Written Evidence Submitted by Mango Space Ltd
My introduction and reasons for submitting evidence
- Space has been my career all my working life, over 25 years, across public and private sectors in the UK’s space sector. I was an architect of the current UK space strategy, the Space Growth Action Plan, and was involved in the delivery of that update to the UK’s Space Innovation and Growth Strategy (IGS) from 2013 to 2019. My company is an independent consultancy for space business insight and strategy, founded in 2020. I remain highly engaged in the UK space sector and am very keen to see the lessons learnt from the current strategy employed in any future update.
- The views in this paper are exclusively my own and do not reflect the views of any employer, past or current. I am happy to answer further questions on these and provide additional evidence if required.
What are the prospects for the UK’s global position as a space nation, individually and through international partnerships?
- It is useful (but not essential) for the UK to be considered a global space player as a good reputation for “Space UK” helps to attract people (whether workers with space skills or researchers furthering science and technology), investment and businesses from around the globe. Space is a sector within the knowledge economy so it is also beneficial to spill these advantageous resources across the wider economy.
- There is little consensus on the vision for the UK space sector. The oft-repeated target of capturing 10% of the global space economy by 2030 was identified in the first issue of the UK’s Space Innovation and Growth Strategy in 2009; although that target is unlikely to be met (due principally to the global market growing faster than predicted, the UK’s sector growing more slowly, and foreign exchange rates) it doesn’t really matter, since the intended outcome of that stretch target was significant growth in the number of jobs and amount of economic activity within the sector. It is debatable whether the growth since 2009 could be called significant; evidence is provided by a survey run every two years called the Size and Health of the UK Space Sector.
- The last 12 months has seen an increase in media posts suggesting the UK can only be considered a global space power if it has sovereign launch capability. It is unclear where this claim arose, as launch was not identified as a focus in the 2009 Space IGS, which acknowledged re-usable launch vehicles as a potential interest while labelling rocket launch as a “prestige project”. Meanwhile, the global launch industry has transformed and it is arguable that launch in 2021 is well on its way to becoming commoditised.
- Rather than owning one space capability or another, it is more important for the UK to have a reputation as a world-leading (or at least close to it) space nation in qualitative terms, in order to attract and retain the beneficial outcomes identified in para 2. Such aims could be to make the UK the world’s most innovative space nation, the best place to grow a space business, the best place to carry out space research, and so on. The UK is unlikely to challenge much larger countries such as the US on absolute terms, so we must choose our aim appropriately.
- The global nature of services underpinned by space assets, otherwise known as satellite applications, is what makes that area of the sector so economically attractive and therefore the core of the current strategy; this means that a service can be first brought to market in the UK and proven before being sold around the world. For this reason, the domestic UK market is important for reaching international markets, where international partnerships can help foster exports. However, international partnerships must be meaningful as they sometimes appear to be little more than promotional exercises.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current UK space sector and research and innovation base?
- Commentary on the UK space sector’s industrial strength often highlights small satellites, observation instruments, and payloads for communication and navigation missions. There will be many more. These strengths may be historical/anecdotal and it seems important to be able to measure objectively what our strengths are, and keep that list up-to-date.
- UK has a strong research base that can be evidenced by citations and publications, across various specialisations. UK investment into innovation was for many years almost solely via the European Space Agency (ESA); although in the last ten years there has been more interest in other mechanisms such as a UK space innovation programme, funding to any significant level has not been forthcoming. Indeed, funding for the UK Space Agency’s lauded International Partnership Programme (IPP) was recently stopped because of the cut to foreign aid. Furthermore, UKRI allocated no Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) programme to space, chiefly due to lack of support from industry and Government, and Innovate UK shut down its Space Team as a consequence (curiously, Innovate UK closed down no other of its industrial teams in this way). These decisions highlight the lack of a joined-up approach to research and innovation in space, and send mixed messages to potential collaborators, especially those considering a move into the UK.
