Spaceward Ho

March 23, 2010

So where did all this Space Agency stuff come from ? Here are a few thoughts and links before the lift off.

Joined Up Space.
We already have the British National Space Agency. Its a kind of loose partnership, a central bureaucratic node, and a fairly low key PR machine. It doesn’t actually do stuff. So the idea is that we need an Executive Agency. This was nicely explained the other day by Paul Murdin on the Radio 4 show, Material World. The idea of the new agency was announced in December 2009, and the transition plan seems to be being handled by BNSC. The key bodies are the UK Space Board (chaired by Keith Mason) and the Space Advisory Council (chaired by Dick Holdaway), so the STFC/RAL/Harwell nexus is well represented there…

Astro PR Value.
What really strikes me is that on the BNSC front page, half the stories are usually about astronomy, and the glitzy “UK in Space” video is dominated by pictures of the Universe. Astronomical activity in space obviously has an enormous PR value. How do we capitalise on that ?

The Growth Strategy.
The space agency idea could be seen in the context of the existing UK Civil Space Strategy 2008-2012, but the real action started since Drayson took over. The “Space Innovation and Growth Strategy” has its own website. Its key report is really worth a read. Its not just the usual cotton wool. Its full of hard stuff, deliverables and dates.

The Money.

  • The current civil space budget is £268M
  • Right now that is way behind France, Italy and Germany – see the graph in this BBC article.
  • The IGS report proposes to double this to £550M in 10 years
  • The claim is that although we are talking about a Government spend of £270M, the value to the economy is £6.5bn; and after doubling government spend to £550M we get a value of £40bn. I guess I need to read the report to understand this….
  • The idea is to fund capital investments using PFI : commerce puts up the money but the government underwrites, by promising to be the main customer. In other words we pay later. PFI is the Gordon Brown Big Idea.
  • Out of that £268M, STFC is £118M – see this BNSC web page.

Research Councils come, Research Councils go, but The Lab goes on forever.

So… we need an Executive Agency. An organisation that does stuff. But who does stuff now ? Well… apart from the industrial companies …. RAL. Two other things may slot in here. The first is the new ESA centre at Harwell. An agreement with ESA was made in November 2008, and the centre physically launched in July 2009. It is initially in temporary accomodation in the ATLAS centre. The second thing is the International Space Innovation Centre (ISIC). This was originally one of STFC’s Gateway Centres, along with the Detector Systems Centre, the Hartree Centre, and the Imaging Solutions Centre. The new version of that web page has removed ISIC, but it is still listed as one of the Gateway Centres here. The BNSC web site has an information document about ISIC which is linked to this page. This explains that ISIC will be a purpose built building or buildings at Harwell, and that the ESA centre will be located inside it once it is ready.

So we see the final piece of the puzzle in recommendation 14.1 of the IGS report : the UKESA to relocate to Harwell July 2011. Those guys at The Lab plan ahead, boys and girls.

Astronomical Implications.
Very clearly the new UKESA is about commercial space activity, not about science done from space. The IGS report doesn’t even mention astronomy, or even moon exploration. However, a considerable proportion of the current government spend is about space science of one kind or another, and as I have noted above, it is used very heavily for PR. What are the plans ? One key issue of interest to us all is what happens to the space science budget as well as the ESA subscription – not the grants for postdocs to exploit ESA facilities, which will presumably stay with STFC and/or its successor, but the budget for University groups who want to design and build instruments for those missions. Personally I think multiple sources of funding for astronomy, as opposed to a single government route, could be a healthy thing. But … we need to watch the peas under the cup. Meanwhile, there is another key issue which I haven’t yet heard others fret about … will design and build effort be more concentrated than at present ? Is this good news or bad news for Leicester, MSSL, Birmingham, and the ATC ? Is it gravy for all, or time to rationalise somewhere near the dreaming towers of Didcot ? Sorry, that should have been “steaming towers”.

The IGS report speaks of “hub and spokes” but the next few months or so could be crucial in understanding what that means.