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Skyrora funded research concludes More must be done to develop global leadership for UK space sector

Industry experts have come out in support of the Government’s ambitions to make the UK a global space superpower, but called for clearer communication of its real-world implications - especially spacetech’s role in addressing sustainability issues and the climate crisis - to tap into latent public support for space sector investment. The intervention comes as new data reveals more than half the population supports investment in UK spaceports and rocket launch infrastructure, despite only a quarter being aware of the Government’s aims and more than half knowing nothing about the UK’s current activity and achievements.

The Skyrora XL rocket

The Government has repeatedly reiterated its desire to establish the UK as a global leader of the “New Space” age, with investment in technology and infrastructure constituting a key pillar of its post-Brexit industrial strategy. In November 2020, the Government invested £500 million to rescue OneWeb, a communications company building a constellation of satellites designed to deliver next-generation internet services, from bankruptcy as part of this plan.

The new research* found, however, that 75 per cent of Britons are unaware of the Government’s ambitions for the UK space sector. The significance of the OneWeb deal also failed to make an impression, with none of the respondents to the survey able to name the company as a current UK space project. More broadly, 57 per cent said they knew nothing at all about the UK’s current activity and achievements in the space sector.

Despite this lack of awareness, there is latent support for the Government’s ambitions. When informed of the Government’s aims, 53 per cent of respondents said that investing in spaceports and rocket launch infrastructure on UK soil would be an important factor in achieving them. Asked what they would like to see the Government’s investment deliver, respondents’ top priorities were next-generation internet and navigation services (58 per cent), solutions for healthcare (56 per cent), and military defence needs (51 per cent) - far ahead of exploration of deep space (37 per cent) or the Moon and Mars (31 per cent), and colonisation of other planets (18 per cent).

Responding to the findings, Rob Desborough, Partner at Seraphim Space Fund and CEO of Space Camp commented: “Amid uncertainty as to the future direction and ongoing health of the UK economy post-Brexit and in recovery from COVID, space undoubtedly presents significant long-term opportunities. From the obvious, such as new internet services to enable next-generation communication and entertainment, to those of ‘bigger picture' significance, such as tools to help us better understand our planet and tackle the climate crisis.

As the Government aims to ‘Build Back Better' post-Covid, and with COP26 just around the corner, climate and sustainability are increasingly top priorities. The time is right to harness the public's fascination with space and dedication to the environment to tell a clear story about the role of UK space innovators in helping deliver a smarter, greener, more connected world”

While much of the UK’s space sector heritage is in satellite technology, launch capability will be critical for establishing a leading position in the sector for the future as more and more satellites will be sent into orbit to deliver increasingly sophisticated services for a wide range of sectors. The UK was once a world leader in launch - developing the Black Arrow rocket in the 1960s before abandoning it in 1971 in favour of US-built rockets - and is becoming so again with a small number of startups working on low-cost, reusable rockets to meet future demand.

Skyrora, which commissioned the research, is one such company. It brought the Black Arrow rocket back to the UK from its resting place in the Australian outback in 2019. Confronted with the finding that only 30 per cent of Brits had heard of Black Arrow, and 77 per cent didn’t know the UK had any companies developing launch capabilities, CEO Volodymyr Levykin said: “Black Arrow was a milestone moment for the UK space sector, so it’s sad that it’s now a largely forgotten episode in British history. We did our bit to revive the memory, but we’re just one company. A new generation of innovators is laying the foundations for a future in which the UK is a leading force in sending satellites and more into space. What we need now is an acceleration of plans for investment in launch infrastructure - capitalising on the public’s interest, shown in this research, will help them earn the licence to do that.”

Most damningly, 44 per cent of people have no pride in the UK’s heritage in space technology and exploration, whether because they don’t think the historic achievements are worth being proud of or because they don’t know what those achievements are. The potential is there, however - when asked about the possibility of civilian space flight, more than a third (37 per cent) said they would only want to go into space if they could do so from a spaceport on UK soil.

Commenting on the research, Dr Jason Maroothynaden, UK Director, HE Space Operations said: “Given the UK’s launch capability ended 50 years ago, it is of no surprise that public perception of the UK’s amazing place remains lost to history. Most of the people that responded to the study were either not born, or too young to realise. As they have grown up, the positive impact of space in the UK's economic and political growth sadly remains covert.

“Studies like this are important to educate the public that UK space has never gone away, It’s more than a few astronauts! The UK is a global player hosting both a National Space Agency and European Space Agency. It employs people from across the UK, produces every element of the space value chain from the obvious, to digital services. Companies that fuelled the New Space revolution were born and remain here! UK space has proved to be Covid resilient, developing innovations focused on tackling the climate emergency, and global health.

“For me, ‘Build Back Better’ starts in school, we should be teaching our kids about the UK’s space heritage, the current landscape involving both technical and non-technical careers, the role space has on their lives to come, on tackling the climate emergency, and global health issues”.