Report from The Strategic Choices for Space – President’s Conference 2014


Hosted by the Royal Aeronautical Society in London during 8-9th October, the underlying conference theme was the commercial exploitation of space in the UK and worldwide.

The conference opened with an explanation of why satellites and commercial applications of space was chosen as one of the “eight great technologies” to rebalance the UK economy, motivated by the financial crises of recent years. This is due to the recognition of the sector’s strong performance throughout a dark period of UK economics – it grew by an average of 9% per year through the period 1999-2007, in 2007 generating revenues of £5.6B for the UK economy, supporting 19,100 jobs. The target is by 2030 to capture 10% of the predicted £400B worldwide market, supported by up to 100,000 jobs. To support this, the Satellite Applications Catapult has been established with the intention that it accelerate the development of the satellite application industry, while a business incubation centre has been established at ESA Harwell.

The UK government’s backing of the sector was reflected in attendance and in participation. Greg Clark, MP, gave a keynote address on The UK Government Position on Space. Dr Alice Bunn, UK Space Agency Director of Policy, was asked the question: What was the reaction of the UK space industry to centers such as ESA Harwell and the UK Space Agency being established outside of London, and what was used to mitigate it?

Her response was: The UK Space industry reacted positively to the establishment of UK Space Agency and ESA Harwell outside of London, the industry itself is quite distributed around the UK. The UK works on a ‘hub and spoke’ model whereby centres with a critical mass of organisations, such as at Harwell with the Satellite Applications Catapult, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and ESA’s ECSAT, can act as a focus for the community but also link to wider capability within the UK. The UK Space Agency is collocated with the Research Councils and with Innovate UK, forming another critical mass. The links with London remain essential on central policy issues but the community recognises that there are benefits of locating outside London, not least because expansion is usually easier outside central London

The panelists at the Conference / Credits: Jack Scott-Reeve

The panelists at the Conference / Credits: Jack Scott-Reeve

The UK spaceport (location currently undecided) was discussed in several talks and panels. It was highlighted that as the space tourism industry has nott really got going yet, and as the UK has no vehicle available for any sort of space launch, the spaceport is essentially a figurehead. Nevertheless, it is demonstrating that the UK is serious about space. Practically speaking, there will likely be environmental lobbies creating an obstacle to the realisation of the spaceport, judging by recent troubles getting simple high speed rail networks and airports expanded.

There were several mentions of Major Timothy Peake, the first UK ESA astronaut. Currently the UK Space Agency is figuring out to get the most use of him for the purposes of outreach – inspiring the target future 100,000 space industry workers is crucial. Interestingly, he did not become an ESA astronaut with any UK governmental sponsorship – he did this under his own motivation and route, quite different from most astronauts. A retired UK astronaut, Helen Sharman, participated in multiple space panels.

Reaction Engines, perhaps the crown jewel business of the UK space industry, had a strong presence. Richard Varvill, Technical Director, gave the latest update on Skylon and the enabling technology, SABRE. It aims to drastically bring down launch costs through SSTO, reusability, increasing reliability, reducing turnaround and generally upsetting the status quo of rockets. Some of the target Skylon performance metrics are 200 reuses, 1 in 20000 loss rate and 48 hour turnaround. They have completed over 700 SABRE rig tests (including many tests on their crucial 400MW precooler), are nearly one year into their 5 year full engine development cycle and have received further industry investment. More money and time will be needed before we see a Skylon flight but everything is proceeding well for the moment.

The space industry may grow to 600 Billion USD in ten years / Credits: Jack Scott-Reeve

The space industry may grow to 600 Billion USD in ten years / Credits: Jack Scott-Reeve

Recognition was given to the gap between today and realisation of a Skylon model 10 years in the future. The question was postulated, “Will the lack of launchers put other elements of the UK space industry in a bad position?” It is conceivable that if a cheap small satellite launcher was realised in the US, it may be more appealing to source small satellites in the US as well, with the impact of eroding SSTL’s lead of the small satellite market. Looking to the past, the painful memory of the Black Arrow was discussed. Seeming incredibly foolish with hindsight, the UK is the only nation to develop a satellite launch capability and then abandon it. A range of rocket launcher parts are still manufactured in the UK, but much of the knowledge required simply isn’t present in the heads of current UK engineers. Given the established market for small satellites, and benefits of launch independence, a short/mid term launch capability is a desirable prospect.

Virgin Galactic updates were given by Jonathan Firth, Senior VP. On paper Virgin Galactic is a British company, but in reality it only operates in the US, and by necessity its employees must be US citizens and comply with ITAR regulations. Competing with numerous players to be the first providers of commercial suborbital flights, they have been plagued by pushbacks of schedule. However further system qualifications are expected to be achieved imminently. The LauncherOne system was discussed, targeting to affordably deliver small payloads of 225kg to Low Earth Orbit or 120kg to Sun Synchronous Orbit. The focus of bringing costs and turnaround time down will be achieved by using the WhiteKnightTwo and developing the NewtonOne rocket motor models. The benefits of good weather, clean air space and one mile altitude were highlighted as reasons in the selection of the Mojave spaceport. Jonathan closed by stating that, the hangar door is open, poised for operation, much to the delight of the audience.

Military threats and cyber security were problems addressed with potential solutions. Theft of hard-wrought technological gains was also discussed. The nature of the space industry’s long investment cycles and high barrier to entry makes it an exceptionally high rewarding target. Some of the inherent vulnerabilities include cultures of collaboration, multi-national teams and complex supply chains.

The NASA administrator, Charles Bolden, gave an inspirational talk on “the golden age of international cooperation in space exploration”, detailing how NASA is supporting the US commercial space industry, international partnerships to realise the ambitious Mars exploration plans. Credit was given to President Obama for taking the risk with commercial space industry developments. The potential of 3D printing was acknowledged to enable future deep space missions to be constructed in Low Earth Orbit. NASA is particularly excited about the Orion test in December, as it will test some of the critical systems that are required for a mission to Mars. He likened it to a new frontier, drawing comparisons to the US breaking away from Britain.

Gerry Webb, General Director of CST, was able to shed some light on developments in the Russian space industry. He explained how business is continuing relatively normally, despite current political tensions. They look poised to undertake a Mars mission of their own – with a $52B investment, consolidation of the space sector, a 100 ton to LEO launch capacity planned, and the phrase “New Worlds, New Missions” found on their technical documents.

In his closing statement Dr David Parker, Chief Executive of UK Space Agency posed the question, Where are our space billionaires?, contrasting the UK with the recent surge of US private space companies. David Williams, CEO of Avanti Communications, remarked that he has no trouble raising billions of capital for satellites in the US, but it is difficult in the UK. Not all of the corridors of power in the UK are convinced of the financial viability of space. For now everything space in the UK is new and exciting. New space agency, new business innovation centre, new astronaut, new engine, new spaceport…..I hope that it is possible to sustain this momentum.

( thanks Mr. Jack Scott-Reeve for contributing this report)


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