2013 a space policy: Britain gives £2bn sector lift-off

As he hails the UK's booming space industry at a London conference, the Science Minister David Willetts is being urged to do more

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The Independent Online

Addressing well over 100 of Britain's most enterprising engineers, brilliant boffins and smartest start-up sensations, Science Minister David Willetts harks back to a bygone regime that ruled by the gun.

"Ceausescu's Romania made it a criminal offence to keep old press cuttings," he says, barely concealing a half-smile. "Just occasionally, politicians think that would be a good thing to have today."

Still, there was Mr Willetts in Westminster Central Hall yesterday, brandishing a well-thumbed copy of a 2010 report that proposed turning the UK into a world leader in space technology rather than trying to suppress it.

While dead despots feared evidence of promises that were later broken, the Space Innovation & Growth Strategy report has already helped create an industry that is worth £2bn in exports today and has grown by nearly 9 per cent per year since publication. Nearly 30,000 people are employed in sending satellites into orbit, while a Space Leadership Council has become the most senior group of Government officials and academics to shape policy.

However, president of UK Space and former Logica chief executive Andy Green has updated and sharpened that plan, challenging Mr Willetts to help Britain grab 10 per cent of the global space market by 2030, then projected to be worth £400bn. Britain's best and brightest could be exploiting the final frontier for everything from identifying the whereabouts of Somali pirate ships to monitoring carbon emissions and flying tourists into space.

"The new report calls to make Britain the best place to run a space business in the world," says Mr Green, adding that he has established an interim target for the UK to have £19bn in space-related turnover within seven years.

"We felt it was important to have an interim goal so that we didn't have something too far away that people could just ignore it."

Mr Willetts wouldn't commit himself to a set of recommendations that most-eye-catchingly demands a spaceport to be built by 2018, but approves of any industry that has the "ambition to grow faster than the Chinese economy". And it is clear that he is enthused about developing an industry which would take advantage of the country's much-trumpeted technological expertise, arguing that "Britain is buzzing".

If there is a time for that enthusiasm to spread to the next generation of engineers and IT whizz kids then it is now. For example, Lady Gaga has just been confirmed as the first recording artist to perform a gig beyond Earth's traditional boundaries on a Virgin Galactic flight in 2015.

Sir Richard Branson's sub-orbital flights of fantasy will initially take-off from New Mexico next year, with a second base planned for the United Arab Emirates. Mr Willetts is "certain they will then be looking for a European centre as well and I think it would be great somewhere in Britain", side-stepping an awkward question on how it's difficult enough building new airport runways let alone the country's first spaceport.

Also in 2015, Major Tim Peake, a former helicopter pilot in the Army air corps, will be Britain's first official astronaut, helping to maintain the 27,000-kilometres-per-hour International Space Station and may even perform a spacewalk.

The report calls for a national schools challenge "to engage schoolchildren" in Major Peake's flight, while talk of space missions to Mars should also excite young minds. Recognising that there is a lack of suitably skilled graduates in science, technology, engineering and maths, the National Space Academy in Loughborough is setting up a higher apprenticeship scheme next year.

"Many high-flying graduates are keen to look into space," says Robin Southwell, the chief executive at Airbus-maker EADS UK, who compered the report's launch yesterday.

"One area here that needs more focus is in terms of the skills agenda. We should try and kick-start an apprenticeship agenda," he said.

But all of this depends on the Government supporting a well-defined and properly funded space programme. Before taking his leave, Mr Willetts vowed that the Government would do its "best to implement many of the proposals and if we think we can't afford any of them, come back and explain why".

Published in a newspaper like this one or not, that's one promise those space pioneers won't forget.