Today, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has successfully set off on the maiden voyage of the Blue Origin sub-orbital ship “New Shepherd”.
Although not quite an era-defining, Apollo-level moment for all mankind, it certainly marks the start of what many are predicting to be an explosion in the commercial space market. Whereas once nation states duked it out for orbital supremacy, now the likes of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are competing for everything from lucrative Government contracts to the patronage of wealthy space tourists.
While some may celebrate the prospect of a billionaire being as far away as humanly possible from the rest of humanity, it might be hard to see why, in the midst of a global pandemic, the public should celebrate such indulgent, plutocratic follies.
There are however a number of potential reasons to be positive about this expected increase in modern-day spacefaring, as well as the continued growth of the space sector – not just for humanity but for the UK in particular…
🚀 Space is already big business for Britain
Despite never quite managing to pip Armstrong to the lunar surface, the UK is a surprising leader in the international space economy. British businesses and universities are at the cutting edge of space technology and innovation, and the British space industry is a world leader in the development and construction of commercial satellites.
The space industry is one of the UK’s fastest growing sectors, contributing about £300 billion to the UK’s economic output annually (which is forecast to grow to £340 billion by 2030). The sector is also a great deal for UK taxpayers, generating £3/£4 of economic growth for every pound invested by the Treasury.
🚀 It’s expected to bring significant investment to the nations and regions
The Space Industry Bill (2018) achieved cross-party support and paved the way for the creation of a number of UK spaceports, with approval granted for (amongst others) Spaceport Cornwall, Spaceport Snowdonia and the Shetland Space Centre. Domestic launch capability has always been the missing piece in UK Space’s arsenal, and the development of a number of dedicated launching sites (in part to cater to the spaceplanes of Virgin Galactic et al) are expected to generate around 100,000 jobs in some of Britain’s most remote communities.
🚀 The innovations will benefit the public sector too
The UK Space Agency’s “Space for Smarter Government Programme” has already yielded some incredible public sector benefits from their public-private partnerships. The BBC’s “MappAir” system for example, reliant on a UK-developed satellite network, provides real-time data on traffic pollution across the UK, helping environmental agencies and local government better protect the public.
Despite all this, the commercial space boom isn’t without detractors. Donnachadh McCarthy in the Independent points out that the emissions from a single billionaire’s joyride (all included) may be in the region of an entire household’s electricity usage over a lifetime (before any offsetting). Clearly many are going to need further convincing that the economic and research benefits can ever really offset the environmental impact of increased rocket launches.
In short, it will be fascinating to see how Britain’s role in the new space race develops now Branson and Bezos have finally achieved lift off. Will Cornwall become our own Cape Canaveral? Will access to space slowly widen as the sector expands, or will the stars become the exclusive domain of the astro-elite? Watch this space…
To find out more about the future of commercial space, check out the PLMR produced “Zero Pressure Podcast” from Imperial College London and Saab, hosted by Britain’s first astronaut Helen Sharman.