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The UK's space agency and 'mini-Augustine' report

Jonathan Amos | 15:00 UK time, Friday, 11 December 2009

"I have an announcement to make. The UK is going to have an executive space agency - a single, coherent organisation to support an industry that's one of the best advertisements for the UK."

Lord DraysonThat's was how the Science Minister Lord Drayson opened his speech to the 5th Appleton Space Conference in Harwell on Thursday, and he immediately got an enthusiastic round of applause from all the space scientists and industrialists who were present.

So it's done... Britain will finally get a space agency.

Well, it's almost done. The detail needs to be worked out, and I'm not talking about the competition that will soon open to find a name and a logo.

A cross-government group is going to meet early next year to plan how the agency will work. As part of its discussions, it will need to determine how the new agency will be funded.

Front cover of exploration review documentAs I explained in my news report from Harwell yesterday, there are at least two funding models on the table.

One would see the space funds currently allocated direct to government departments and research councils being issued instead to the agency.

Another model would see the monies remain with the departments and councils, who would then "subscribe" to programmes directed by the agency.

This latter model is how the European Space Agency works.

Quite where we end up in that spectrum is open to debate, but there seems to be a recognition that unless the new UK agency has its hand on a pot of cash (as Esa does with the mandatory subscriptions member states must pay), it is impossible to see how it can direct policy effectively.

As I write this, Lord Drayson is in the position of having to take his flat cap around government departments to ask for contributions to the next Jason sea-level measurement mission.

Artist's impression of the Jason spacecraftWithout nine million euros from the UK to cover what is about an eight-year programme, one of the gold-plated Earth-observation data-sets detailing the shape of the oceans over the past 18 years could founder.

All the departments think Jason is really important, but it's not their number one priority. As David Williams, director general of the British National Space Centre, so cleverly explained it at yesterday's Appleton conference:

"If you're everyone's second priority, there is a danger you end up with nothing. Whereas, in ice skating, of course, if you come second in every class, you win."

How different would Jason's prospects be today if an executive space agency were setting the priorities?

There is also then the issue of the overall pot of cash in the UK to do space activities - a subject that many of the regulars who comment on this blog like to raise.

Major Tim PeakeThis brings me on to something else which came out at the Appleton conference and which got a bit lost in all the hullabaloo over the agency.

This was the release of a document called the Space Exploration Review [1.5Mb PDF].

It considers the opportunities that exist for Britain in the "new space age".

It looks as though we are about to enter an era when commercial space activities really fly, and Big Government will try once more to push humans beyond low-Earth orbit, back to the Moon, to asteroids and to Mars. (Although, given the current recession, the new space age is going to have to wait a bit.)

What role will Britain play in all this? How deeply involved do we wish to become? What activities fit best with our particular expertise? Do we still want to do mainly robotic stuff, or do we want to build on Major Tim and join an astronaut programme?

These are the issues which the Space Exploration Review addresses.

It looks at the technological opportunities that are out there, from the communications systems we could build to support astronauts on the Moon to the next generation of launch vehicles such as Skylon.

In some senses, you could call this document the UK's own "mini-Augustine report". It has a very similar feel to the recent US human spaceflight committee document.

Space budgetsFor sure, the questions are on a different scale, but the way the British report works through the options is very much the same. And at the heart of it all is some cold economics.

Anyone who wants to make the case for Britain to spend more money on space has to be able to back that case up with solid reasoning and solid numbers.

It is no use telling Treasury officials that Britain should have astronauts merely because they do "inspirational stuff".

That's not going to wash when there are umpteen competing demands on public expenditure.

You need to explain the logic and detail the benefits, and the Space Exploration Review is one of the best examples I've seen that has tried to do that.

Download it. The main part is 125 pages long. There is also a supporting economic analysis [1Mb PDF].

I've reproduced just one graph from the document on this page which immediately caught my eye. It compares the space budgets of a number of nations as a percentage of their Gross Domestic Product (for 2005). One bar shows the G7 average.

It's the context.

Anyway, my vote for a name for the new space agency would be HMSA - Her Majesty's Space Agency. I'm sure you have some better idea.

Watch this space.


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