- Innovation requires funding beyond development and into commercialisation. Current investment vehicles were limited by EU state aid rules but BREXIT brings the opportunity to review UK Government support to bring new business ideas into life. Meanwhile, the Seraphim space fund has increased investment into space but the portfolio could be more aligned with UK interests and strategy so there is an opportunity here to introduce new private capital mechanisms for business support covering accelerators and patient capital.
- Access to finance in the form of match-funded grants for lower Technology Readiness Level R&D is relatively easy in the early stages, especially where projects seek a small amount of funding. Access to private finance that is needed for real commercial growth is more challenging, meaning that small businesses supported early in their life fail to grow beyond SME scale, and in the worst case go out of business altogether. There is a role for Government to introduce novel funding such as strategic Government equity investments that would benefit both the company and the taxpayer on success. Special Purpose Acquisition Companies (SPACs) are winning attention in the US and the Government could investigate similar financial vehicles for the UK. Funding rules for national programmes should be checked so that small print details do not inadvertently disadvantage particular companies such as those with overseas headquarters (for example companies looking to make Foreign Direct Investment).
What lessons can be learned from the successes and failures of previous space strategies for the UK and the space strategies of other countries?
- The current space strategy for the UK is the 2009 Space Innovation and Growth Strategy (IGS), updated in 2014 as the Space Growth Action Plan, later called the Space Growth Partnership and facing yet another rebranding in 2021. This strategy was ground-breaking as it was a joint venture bringing together Government, industry and academia to define a strategy as well as a regular meeting structure to address issues. A huge amount of effort was involved in both the original 2009 strategy and the 2014 update, with representatives from industry and academia working for free alongside Government resulting in a comprehensive plan to address most of the topics identified in the following question. The lesson here is to develop the strategy with all stakeholders, not write it in isolation and then ask around for feedback.
- Unfortunately, a lack of buy-in from some of the key stakeholders meant that only around 10% of the actions (that they had themselves authored) were delivered, or even embarked upon. There seemed to be no accountability for this lack of performance and an absence of effective governance allowed it to persist. Meanwhile, other countries were able to see our strategy, copy it and implement it, to our collective disadvantage. In recent months we have seen the establishment of the National Space Council, but it does not seem to meet frequently, nor provide definitive action. The lesson here is to ensure that all stakeholders are truly committed to delivering a national strategy, even if aspects of it do not contribute to their own organisations’ performance measures, and to implement a governance that provides a level of accountability.
- Since its establishment in 2010, the UK Space Agency has succeeded in growing Government investment to ESA as well as growing a modest national programme (later impacted by the revision of aid funding). Looking at the UK Space Agency’s new mission statement to “lead the UK in space”, it is questionable whether the role of Government is to lead sectors, rather than the less interventionist approach of supporting them, especially given that the Agency is staffed by civil servants. The lesson here would be to give the UK Space Agency an appropriate remit, allowing it to access specialists via recruitment, training and collaboration.
- The UK Space Agency was formed primarily to establish a means of joining up Government more effectively than its predecessor, the “club” of interested Government parties that was the British National Space Centre (BNSC). The 2021 reorganisation whereby BEIS took control of policy and strategy from UK Space Agency suggests that has yet to happen. More joined-up Government is very much a priority for any public sector body, in particular bringing together military and civil interests for the first time. The lesson here is to ensure that Government is truly joined up.
- The existing UK space strategy put satellite applications at its core, since applications are global and offer the greatest returns to the economy. Increasing the uptake of space-derived data into terrestrial businesses is complex and this was the rationale for the formation of a Satellite Applications Catapult, and later, the European (Space Agency) Centre for Satellite Applications and Telecommunications (ECSAT, at Harwell). Both developments were targeted at applications and services rather than technology products, and in particular “white elephant prestige projects” such as vertical launch, according to the 2009 Space IGS report. The lesson here is to maintain focus on the core of the strategy and to beware of distractions.
