Why the nation is boldly going nowhere

Government inaction could leave the UK grounded, warns Tom Wilkie
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The Independent Online
Last week, the Government launched a publicity campaign, "Space - Working for Us!", to promote the image of Britain as a successful participant in international space programmes. The glossy publicity pack stressed the practical value of Earth observation satellites for agriculture, fisheries, weather forecasting, and mapping the likely locations of natural resources. Attitudes towards space have changed markedly since the rhetoric of the early years of the US space programme, when space travel was all about "the outward urge" of sending men and equipment to the Moon and planets. Then, the aim was to mine the Moon and asteroids for metals to be brought back to Earth. Now, the emphasis is on sending satellites into space to look back down on Earth.

One application of space technology being promoted last week concerned sugar beet. Around 80 per cent of the world's crop is grown in Europe, half of it in European Union countries, with turnover reaching about £8bn a year. By checking the growth of the sugar beet during the season, using images from the French Spot and the US Landsat satellites, British Sugar can predict the yield with greater accuracy than ever before. This information allows it to reduce costs and increase efficiency. There are strict EU quotas on sugar production and the satellite yield data can help the company decide whether to process the excess for animal feed, or to continue to process it as white sugar for sale on the world market, where the price is about half the quota price. Such efficiencies may save the company £1.8m a year.

Britain is at the forefront of this sort of commercial exploitation of space. But despite the success of the UK's strategy in Earth observation work, there are problems behind the scenes. At its most extreme, Britain could be permanently grounded becauseof the financial crisis the it has provoked within the European Space Agency (ESA).

Britain long ago abandoned dreams of developing its own space programme, making international co-operation through the ESA virtually the only access route to space. Privately, however, scientists and ESA officials are talking of Britain being forced to leave the agency if it maintains its hard-line attitude.

Last week Sir Arnold Wolfendale, who has just retired as Astronomer Royal, warned that Britain's astronomy research would be "horribly mangled" if the Government did not find more money quickly, to fund both space science and ground-based astronomy in the UK. Sir Arnold is now president of the Institute of Physics, which is investigating the options for solving the financial problems in British space science.

Sir Arnold is particularly worried that British scientists may have no money to participate in the "Integral" space probe, which will detect and analyse ultra-high energy radiation, known as gamma-rays, from distant stars and galaxies.

At a meeting in December the Government tried to torpedo the ESA's 1995 science budget, even though the spending was in line with an already agreed five-year programme. Other countries voted the budget through but the UK, along with Germany, succeeded inderailing the agency's plans for the next five years. The ESA had wanted its science budget to remain constant in real terms, but Britain and Germany wanted reductions in spending.

Ironically, the problems come just as the agency prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary in May. Its future will now be decided at an inter-governmental conference in September.

The crisis has been provoked because once Britain pays its annual subscription to the ESA, there is not enough money left for scientists to build the scientific instruments, detectors and exotic telescopes to be sent up on the ESA's satellites.

Sir Arnold said: "It's the golf club syndrome: you can afford the membership fee but you can't buy the clubs and balls, so you can't afford to play." The science budget accounts for about £40m of Britain's £134m contribution to the ESA, but British scientists have only about 10 per cent of their subscription's value available to spend domestically on building equipment, whereas in other ESA countries the ratio is closer to 40 per cent.

"It can't go on like this," said Sir Arnold, who is worried that the House of Commons' Public Accounts Committee "will look askance at us paying the subscription, then getting no science out of it".

ESA member states must participate in the science programme, known as Horizon 2000, and their contribution is fixed in line with their GDP. The bulk of Britain's contributions (more than £90m) are paid not from the science budget but from the Department of Trade and Industry and are spent on optional programmes, largely Earth observation satellites.

Almost eight years ago, the Government opted out of the ESA's manned space flight programme to concentrate instead on sending satellites into space to look back down on Earth. The decision proved far-sighted: the manned space programme proved expensive and has run into the sands, whereas Earth observation is proving scientifically and commercially successful. British industry has won contracts to build many of the satellites or their components.

Even here, however, there may be cause for concern. In July last year British industry's satellite building capacity was partly taken over by the French, when British Aerospace sold its Space Systems division to Matra Marconi. This company is part-owned by GEC and by Lagardere of France. Britain has also opted out of the next generation of European rocket launchers, since it declined to participate in developing Ariane V whose prototype should lift off later this year. It would be a pity if, just as space is demonstrably beginning to work for us, government inaction allowed us to be frozen out of future developments.