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Is it time for a UK space agency?

Jonathan Amos | 12:52 UK time, Monday, 20 July 2009

When I started the Spaceman blog, I wondered how long it would be before we got on to "the big question".

Well, here we are, one week gone and that issue is before us. Should the UK have its own dedicated space agency?

The UK plays leading roles in Esa missions such as the Herschel telescope.jpgThe UK Science Minister Lord Drayson has initiated a 12-week consultation on the matter.

Now, I need to reverse up a bit here because many who come to this blog may not realise that Britain operates without a space agency, a situation unlike all the other major industrialised nations.

Instead, it operates a "partnership" of government departments and research councils (the bodies that distribute UK science funding).

The UK space budget (a modest £250m per annum) is devolved to these partners and they make space policy, helped by a group of specialist civil servants in the British National Space Centre (BNSC).

It's been argued that this arrangement gets best value out of limited funds. It stops, for instance, Britain chasing what might be termed vanity projects (some have put manned spaceflight in this category), and focuses the cash on practical space applications that bring the most benefit to its citizens (for example, satellite communications).

Certainly, the approach has forced users to stretch every pound as far as it will go, and what Britain achieves on the budget it has is frankly astonishing. UK technologies make critical contributions to other nations' space efforts.

But is the current organisation the best structure?

Lord Drayson doesn't think so, and his mind was pretty much made up for him on the morning of Tuesday 25 November last year.

That was the morning when he had to make a five-minute speech in front of all the other national delegations at the European Space Agency's triennial Council Meeting at ministerial level, setting out what monies the UK was prepared to invest in the various Esa programmes.

He wanted to say - and indeed stated - that Britain would invest heavily in GMES, a major Earth-observation project.

But even as he did so, the Treasury note backing up the pledge had still not been despatched from London to The Hague where the meeting was taking place.

In other words, although the British government thought this was a strategically important project in which to participate, the devolved partnership had had difficulty in arriving at a coherent position.

The money came through and industry breathed a huge sigh of relief because under Esa rules, the money you put into projects you get back in work contracts.

There is a good chance now that the UK will get to build important spacecraft components for the GMES endeavour.

All this led Lord Drayson to conclude there might be a better way of conducting affairs.

That there should be differences of opinion on where money is spent is quite natural: what interest does an astronomer looking out into space share with an Earth observation scientist whose spacecraft is pointing in completely the other direction?

The issue is about who takes the decisions that fall across different areas and responsibilities, or placates the conflicting interests. Many would say that in a perfect world, it probably ought to fall to a space agency.

Before we begin this debate, there is another very pertinent question worth asking, and that is: who controls the money?

Unless the agency gets to put its hand on the available cash and decide financially what the priorities are, then critics will say it's all just a bit of space-wash. But put yourself in the shoes of those who would be asked to give up their devolved budgets. You'd squeal, too, wouldn't you?

There will undoubtedly be some out there who will fear that a space agency will marginalise their specialism.

Lord Drayson's view, though, is that the space agency should control the money.

So what do you think? And then - and this is where we could have some fun - what would you call the agency? UKASA, UKSA, GBSA, SAUK, HMSA, BSA...?

You can tweet Lord Drayson directly.

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