Chris Skidmore MP was Space Minister between 2018-19 and 2019-20, and is MP for Kingswood

The history of Britain’s involvement in space in past decades is a chequered one, following an all too familiar tale when it comes to innovation: we set an early lead, only to falter, be overtaken by other countries, and then decided to pull up stumps and disinvest entirely in our fledgling space programme.

In recent years, however, the UK has sought to transform its activity in space. We have not only established the UK Space Agency, but we are on track to creating the first horizontal launch site in Newquay, Cornwall, and vertical launch sites in Sutherland and on the Shetland Isles.

The creation of the Satellite Applications Catapult has seen major investment in ensuring we have better self-sufficiency in space, with a £100 million satellite testing centre nearly ready to open. Boris Johnson has demonstrated his commitment to the UK investing in space, renewing our subscription to the European Space Agency with our largest ever investment of £1.9 billion over four years, and the EU Deal agreed ensures that we remain part of the Copernicus satellite earth observation programme, which UK companies helped to build.

The Prime Minister’s commitment to space is a key part of renewing the UK’s sovereign capabilities. Every element of our modern society and economy relies on space and its presence and critical importance in our everyday lives is perhaps underestimated or even misunderstood.

Space is the one of the UK’s top 13 Critical National Infrastructure sectors, and is in the top ten of risks faced by the UK. From monitoring climate change to ensuring real time financial transactions and from supporting our Armed Forces through secure communications to helping planes land safely, satellites are at their heart. Space now plays an essential enabling role in our modern way of life. UK Space estimates that some £300 billon of economic output globally is enabled by satellite enabled data.

This space-based order though is under threat. The Government’s Blackett Review suggested a loss of £1 billion a day to the UK economy from loss of GPS signal. Given space is becoming more contested and congested from malicious actors, our vulnerability to something going wrong in space is exponentially increasing.

90 per cent of the space assets we rely on are foreign owned and operated. Space debris is on the rise due to a massive increase in smaller, low orbit, satellites, and we are probably not far away from a catastrophic collision. Skills shortages are accelerating, yet the gap between integrating civil and military space capabilities needs to be closed urgently for our national wellbeing.

The UK has a specialist lead in many areas of the modern space economy, such as in small satellites, satellite communications, space services, data science and could realistically double its share of the global market by 2030 to some £30 billion. I saw for myself as Space Minister the massive opportunity we have to invest in space, and really place the UK on the international map, creating tens of thousands of new jobs in the process. The UK has a wealth of cutting-edge SMEs, strong institutions such as the Catapult and Leicester Space Park and strong global industrial champions such as Team Athena which already employs 40,000 people, 10,000s more in the supply chain and exports to over 80 countries from a UK base.  

Yet we need to offer this innovation to the world by establishing new marketplaces. This can only be done by building on the strong recent developments previously mentioned, many of which I was proud to be part of. What we need is a coherent and integrated space strategy and a set of programmes that underpin this.  

The new National Space Council is nearly a year old, but has only met properly once and still needs clear terms of reference, along with the publication of a National Space Strategy and the establishment of a Strategic Space Command. The Spending Review outlined some ambitious plans, but the Integrated Review during the coming weeks is the chance to set out further detail on the UK’s wider plans for space. Meanwhile, the development of a Government Procurement Fund for space services and a fully funded National Space Innovation Fund would go some way to a more integrated approach based on national need.

Commitment to some core anchor programmes, potentially in a sovereign Position, Navigation and Timing and secure satellite communications, through a National Space Operations Centre, a Space Domain Awareness delivery vehicle and a National Space Academy would be offers to the world.

If we want to lead at COP26 and offer a new technology solution to anchor the summit, space-based earth observation and climate change monitoring programmes must be developed. We would be leading by creating or own capabilities, backed up by a world-class regulatory and enabling environment, together with dedicated delivery agencies, while offering export and collective security opportunities to the world.

We already know our Five Eyes Allies, NATO partners and like-minded democracies want and expect the UK to lead in space. It can also be a strong offering to our European partners as we seek to shape our new relationship. These are not easy decisions but with a desire to decide the capability we want and then the structures to act on it, our space leadership is at a crossroads, for which the right turning can be an easy one, if we chose to take it.  

Post-Brexit, 2021 is the year when the UK has the opportunity to establish itself as an independent sovereign nation on the international stage. Our Presidency of the G7 and hosting of COP26 provide no better chance than to outline how we intend to achieve this. If we are seeking agendas for post-Brexit Britain, then we must not forget to look up beyond the sunlit uplands and into the skies and beyond. It is time that we took the UK’s involvement in space seriously.  By seizing our moment in space, there is no better way of the UK demonstrating its belief in those famous words, per ardua ad astra.