- Strategy is a long-term venture. Above all, Government must ensure that any strategy is maintained, updated and actioned; creating a new strategy every 5-10 years is unlikely to achieve significant sector growth.
What should be the aims and focus of a new UK Space Strategy, including considerations of:
- Most of the themes in this sections were covered at length in the current strategy, with the majority of aims remaining relevant today.
- Technology. Space investment often focuses on technology, and business cases can be weak. A new strategy should avoid funding overly ambitious or fanciful technologies that bleed money away from areas where we have strengths; or use a separate body (such as ARIA?) to do so. Noting that the UK space sector had decided not to invest in launch technology, on the grounds that it was too expensive for the benefits it might realise, it was surprising to see Government overrule the decision (the logic that industry has “risen to the challenge” because it is ready to spend public money does not by itself justify the investment).
- Skills and diversity. This was a problem before BREXIT, especially given the forecast 30,000 jobs to be brought into the sector, likely now to be more significant. Lack of diversity is still a problem, exacerbated by BREXIT, as European workers in UK spaces companies tended to have a higher proportion of women than UK workers. Lack of gender diversity in the workforce seems to be embedded from a very early age and action is needed to redress this, even if the benefits won’t be fully realised for another 20 years.
- Research funding, investment and economic growth. See questions 8 to 10. Need far greater alignment among Government bodies, and with collaboration from research & industry.
- Industry. Government must work with industry; currently the two are further apart than at any time in the last ten years. Currently, industry (and perhaps academia) is reluctant to challenge Government for fearing of reducing chances of gaining funding. Meanwhile, Government is reluctant to engage industry, perhaps for fear of committing itself unwittingly.
- Civil and defence applications. Assuming this means civil and defence markets, this marks the major opportunity for a new national strategy. Not only has there been no space strategy for UK defence until now (soon?), one of the defining characteristics of the UK space sector is the gulf between civil and military domains, compared with other nations (notably the US). Establishing joined-up planning between civil and military domains of Government will bring benefits to both sides, as well as to taxpayers.
- International considerations and partnerships. See question 7. Make international partnerships selectively on a bilateral basis, where real benefits can be made by both parties, and avoid creating a tick-list of deals with countries where the agreement is of questionable value. In particular, a two-way agreement with the US is long overdue. For all other countries, (re)establish an open call to support UK companies exporting space-based services for economic as well as altruistic goals.
- Place. Provide for full levelling-up by avoiding regional specialisations and “centres of excellence” (especially where there is no real excellence to speak of). The UK space sector had historically been concentrated in south-east England, but the measures to spread this across the UK seem to be working and they should be continued.
- Current regulatory and legislative frameworks and impact on UK launch potential. Regulation and legislation apply to many domains of space, not just launch. There needs to be an open door so that industry and research can approach Government to resolve issues; at the moment it is very difficult for problems to be shared and it is too easy for Government to respond in way that minimises risk/activity to itself while offering little real progress.
- Impacts of Low Earth Orbit satellites on research activities. My response here isn’t directly about megaconstellations and astronomy, but about UK stance on safe space operations. The UK is simultaneously backing megaconstellations and launch, as well as debris removal and space situational awareness. There is a risk that these initiatives are contradictory, and it would be better if the UK set out a clear position on the future safe operation of space (which is also a significant opportunity to show global leadership in an area of growing concern).
What needs to be done to ensure the UK has appropriate, resilient and future-proofed space and satellite infrastructure for applications including:
- Rather than provide separate answers for each of these domains (navigation, weather forecasting, Earth observation & climate change, communications), I would offer that the most important consideration in each case is that the applications are truly user-driven. That is, they are not technology solutions that are pushed onto consumers of the information (although by exception this can be a valid approach for revolutionary new solutions or in areas where users may not provide the desired market pull, for example in climate change) but that they properly consider the users of the service: how it is useful, usable and used by them.