Dan Lewis is Infrastructure Policy Adviser at the Institute of Directors.
When the history of the Coalition Government comes to be written, the most surprising and under-appreciated achievement may well be the creation of a thriving space industry in the UK. With plans in place for one or more spaceports, and an enabling regulatory regime, we could see operational spaceflight from the UK by 2018.
As the author of a May 2012 report for the Institute of Directors that argued for spaceports, it is rewarding to see the key recommendations fleshed out and become policy. Much credit must be given to David Willetts who, as Secretary of State for Universities and Science, was responsible for driving the issue forward.
We can see real progress in the form of the latest Government consultation. We now know that they are looking at several possible sites – Campbeltown, Glasgow Prestwick, Llanbedr, Newquay, RAF Leuchars and Stornoway.
In a faint echo of the Airports Commission shortlist, it would be a mistake not to put more value on competition and redundancy from a future operator’s point of view. Ideally, that means licensing at least two spaceport locations and keeping an open mind on all other locations, not just those on the shortlist. This also makes sense for hedging against bad weather, planning hold-ups and Nimby opposition. Attracting operators with more than one option available offers a greater chance of success – if only because the USA already has nine licensed spaceports and ten more who have applied.
It’s hard, though, to value a market that doesn’t currently exist. How do you put a price on access to space?
What we do know is that space tourism is a pre-existing market and that over 900 tickets have been sold for flights aboard Virgin Galactic and Xcor Aerospace. When their vehicles are ready and flying some time later this year, with others not far behind, and can be proven to be reasonably safe, ticket sales will accelerate.
But having a functioning spaceport or two is not just about space tourism.
Of the approximately 500 airports in the UK, many are actually loss-making and under huge pressure from developers. Yet aerospace is a fast evolving sector and it’s important to consider not just conventional air traffic up to 66,000 feet, or even future suborbital space traffic up to 350,000 feet. There’s also the enormous potential for air-launched satellites – including suborbital vehicles and low flying drones to deliver packages and even people and the bases for them to operate from.
As an economic proposition, spaceports only really work as a cluster, needing reasonable proximity to customers, universities and a supporting base of services that spring up nearby. Ironically, much of the value to be found is not in space, but on the ground.
And for space-based technologies, the research of materials in the most extreme environment and remote observation – looking up and down above water vapour, atmospheric affects and the ozone layer, a huge new market is about to open up.
Today there are 1,100 functioning satellites orbiting the earth. That will soon change radically with an additional 650 from OneWeb and up to 4,000 from Elon Musk. This is dramatic because in few years, these satellites will be delivering global broadband access for all, potentially bringing between three and five billion additional internet users online.
A huge opportunity beckons to deliver space-based services and products to these new consumers. This is an area where the UK has developed strong niches and sees the most growth potential – an additional £25 billion by 2030 according to government projections.
Over the next decade, we have much to look forward to in progress in space. Fully reusable rockets from SpaceX, globally ubiquitous broadband, cheap access to space and maybe even an answer to the question, are we alone?
But above all, this is about the rise of a new, private sector, space race and the democratisation of an industry, bringing it within reach of universities, schools and start-ups. We must have the audacity to seize this future.