Brits in space: “Anyone for a cup of tea?”

The UK is to get its own dedicated space agency. That’s all very well, but what does it mean in practice?

UK space efforts are currently channeled through research councils and various industry bodies, loosely coordinated by a nondescript civil service agency operating out of Swindon known as the British National Space Centre. If you’ve never heard of the latter, that’s because the BNSC is a low-profile organisation with a very limited remit. Most of the UK budget for space research and exploration goes in subscriptions to the European Space Agency, which has an impressive track record and public profile.

Establishing a British space agency may not change the UK’s relationship with ESA, but it will surely have a significant impact on space-related activities conducted within these isles. And by that I mean university and government laboratory-based research, and state support for industrial projects. With tightening belts in the higher education sector – which will soon be subject to cuts as a result of the government’s desire to deal with an astronomically high budget deficit – the concern among space researchers is that their work will suffer at the expense of what are perceived to be politicised projects designed primarily to maximise financial returns to industrial participants.

Time will tell, but for now the government’s announcement may deepen the anxiety of already hard-pressed space scientists and engineers. After all, it’s not as if national space agencies have proved successful throughout Europe. A few of them undoubtedly are, but others have fallen by the wayside. For example, my old institute in Copenhagen, which was at the time answerable directly to government, became the de facto Danish Space Agency, only to be wound up a few years ago, rebranded and subsumed into the Technical University of Denmark.

So what exactly is the justification for a new executive body to manage UK space interests? Major consultation exercise or no, we have yet to be given a convincing reason for the creation of such a centralised and potentially disruptive body.