George Freeman outlines Government’s commitment to the space industry

14th January 2016

George Freeman outlines the Government’s commitment to the opportunities and economic development of the space industry in the UK.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Life Sciences (George Freeman): I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the Speaker’s Office for granting the debate, and congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on securing it. I think it shows the House at its very best, capturing the mood of the nation and setting out an inspiring and challenging vision of how in the years ahead this country can do so much more in this exciting field.

As many hon. Members have said, the debate is timely. Major Tim Peake floats in orbit above us, looking down, and tomorrow he will conduct the historic and serious spacewalk. He is the first British European Space Agency astronaut and the first British astronaut to enter the international space station. The debate is also timely because of the sad passing of the iconic David Bowie, whose lyrics in so many ways provided a backdrop to my generation’s childhood and captured, at the time of the Apollo missions, the existential challenge and opportunity of pushing the boundaries of space, time and culture. That provides a rather extraordinary and unpredictable but moving backdrop to this moment in space.

Bob Stewart: I rise as the Member for the coolest constituency in the country. David Bowie lived and played in my constituency, and we are hoping that the bandstand where he played will be saved and restored properly. That is not happening at the moment.

George Freeman: I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), David Bowie’s constituency, rose to speak at that moment.

This debate and story is about more than the space endeavour alone. It is about business—the UK space industry is an £11.8 billion industry, employing 35,000 highly skilled people. It is about extraordinary technology in optics, communications, rocketry and engineering. It is about an activist industrial policy and strategy, for which I am delighted to confirm our support, to encourage leading technologies and industry. I pay tribute to the work done by Paul Drayson and by my great friend and colleague David Willetts, now a Member of the other place, who in 2012 was instrumental with the Chancellor in securing the £80 million for the international space station, which was crucial to securing Tim Peake’s role in it, and in securing the money for the reaction engines programme, on which this country is leading.

This debate is also about science, not just in space, but solar and earth science. Taking in rocketry, engineering, climatology, optics and communications, this is a deep science project to inspire all. It is about women in science, as others have said. Dr Helen Sharman was the first British woman in space, and the Italian Samantha Cristoforetti was the first European Space Agency woman astronaut; she did inspiring work and has becoming something of a legend and a role model for girls and women in science. It is also about our perception and consciousness of our environment. The “Earth dawn” photo changed perceptions of the fragility of the Earth’s ecosystem.

The debate on space is also about geopolitics. Who, in the appallingly dark days of the cold war and intercontinental ballistic missile threats in which many of us grew up, could have imagined that we would now have an international space station in which Americans, Russians and people from across the world work together for the good of all? It is about defining a new common space for all and a new approach to our defence and security through common leadership. It is not a subject I get to speak much about at the Dispatch Box, but today’s debate makes it possible to talk about mankind’s destiny—the questing spirit deep in us all and in society to inquire, discover, imagine, explore and make possible whole new worlds and opportunities.

This debate is also about the power of ambitious, positive, global, purposive and internationalist leadership to inspire and unite to produce a better politics from us all. No one spoke better on that than JFK, in his inspiring inaugural address in 1960, when he famously said, on a frosty morning in Washington at the very height of the cold war,

“my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

He launched America on a mission of internationalism, and two years later, in his Apollo speech, announced that America chose to go to the moon not because it was easy, but because it was hard. He did so in the spirit of internationalism and of appeal to the best instincts of mankind. It is a beautiful thing, I think, that on the moon is left an inscription stating that mankind came to the moon in a spirit of freedom and peace. That mission captures so much that is best about our society and what we want to achieve.

It is for those reasons that the Prime Minister asked that we harness the inspirational power of Major Peake’s mission to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers and to bring the country together. All of us found it difficult to avoid the excitement associated with the launch and arrival of the first British ESA astronaut at the international space station. We held celebration events in Edinburgh, London, Cardiff and Belfast, at discovery centres throughout the UK, and here in Parliament. The Science Museum in London attracted almost 11,000 visitors, and if the sheer exhilaration of the 5,000-plus primary schoolchildren at the museum translates into an increase in future sciences, Tim Peake’s mission will already have achieved its goal. In all, 35% of the viewing public watched the launch, and a further 3.8 million people watched the Soyuz spaceship dock with the international space station that evening.

Our Government are providing £3 million of support to the education and engagement programme associated with Tim Peake’s mission, and we have been lauded by the ESA as the country doing the most to invest in and promote educational outreach. We will measure whether the excitement inspires young people to take up STEM subjects—several Members rightly commented on that—and increases public understanding of and engagement with science through an evaluation study being undertaken by York University. It is the first such research since the Apollo effect study in the 1970s.

