The space industry has become one of the fastest-growing and most influential mediums of the 21st century. The global space economy was valued at £270 billion in 2019, with an estimated growth of £490 billion by 2030. This rapid growth has opened thousands of new career opportunities across the globe, bringing a healthy dose of financial flux into struggling economies. What seemed like sci-fi only a few years ago has become sober reality – there are thousands of satellites orbiting the lower orbit of the earth, providing worldwide connectivity while the rich and powerful can book a two-way ticket to a joyride into space for a day. No wonder the UK government is taking extreme action to secure a piece of the space pie.
Government plans to make the UK a space superpower
The UK government recently unveiled a new plan that will take Britain into the new age of space travel. Dubbed the UK National Space Strategy, this plan lists the UK’s goals and vision for the next decade. It is supposed to serve as a guideline for future reform.
The UK National Space Strategy document mentions five distinct goals that the government will try to achieve within the present decade.
- Boost the space economy
- Promote UK values
- Stay in the lead of pioneering scientific discovery and inspire the nation
- Protect national interests in and through space
- Delivering space tech to UK citizens
The term ‘Global Britain’ is used several times within the text and refers to the next stage of the British empire – a completely interconnected nation with a stake of over 10% of the global space market. As we know, the UK government has already established sites for several spaceports and satellite construction factories across the country, chiefly in Scotland. The UK National Space Strategy explains how these spaceports will be the stepping stone of the growing satellite construction and launching industry, all catered to in-house.
How did the experts receive the National Space Strategy?
The UK National Space Strategy document was met with mixed reviews hours after it was made available to the public. Many quoted the document as unrealistic dreams of a child-like government, hoping for grandeur dreams without a proper base of operations.
The document relies too heavily on some invisible future funding that will magically appear out of thin air. Currently, the UK space industry generates an estimated income of £14.8 billion per year. Compared to the global space economy, which generated over £270 billion in 2019, the UK space industry has a lot of catching up to do. The wording in the document is simply too vague, relying mostly on re-hashed phrases such as ‘boosting,’ ‘level-up,’ and ‘global’ to create a sense of accomplishment without giving concrete examples. The implementation chapter of the strategy, for example, starts with a detailed timeline of the four phrases, termed rather exquisitely as ‘countdown phase,’ ‘ignition phase,’ ‘thrust phase,’ and ‘orbital phase.’ Clever use of aeronautical terms. This timeline shows how the strategy will function through the current decade and beyond.
- ‘countdown phase’ (the next three months);
- ignition phase’ (the next year);
- ‘thrust phase’ (2023–30);
- ‘orbit phase’ (2030 and beyond).
While a detailed timeline might seem like a helpful guide at first, the reality is that every industry needs to be flexible with its planning in lieu of delays, mistakes, critical faults, etc. Unfortunately, the governmental document makes no mention of delays or, as some would put it, ‘plan B’.
All jokes aside, many experts have pointed out that the strategy fails to mention specific funding numbers and future capital investments into the British space industry. The only time an actual number is quoted is regarding the Defense Space Portfolio – £5 billion over 10 years in satellite communications and £1.4 billion in other space technologies and capabilities. The sad reality is that as of 2021, only a handful of larger companies can actively contribute to British space exploration. Except for UK tech startups OneWeb, Skyrora, or Alba Orbital, there aren’t any large players currently active in the field.
According to Juliana Suess, Research Analyst for RUSI, the lack of detail is concerning, hinting at an exercise display on one of the hottest global topics.
What is the Scottish Space Strategy?
Not to be left behind, the Scottish government has issued their own document, thus named the Scottish Space Strategy. The document describes in some detail the Scottish mission for the next decade — collaborating to make Scotland the home of New Space. Scotland has made some investments into its space program recently with its very own Sutherland spaceport, which is planned to be the first spaceport of the United Kingdom capable of launching small satellites into orbit.
Similar to the UK National Space Strategy, the Scottish Space Strategy document lists five goals that the government will work towards achieving by 2030:
- Making a yearly contribution to the Scottish economy of £4bn.
- Growing the workforce by five times the current level.
- Becoming a strategic location and a European leader for commercial space tech.
- Managing a range of launch services, becoming an internationally recognised space hub.
- Creating a diverse workforce and making space accessible to all.
While humbler than the UK document, the Scottish government aims to become one of the largest satellite manufacturers and launchers in Europe. However, when reading the document, one can meet similar red flags and problems as with the UK National Space Strategy – lack of concrete funding plans. The only redeeming quality of the Scottish strategy is the mention of its plan to boost the economy with some 20,000 new job openings within the space sector by 2030 by partnering with private enterprises. Only time will tell if this strategy will succeed or if it will be just a puff of hot air.
What’s wrong with the UK’s space ambition?
While the strategy illustrates some good points, such as the people’s ambition and current levels of space tech being developed in-house, it fails on multiple fronts to explain how the government plans on supporting this grand expansion. As you read through the document, the Global Britain term pops up like some dystopian Empire-esqe meme. But at least the Empire from Star Wars had billions of credits as funding and could facilitate a galactic expansion. On the other hand, the UK lacks both domestic and foreign funding. In fact, roughly 80% of all British space industry funding comes from foreign investors, such as NASA. The UK National Space Strategy mentions several times that it wants the country to be a self-sufficient space ecosystem, with most funding coming from inside. But, as we can see, there is a lack of interest from domestic investors. Should the UK dispose of its NASA funding, where would the money for a space expansion come from?
To sum up
When all is said and done, both the UK and Scotland have large plans set in motion for the future of their respective space industries. Large plans with little substance, as of now. Both documents fail to make concrete mention of funding that will support the space industry, relying only on tired clichés and phrases. Only time will tell whether anything mentioned will go as planned.