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Space: Britain's New Infrastructure Frontier

14 Apr 2016
Picture of Europe, planet Earth, taken from space

The UK space age isn’t a distant pipe dream. Britain’s space sector has enjoyed a decade of expansion barely seen anywhere else and looks set to maintain BRIC-style rates of growth well into the future. 

Globally, the squeeze on public space agencies such as NASA is leading to a private sector space revolution, with steep cuts in the cost of getting cargo into orbit. A massive opportunity beckons for the UK, should we choose to understand and embrace it.

This report describes a real British success-story, and sets out how a few regulatory and infrastructure developments, including licensing a spaceport, would help the space sector really lift off. Key findings: The £8 billion UK space sector employs around 25,000 people, supporting a further 60,000 jobs indirectly. It has more than doubled in size over the last decade, and if job growth continues at the 15% rate of the last few years, employment in the sector will reach 100,000 by 2020.

The UK’s space sector came about largely thanks to the benign and unforeseen consequence of the early adoption of satellite broadcasting in this country, allowing the UK to draw on the skills of overlapping world-class aerospace and defence industries. By contrast, the government has had very little to do with it. The UK Space Agency receives all of £313 million in public funding – a mere 0.73% of the combined global space agency budget of $65 billion in 2010 – making the space sector one of the least subsidised parts of the UK economy.

The end of NASA’s Space Shuttle programme is leading to a private sector space revolution, with a host of companies competing to provide space taxi services. Private sector innovation is rapidly lowering the cost of getting cargo into space. SpaceX, for example, already has contacts with NASA worth over $4 billion to launch cargos to the International Space Station and deliver satellites into orbit. Its Falcon 9 vehicle has lowered the cost per kilo to Low Earth Orbit to just over $5,000, compared with between $18,000 and $60,000 for the Space Shuttle.

A spaceport would be a key piece of infrastructure for the UK’s space sector, operating as a hub for space tourism, research and development. Space tourists are willing to pay $200,000 for a mere three hours in space, and will have considerable disposable income that would help the wider local economy. The private sector could help fund the costs of a spaceport.

A spaceport would have several requirements, including a long runway and its own undisturbed high altitude air corridor, which narrow down the location options. Lengthening the runway of an RAF base in Scotland or Northern Ireland would be a possibility, while the South West of England could represent an alternative prospect.

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