The Peake mission is possible because of a decision made at the 2012 European Space Agency Council of Ministers meeting by the then Science Minister, David Willetts, which resulted in the UK joining the international space station and the related European programme for life and physical sciences—ELIPS. The UK made a further investment at the Council of Ministers in 2014. The total investment, which exceeded £80 million, provides substantial value for money, giving UK scientists access to a laboratory that has cost others up to $100 billion and is testament to international collaboration in science. The three man crew on the Soyuz, which launched on 15 December, comprised Tim Peake, the American Tim Kopra and the Russian commander Yuri Malenchenko. It is early days, and evaluation of UK involvement is ongoing, but the current results are incredibly exciting.

Experiments for the ELIPS and subsequent experiments undertaken on the space station are selected on the basis of science excellence, which plays to UK strengths. We sometimes forget that this is a massive international set of experiments up in space. In the most recent competition, the UK won more than 10% of awards for experiments, although UK involvement in the space station is at about 5% of costs, so we are punching above our weight. About 40 to 80 scientists across the UK are involved.

Space is not just about national exploration; it is about critical national infrastructure and services, such as weather forecasting, satellite navigation and satellite television. Space-based technologies are used for tackling many global challenges. Satellites can assist with tackling illegal fishing, efficient urban and rural land use, resource management, safe implementation of autonomous vehicles, and myriad further uses underpinning new technologies and new markets. For example, over half the essential climate variables needed to understand climate change derive from our satellite observations.

The UK space sector is undoubtedly a massive and growing success story. There are real prospects for the young people inspired by Tim Peake and the Rosetta mission to work in our very strong and vibrant space economy in the future. It is currently worth more than £11.8 billion to the UK economy. That is growing at about 8% a year, which is three times faster than the average non-finance sector. It is characterised by an incredibly highly skilled workforce of more than 37,000 people, half of whom hold at least a first degree. Those direct jobs each support more than two jobs in the wider economy. The sector has a general value added per job of £140,000, three times higher than the UK average.

To reflect the strategic and economic importance of the sector, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills launched the national space policy on 13 December to coincide with the Peake mission. It showcases how deeply space now impacts on our daily lives, not least in the field of satellite data and information. It describes how the sector is a unique, strategic national capability which delivers science and innovation, national security, essential public services and prosperity. The policy spells out how the UK Space Agency has brought together the roles and responsibilities of 17 different Government organisations and other partners, such as research councils and Innovate UK which are involved with space.

Space-based activity is a long-term endeavour with international collaboration, industrial co-investment, skills development and considerable planning at its heart. Stability and certainty are important, and the national space policy is the Government’s expression of our long-term commitment to seeing it through and to putting in place a policy landscape to support that investment.

The UK’s involvement in space ranges from fundamental underpinning research into the origins of the universe, to understanding and protecting our planet, through to supporting the research that leads to UK companies launching entirely new multimillion-pound telecommunication satellites. Some 25% of the world’s telecommunication satellites are substantially built here in the UK. Satellites operated under the disaster charter and earth observation data procured commercially were critical to effectively targeting the response efforts on the ground in the recent floods.

This is an exciting time for space. In 2016 the UK will be building the main experiment on the Plato mission that will search for new earths orbiting other stars, in pursuit of answers to the profound question about life elsewhere in the universe, and will precipitate key contracts for UK companies. We look forward to a major European Space Agency Council of Ministers meeting in November/December 2016, where we will negotiate to ensure that the UK continues to play an influential part and benefits fully from European Space Agency programmes. The programmes that we are looking forward to in particular include the UK-led biomass experiment that will calculate the capacity of the world’s forests to store carbon. As well as improving our ability to control climate change, this offers a considerable opportunity as UK companies are poised to win contracts to provide the craft that will host the experiment in orbit.

2017 will see the launch of the joint European-Japanese BepiColombo mission which will set out on a voyage to Mercury, using a very efficient ion drive electric propulsion engine manufactured by UK firm Qinetiq.

In the field of space flight, through companies such as Clyde Space and SSTL, the UK has become a leader in the manufacture of smaller satellites and has largely secured cost-effective launch by arranging “piggy-back” launches with larger satellites in a competitive launcher market which is not yet sustainable but is growing fast. This is connected to the growth of commercial constellations of tens or even hundreds of low-cost small mass-produced satellites that can provide ubiquitous communications across the globe or near real-time imagery from low earth orbits.

Indeed, we believe that commercial space flight is a market which, when combined with the emerging trend to use large constellations of small satellites, could provide a cumulative economic benefit to the UK of £20 billion by 2030. This will provide new and long-term manufacturing and service jobs and will stimulate high tech growth. This includes exciting developments such as single-stage to orbit launchers, the engines for which are being pioneered by Reaction Engines, a rapidly growing company in Oxfordshire.

This is the context for the UK to explore having a launch capability. We believe there is at least a two-stage process to achieving it. The first part of our ambition is for the UK to become the European hub for commercial space flight and related space sector technologies. The initial focus is on creating the necessary legislative and regulatory framework that will enable commercial suborbital space flights alongside existing civilian and military airspace operations. Alongside this, it is the Government’s intention to select a preferred location for a UK spaceport that will be capable of operating horizontal commercial spaceplanes. We are closely examining what this process will look like, to ensure that it is fair, transparent and robust.

