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Blog

On Her Majesty’s Space Service

Minister_Chris_Scolese_Appleton.JPG
Agency men: Drayson and Scolese (Courtesy: RAL)

By Hamish Johnston

The UK’s science minister Paul Drayson was licensed to thrill yesterday when he turned up at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory to announce that the UK will set up its own executive space agency. Lord Drayson hinted that it might be called “Her Majesty’s Space Service”, and said it would provide “a unified approach to ensure the UK gains a bigger share of the global space market”.

Drayson was speaking to researchers at the 5th Appleton Space Science Conference, and the announcement was met with warm applause. Not surprising, because space scientists have been waiting at least 20 years for the news!

Space science funding is currently done by six government departments and two research councils — and it is not clear whether the new agency will coordinate these activities, or take over funding altogether.

However, Drayson was very clear that the overall spend on space science research will not change. And he was also adamant that the UK space community has long been at a disadvantage for not having an executive agency to negotiate its participation in international projects.

Although the UK is a leader in space science and technology, the government had not been particularly keen on space. The country has shunned manned space missions and the 1986 Space Act makes it very difficult for a private company to launch anything into space from British soil. The reason, believe it or not, is that firms cannot afford adequate insurance to comply with the indemnity requirements of the act.

But then Gordon Brown came to power in 2007 — and apparently Brown loves space science, or so I was told by a leading space scientist at the post-conference drinks reception. It seems that when Brown was Chancellor of the Exchequer he asked his minions to identify up-and-coming industry sectors and guess what was at the top of the list?

Indeed, in his speech Drayson said that 20,000 Britons are employed directly by the space industry, which is worth £6.8bn per year.

“It’s a recession proof industry” he claimed, citing 9% growth every year for the last decade. And the good news is set to continue, with 5% growth forecast for the next decade.

Drayson’s speech was followed by the Appleton Lecture by Chris Scolese, who is associate administrator of NASA. I wonder if the second in command of the world’s most famous space agency gave Drayson any tips on setting up an agency?

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