British astronaut helps launch UK space agency

Britain's got its own space agency today, represented by the Union Flag morphed into a soaring arrow.

The UK Space Agency, as it is officially named, took off with the help of British astronaut Major Timothy Peake.

But the accent at today's launch in London was on the dry realities of economics rather than Dan Dare.

Lord Mandelson was on hand to keep proceedings firmly grounded, despite the Science Minister Lord Drayson confessing that he would "like to see human beings living on Mars".

The Business Secretary said: "I think it is important to remember that although it is cutting edge, this stuff is not sci-fi.

"It may start in space, but it comes down to Earth very quickly and is directly relevant to all our daily lives."

Britain's mini-version of Nasa will take overall responsibility for UK space activities, replacing the soon-to-be defunct British National Space Centre (BNSC).

Operating initially from the BNSC's headquarters in Swindon, it will for the first time allow all aspects of civilian space policy to be handled "under one roof".

At present, space is the responsibility of a loose partnership of Government departments and research councils.

It is hoped the new agency will help Britain become more competitive in the global space economy, and make the most of the areas it excels in such as satellites, telecommunications and robotics.

The recession-defying industry already contributes around £6 billion a year to the economy and supports 68,000 jobs directly and indirectly.

Over the next 20 years it has the potential to grow to a £40 billion industry and create 100,000 jobs, said Lord Drayson.

"The action we're taking today shows that we're really serious about space," he said. "The UK Space Agency will give the sector the muscle it needs to fulfil its ambition."

Major Peake, a test pilot in the Army Air Corps, had the job of starting a countdown to unveiling the space agency's "flying arrow" logo, displayed on a large screen at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre.

The astronaut is currently undergoing training in Russia prior to flying on missions to the International Space Centre.

He was one of six Astronaut Corps recruits chosen by the European Space Agency last year, and is Britain's first "home grown" astronaut.

Maj Peake, who normally flies Apache attack helicopters, described the establishment of the UK Space Agency as "a very positive move".

He added: "I think it recognises the huge success story that the British space industry has been and sets the scene for us to take that success into the future.

"Britain has an enormous amount of talent in areas such as telecommunications and robots.

"It's extremely important that we do try to encourage our younger generations to take up these sorts of careers, and today goes a long way towards achieving this."

Germany, France and Italy also run their own space agencies as well as having ESA membership.

The UK Space Agency will officially begin operations on April 1.

Its launch today coincided with the creation of a new £40 million centre of "space excellence" at Harwell, Oxfordshire.

The International Space Innovation Centre (ISIC), funded by public and private investment, is supported by a £12 million grant from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis).

It will work alongside the UK Space Agency to act as the "hub" of Britain's space interests, encouraging research and development, business incubation, and the creation of intellectual property.

The Space Innovation and Growth Team (Space IGT), a collaboration of industry chiefs, government representatives and academic experts, welcomed today's developments.

A statement from the group said: "Space is a truly global business and without appropriate support, the national interest is difficult to protect.

"It is hoped that the UK Space Agency will have the powers necessary to ensure our domestic industry realises its full potential on the world stage."

Lord Drayson said one important job of the agency would be to raise the profile of Britain's space industry.

"The UK's amazing success in space is not as widely recognised by the public as it should be," he said.

He said he would like to see space vehicles launched from the UK one day.

Lord Drayson said that at the age of nine he watched TV broadcasts of the Apollo missions and saw the astronauts who walked on the moon as "heroes".

He revealed more of his vision for space when asked what he hoped to see happen in the next 50 to 100 years.

"I'd certainly like to see human beings living on Mars," he said. "That should be do-able technically over that period."

Sir Martin Sweeting, executive chairman of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, one of Britain's most successful space companies, said: "Today's announcements are an important step for UK space which both the space sector and the nation should celebrate.

"Our space industry is both technologically advanced and highly competitive - we have a successful track record and the UK economy cannot afford to miss out on this growing commercial market.

"Space is an increasing part of our everyday lives and appropriate government support for innovation by industry before it reaches commercial maturity is critical to ensure that the UK will continue to change the economics of space for the benefit of the nation and the tax-payer."

Ian Godden, chairman of aerospace, defence and security trade organisation ADS, said: "We have long had a successful, albeit relatively unknown, space industry, and we are encouraged that the sector is receiving deserved recognition through this promise of future Governmental support.

"The UK space industry is one of our most innovative and exciting sectors, and has the potential to contribute significantly to the UK economy both in terms of high-end manufacturing jobs and revenue creation."

He went on: "In addition to wealth creation, space possesses the ability to inspire people to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses and careers. The Space IGT will ensure that the scale of these activities remains on the up, and we will play our part in driving this ambition forward."

The UK Space Agency will begin with a very modest operating budget of some £230 million. In comparison, the American space agency Nasa has a budget of around £12 billion.

CNES, the French space agency, has a budget of around £600 million, which excludes its contributions to the ESA.

Spending on military space applications falls within the remit of the Ministry of Defence since the UK Space Agency is a purely civilian body.

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