacefaring nation.

It’s also likely to make it very attractive to US customers, says Christensen. The federal government in particular could prove a wellspring of new contracts. Responsible for roughly half of total global expenditure on space-based enterprises, Washington is likely to see the UK as an attractive alternative launch site, particularly given its status as one of the US’ closest allies. Even without the benevolence of Washington, the UK space sector has attracted huge investment, placing the country third behind the US and China in international rankings.

Much of that money has, admittedly, has been driven by OneWeb. Even so, the company’s long-term success is far from assured. Although the promise of satellite internet has seen billions invested in companies including OneWeb, the demand for such services over and above terrestrial alternatives has not been proven beyond doubt. “There is no certainty that those are going to be financially successful businesses,” says Christensen.

It’s also a crowded marketplace. While OneWeb has argued that its goal has been to act as a platform for private and public intermediaries to provide communications services, Mosteshar says that there’s little stopping SpaceX’s Starlink from doing the same. What’s more, the US company’s planned constellation of 42,000 micro-satellites is set to dwarf OneWeb’s comparatively modest fleet of 648 (it remains unclear when they'll be fully operational.) “I think [OneWeb] will struggle in the market,” Mosteshar says.

The ISPL professor views any boosterism of the UK’s current space industry with scepticism. “The space economy in the UK is tiny,” says Mosteshar. Its potential, he adds, has been consistently linked to the pace of its expansion, which began from an exceedingly small base. It is also, he says, overly optimistic to think hundreds of international companies will flock to the UK to join its burgeoning space sector, which he considers unlikely to happen absent of new and sizeable tax breaks. “It slightly reminds me of Virgin Galactic,” says Mosteshar. “It’s been ‘next year’ for over a decade [as to] when they’ll be bringing space tourism to people.”

uk space strategy

The future site of the SaxaVord Space Port on the Isle of Unst, in the Shetland Islands. At least two suborbital launches are planned for later this year, along with one orbital mission. (Photo courtesy of SaxaVord)

Launching pads

Scott Hammond doesn't want to wait another year. As COO of SaxaVord Spaceport (formerly Shetland Space Centre), Hammond has already invested considerable time liaising with scientists, industry inspectors, lawyers and local council officials to get the facility off the ground. Located on a former RAF base on the Isle of Unst, the facility – which will include three launch pads, all catering for commercial rockets up to 30 metres tall – will have to receive planning permission from Shetland Council in a couple of weeks’ time, says Hammond. But that’s small fry compared to the other design and regulatory questions it’s been wrestling with up to this point.

“When we started to design the spaceport, there were no regulations,” says Hammond. “How do you design anything if you don’t know what you’re designing against?”

By prioritising safety above all other concerns, SaxaVord settled on Unst as the ideal location for a spaceport, in that launches could be made away from any major population centres (it also has, says Hammond, surprisingly good transport infrastructure left over from the heyday of North Sea oil.) It also meant, though, obtaining additional permissions from Marine Scotland as well as the Icelandic and Norwegian governments, should any rocket stages fall into their territorial waters. There were also no specific UK safety regulations for launch pads when SaxaVord began their planning work, forcing it to copy best practices from CFR 420, the FAA guidance for US commercial launch operators.

This strategy seems to be paying off – in 2020, the UK Space Agency approved Lockheed Martin’s proposal to move its UK Pathfinder Rocket program from Sutherland Space Centre to Unst, with its first launch scheduled for later this year. This will be preceded by two suborbital missions, says Hammond. It is Pathfinder’s orbital launch, however, that has enjoyed the most support from Whitehall, says Hammond, “particularly the prime minister. That’s the one that’s really exciting to him.”

Hammond envisions SaxaVord operating like a commercial airport, with launches scheduled to neat, hourly timeslots. It’s the kind of missing link that the UK government envisions will turn the country into a spacefaring nation. For his part, Mosteshar is sceptical that the economy can sustain so many spaceport projects at once. While he concedes that SaxaVord’s endeavour is the most advanced out of the seven, “we don’t even have our own launchers as yet,” he says.

Will the UK meet its goal of capturing 10% of the world’s space economy? Hammond likes to think so. “I don’t think it’s an unrealistic target, but it is very, very challenging,” he says. In his view, the government needs to concentrate on loosening existing constraints on launching from the UK. Hammond imagines a nightmare scenario of a US firm booking a launch slot in Shetland six months in advance, only to wait 18 months for a license to do so. “They’ll go elsewhere,” he says.

They could go to Andøya, an existing spaceport that the Norwegian government is helping to upgrade to handle orbital launches. The UK government needs to be just as savvy about funding worthwhile launch sites, says Hammond. While the National Space Strategy mentions the possibility of grants, it’s not money that SaxaVord has yet seen. “We’d love some,” says Hammond, although “it’d be far better for them to give us contracts,” he adds. Having Whitehall as a reliable commercial partner rather than a financial donor, argues Hammond, is a more reliable way of seeing that assistance filter down into the wider economy.

For Franklin, the issue is speed. While he's heartened by the enthusiasm the government has shown for space in recent years, "the UK needs to accelerate what it's doing," he says. After all, adds Franklin, it's been a decade since Whitehall made its first, tentative commitment to developing a national launch capability. In that time, SpaceX developed its own reusable rocket that's now being used to resupply the International Space Station. The government needs to show similar ambition, says Franklin, "driving national programmes to build capability, that then leverages off and creates the entrepreneurial networks and spin-offs that can drive exports."

All this requires sufficient will from Whitehall. On this front, Christensen is cautiously optimistic. Simply put, the soft power advantages conferred by an active space sector are too alluring for the government to ignore. As well as granting the country access and influence over the types of systems that undergird global communication, it also augments “the disproportionate diplomatic influence and access that the UK has globally,” says Christensen. That’s going to be important as the space economy expands and the skies grow ever-more crowded. Inevitably, new problems will arise over how best to manage global space traffic – problems that, if the right decisions are made, the UK and British business will have a role in helping to solve.

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