We will seek to draw on established Government approaches to appraisal and will ensure that the preferred location meets a number of key criteria—that it can deliver a spaceport technically capable of operating horizontal commercial spaceplanes, that it will be commercially viable, that it can ensure the safety of the uninvolved public, and that it takes into account the potential environmental impacts of the spaceport and will deliver local and national economic growth. These criteria are likely to form the core of any selection process, though we have not settled on the final criteria.

Drew Hendry: The Minister is outlining an exciting programme of opportunities and economic development. He has heard from a number of Members today about the need to encourage girls and young women to get involved in the industry. Will he take that message away to the Government and do something practical to promote that?

George Freeman: Yes, I certainly will. There are a number of initiatives in place which I have not had time this afternoon to set out, but I will happily take that point on board. We are seized of the importance of promoting women in the sector.

Developing a UK spaceport and a commercial suborbital operation are crucial steps to building the capability and credibility for a UK launch capability, with the aim of launching small satellites from the UK.

I shall touch on some of the key points that hon. Members made. I congratulate the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), whose introductory speech set the scene beautifully. I was delighted that she referred to me as a Minister prepared to boldly go where no Minister has gone before. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) who, in his maiden speech, was quick on to this subject and has been a leading advocate and vice-chairman of the space committee. It is great to see the cross-party support for this project.

A number of colleagues, particularly from Scotland, spoke about the importance of the Scottish cluster. In this field as well as in other technology areas, Scotland has a powerful cluster. Despite a number of powerful bids being made from Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, hon. Members would not expect me today to pre-empt the process of selecting appropriate sites, but I can assure them that we will conduct that process fairly, openly and against proper criteria. All their bids have been heard clearly today.

Let me address some of the key questions that have been raised. There was a question about our priorities. I hope my comments setting out our commitment and the commitments set out in the recently launched space strategy go some way to clarifying that. I was asked about research funding. In the autumn statement the Chancellor announced the historic ring-fenced increased commitment to science capital and revenue, and the Government are in the process of working through with the research councils how that science funding will be allocated to various projects. We will shortly make announcements on how we see that being taken forward.

There were questions about growth and what we are doing to ensure a joined-up strategy for the sector. We are working widely with industry to identify the key markets that we see delivering the main growth. The Space Leadership Council, jointly chaired by my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science and the president of the UK space trade association, is actively working to develop a set of policies, and the blueprint for growth which was set out in our recently published national space policy sets out the framework that we intend to follow.

On the timing of the announcement of the spaceport location, as hon. Members know, this is an entirely new market. It is moving quickly, but there are complex issues to be dealt with in relation to regulations and the legal basis for safe flights that we need to get right. That work is ongoing, and I hope that my comments today have reassured Members that it is being taken seriously. The Government expect to be able to announce how we proceed as soon as we can in 2016.

Important questions were asked about space debris and regulation. This area is governed by the Outer Space Act 1986. No licence is issued to operators of space assets unless they can show that they are compliant and safe, and minimising space debris is part of that process. Technical failures do occur, but we remain vigilant. The strategic defence and security review set up a cross-governmental committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science, to further ensure security in space, particularly in relation to space debris.

A number of hon. Members asked about careers in STEM. We have allocated £3 million to support education programmes to help young people benefit from Tim Peake’s mission, and reaching out to girls and women is an important part of that. The European Space Agency has acknowledged that the UK is doing more to support that work than any other nation in the project. We are providing practical tools for teachers and lecturers.

There was a question about the University of Glasgow and how the Government are engaging with cutting-edge research facilities. Through the work of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Natural Environment Research Council and the Science and Technology Facilities Council, we are actively looking at how we can use those research centres to support this project.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—on a previous occasion he described himself as a stalker of mine, because we appear to speak in all the same debates —made a powerful plug for Northern Ireland. The Government fully recognise the benefit that Northern Ireland’s space industry and universities play in our space policy. That is why we were delighted to convene and take part in an event held in Belfast to mark Tim Peake’s launch.

My hon. Friend the Member for a bit of Cornwall—the precise part escapes my memory right now. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) raised the important issue of Newquay airport. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said previously from the Dispatch Box that he recognises the importance of Newquay in this and in the wider Cornish economy. As I have said, we will look at all bids in time.

We have heard a lot of quotes in today’s debate—some more original than others—not least from David Bowie. I wanted to close with one that we have not heard. In “An Occasional Dream” he sang about

“tomorrows of rich surprise… Some things we could do”

He sang:

“We can be heroes, just for one day”.

I think that this debate, and indeed this whole topic, captures the sense in which good politics can bring people together to achieve the very highest goals. I am grateful to colleagues for raising it and pleased to be part of a Department that is committed to this sector and to achieving everything that this country can do in this very exciting race.

2.32 pm




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