[Author’s note: the issues raised in this letter are of course identical to those discussed at more length in my article “A growth-oriented UK space strategy” (Spaceflight, January 2007, p.20-23).]
To: Mr David Willetts MP
House of Commons
London SW1A 0AA
Dear Mr Willetts,
I should like to congratulate you on your appointment as Britain’s new minister for science and space!
Now that this country has an official Space Agency, there needs to be a coherent strategy for getting the most out of its limited resources in the current restrictive budgetary climate.
As others may already have proposed, the key axiom in that strategy must be that the most effective use of public funds is in public-private partnerships which stimulate growth areas of sustainable wealth-creation in space.
The two largest potential growth areas are:
As you know, the terrestrial global tourism industry is still showing rapid expansion. Meanwhile, the demand for energy – whether environmentally sustainable or not – is certain to increase massively over at least the next half century, as the global population continues to rise and countries in Asia, Africa and South America continue to develop economically. It must therefore be clear that the emerging industries of personal space exploration and space solar power have very large growth prospects.
But one key technology to unlock these and other growth areas is missing: a vehicle capable of frequent, economic and reliable transport of passengers and cargo between Earth and low Earth orbit.
As the outgoing space minister, Lord Drayson, has doubtless informed you, Britain is currently a world leader in the quest to develop reusable spaceplane vehicles capable of frequent, economic and reliable access to space. This is thanks to privately funded work which has been sustained over the past twenty years by two British companies in particular: Bristol Spaceplanes, and Reaction Engines.
Meanwhile in America NASA has failed to develop its Space Shuttle into a transport system capable of growth through falling costs and rising traffic levels. In Europe the policy of ESA is apparently not to even bother to try, basing its plans on continuing to use vehicles such as their Ariane 5, which is not even reusable.
Although space and planetary science do not have quite the same growth prospects as the mass markets mentioned above, they too are being held back by the high costs of launch on today’s throwaway or semi-throwaway rockets. In fact, the cost of everything that we do in space, from launching communications and Earth observation satellites to exploring the Moon and planets, is dominated by the anomalously high cost of transport into space.
Supporting Britain’s spaceplane companies and getting their products into the global marketplace must therefore be the top priority of Britain’s space programme.
Another area of British excellence is in our contributions to robotic planetary exploration. Here, the emphasis must now be on surveying the strategic resources of the near-Earth asteroids for future economic benefit. The emerging industries mentioned above could be major users of water and other materials mined from the near-Earth asteroids, thus reducing the burden on Earth. Again, a government programme based on long-term economic goals is needed to get wealth-creating activities off to a timely start.
Britain was a leading nation in creating today’s globalised world, and we must finish the job we started by now promoting the growth of traffic in space. The high risks involved make public seedcorn funding necessary to jump-start the sustainable space industries of the future. The key technology is transport, and Britain currently has the edge in vehicle and engine design.
If we want the large-scale future users of space to buy British, as users of steamships and railways did a century ago, then we must ensure that our innovative spaceplane companies receive all the support they need to develop their products for the global market.
Stephen Ashworth (Mr)
Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society
1 June 2010
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