In July, Jeff Bezos became the first billionaire in space on a suborbital Blue Origin flight, and next week he plans to beam up Captain Kirk (aka William Shatner). And now, following on from the Space Industry Act 2018 (which is paving the way for UK-based launches), the UK has published its National Space Strategy to help grow the UK as a space nation. The strategy, and in particular a focus on ten key deliverable areas, feels like a strong first step towards realising the UK’s space ambitions, but there is much left unanswered.

The role of Space

Space is a vital contributor to our technology-enabled world, with an ever increasing number of satellite constellations that support navigation and communication, financial transactions, energy transmission, defence and intelligence. Earth observation allows us to better understand climate change, and guides crucial decision-making in our efforts to achieve net-zero. Space is a recognised part of our “Critical National Infrastructure” and without it, much of life as we know it simply wouldn’t work.

The UK Vision

The National Space Strategy identifies five overarching goals, broadly:

  • Growing the UK's space economy by supporting UK businesses operating/investing in the sector
  • Promoting UK values, including by modernising space guidelines to keep pace with new technologies
  • Supporting research and engaging young people
  • Developing space defence capabilities
  • Backing space technologies to improve national infrastructure and tackle global challenges such as climate change.

We have identified some key themes:

1. A viable private sector

  • Role of the private sector: The strategy emphasises the importance of a robust private sector to research, finance and operate space activities. This is welcome: according to analysis by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy the global space economy is projected to grow from an estimated £270 billion in 2019 to £490 billion in 2030, and there are signs that the government is increasingly focused on how to encourage commercial exploitation of this growth sector.

  • Legal framework: Space operations are inherently risky; they have the potential to present significant hazards, both in space and on the earth (e.g. in the event of explosion and problems with launch and orbital paths). An appropriate legal framework is key to mitigate these risks and attract commercial investment. The UK has introduced a legal framework for commercial spaceflight under the Space Industry Act 2018, is tailoring space activity licences, and reviewing operator liability for in-orbit operations, all of which are signs of positive progress, but there is more to do.

  • Funding start-ups: The government is also committing funds to seed space start-ups and spur private investment. The government-owned British Business Bank will invest directly in space companies alongside the private sector through a new £375m 'Future Fund: Breakthrough’ programme.

  • Global partnerships: The government also wants to exploit economies of scale and lower market barriers through existing global partnerships (such as its collaborations with NASA, the European Space Agency and JAXA (the Japanese Space Agency)) and new trade arrangements, such as the UK-Australia Space Bridge which is expected to increase exports by approximately £1 billion.

2. Synergies between civil and defence capabilities

  • Single strategy: Space is recognised as vital to the nation’s security, and the strategy highlights the role the private sector can play in furnishing UK defence capabilities. The strategy brings together UK civil and defence capabilities into a single strategy, directs the UK Space Agency and the UK Space Command to work together, and points to the launch of a civil/defence national space operations centre.

  • New technologies: We can expect large public investments in the acquisition and development of new technologies, such as space domain awareness, space command and control, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). The strategy builds on the commitment to spend in excess of £6 billion over the next 10 years under the UK’s first defence space portfolio (with the majority of funding focused on satellite communications, but a still sizable chunk on new technologies and capabilities). The Defence Space Strategy, due to be published shortly, should provide further detail.

  • ISR satellites: The UK will also develop a small constellation of ISR satellites, and explore opportunities for dual civil and defence use of advanced technologies.

3. Capture the market in commercial small satellite launch

  • Orbital launch capabilities: Finally, the strategy unabashedly singles out orbital launch capabilities as a priority focus. The goal is for the UK to capture the European market in commercial small satellite launch. There are already plans for seven spaceport locations and the UK expects to achieve the first small satellite launch from Europe in 2022.

  • A competitive advantage: This new priority focus is a good and clear commercial proposition. The manufacturing, operation, and maintenance of commercial satellites are well-trodden, and the investment of human capital and resources into orbital launch capabilities should create competitive advantages across the value chain. 

Where to now?

While the strategy reveals some key themes of the government’s general attitude towards the sector it is light on details as to how the goals will be realised. Key points remain to be answered:

  • Funding: As ever, funding (whether private or public, debt or equity) will be critical. The strategy points to the upcoming spending review for the allocation of governmental space budgets. Where and how much is allocated to civil space activities will indicate future areas of focus.

  • Partnerships: There is also a question about the key partnerships that will need to be forged to deliver the ambition - of course with UK industry, but also with other countries.

  • Detail on efforts to encourage investment and reduce barriers to trade and cooperation: The strategy recognises the need to maintain focus and accelerate innovation and development to respond to the increased investment of potential adversaries. However, more clarity is needed on how any future space clusters and bridges will work and how the legal framework will continue to develop to meet future needs.

A genuinely engaged and joined up approach will be needed to maximise the opportunities and to turn that first step into a leap.