To Cooperate or Not to Cooperate? What Is Best For the UK Space Industry

UK Space Sector

Historically, the UK has put more effort into joint space exploration projects but seems to have missed out on its own capabilities. Back at the time of the first Space Race between the US and the USSR, few countries could compete with these giants’ budgets and scientific potential. As the decades went by, though, more states started to catch up.

The UK’s first space programme goes back to the 1970s. A few years later, it was curtailed, and the interest in space did not reemerge until very recently. Now, however, the UK space sector can offer quite a lot — from research and satellite production to rocket building and spaceport construction.

Still, even now, most of the UK space projects rely on foreign workforce and investment. Even as the country prepares to build its own vertical and horizontal launch sites, American space corporations, such as Lockheed Martin and Virgin Orbit, play a huge part in the development process.

International cooperation surely has its upside, but how much should the UK rely on foreign providers?

Problem: Dependence on Foreign Space Organizations

The UK’s reliance on foreign aerospace companies has always been evident. However, few bothered with the situation until very recently. Brexit finally drew attention to the pressing issue of space independence. The UK Space Agency, formed in 2010, has been actively collaborating with the ESA since its foundation. As a result, 90% of the UK’s satellite data is obtained from foreign satellites, where the Galileo system, no longer available after Brexit, is the most obvious example.

The GNSS navigation system has been proposed, but so far, the authorities are not ready to invest in its development. Instead, the UK has pledged to annually fund around £357 million to the ESA projects, including Galileo, over the next five years, instead of investing in its own satellite networks.

At the same time, one should not forget that our dependence on satellites is enormous today. As Nick Shave, chairman of the British space trade association, noted, even a temporary interruption of satellite communications can result in an economic blackout. In this light, relying on 90% of foreign satellite data is an alarming situation, indeed.

Besides, satellite communications are not the only UK space area that relies on foreign tech and budget. To ensure space sovereignty, the UK is looking into spaceport construction. To date, a total of seven spaceport projects are discussed, with Sutherland, Shetland, and Cornwall at the lead in terms of commissioning odds. Ironically, all three top facilities with the highest construction chances are getting ready to host foreign companies. Space Hub Sutherland should become home to Orbex Space, originating from Denmark. A horizontal launch site, on the basis of an already existing Newquay airport — spaceport Cornwall — will have American Virgin Orbit as its main resident.

Shetland Space Centre goes even further since it will be occupied by an American aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. Even though Lockheed Martin UK division has around 20,000 employees, the corporation is still rooted in the US. Lockheed was and still is the major US defence contractor. So, it is not quite clear how the current Technology Safeguards Agreement, enabling American launches from British soil, will benefit the UK’s economy and its budding space industry.

Right now, it looks like TSA will help American aerospace corporations become even richer — with the help of British taxpayers, but with little effect on British launch providers or rocket manufacturers in that matter. It rather seems like the US is simply trying to grow the number of its launchpads at the UK’s expense. 

Solution: Make More Effort for National Space Initiatives

Right now, it looks like the UK is not investing enough in developing its own space industry, which makes the problem solution pretty obvious. As of 2019-2020, the UK Space Agency’s expenditures amounted to approximately £4.5 billion, and only one-third of those funds were spent locally. The other two-thirds went to international contracts and operational costs. So, even if the UKSA cannot increase the actual sums invested, the agency should, at least, reconsider the share it spends on international partnerships.

Speeding up spaceport construction should also be on the list of UKSA priorities. Out of seven currently proposed projects, none has a construction permit so far — even though the initiative goes back to 2014. Speeding up the spaceport construction and eliminating the red tape with permits and licenses is vital if the UK really wants to become a space superpower.

Here, it is equally important to support local aerospace companies instead of foreign organizations like Lockheed Martin. Besides, if the UK is truly to become a sovereign space nation, the country will need more than satellites and launchpads to deploy them. It is equally important to support local rocket manufacturers and innovative aerospace startups.

Right now, Scotland has impressive space potential, as most satellite makers and rocket builders are headquartered in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Still, as we already discussed, not all of these companies are purely local. If the UK were to support more local companies like Skyrora, British investors would be ready to back up the development of the UK space sector with private funds. On the whole, the UK’s progress in the international space market does inspire some hope. At the very least, the authorities understand the importance of relying on local space resources and human talent and are making the first steps to ensure the space sector’s growth. But to really take the lead, the UK must invest more effort and funds into its space industry. Right now, developing its own scientific and spacecraft building experience is the only sure path to gain a competitive edge in the rapidly growing space niche. And, while international collaboration is important, its share should be reduced if the UK truly wants to become an independent space-faring nation.