The UK will remain part of the European Space Agency post-BrexitEuropean Space Agency

In 1971, the satellite Prospero was placed into orbit, launched from Australia aboard a Black Arrow rocket. This was a monumental moment for the UK, as Prospero was a British satellite, Black Arrow a British rocket, and this was the first time a British launch vehicle had successfully placed a satellite into orbit, marking the UK’s initiation into the exclusive group of nations with their own orbital launch capability.

However, this achievement was overshadowed by an unfortunate detail – the decision to cancel the Black Arrow programme had already been made. This was to be the first, and (as of now) the last time a British rocket would venture beyond the Kármán line and into orbit. To this day, the United Kingdom is the only nation to have developed, and then abandoned, its indigenous launch capability.

This unfortunate episode seems to be a microcosm of the early British attitude towards spaceflight; reserved and not wholly dedicated. The British were a founding member of the European Space Agency (ESA), but initially didn’t take part in its manned spaceflight programme. The first Briton in space, Helen Sharman, wasn’t even funded by the British government, and, until recently, the British didn’t contribute any funding towards the International Space Station, having deemed it ‘not worth it on a value-for-money basis.’

This all started to change in 2010. The United Kingdom Space Agency (UKSA) was formed, replacing , and streamlining the complicated bureaucracy of, the British National Space Centre (BNSC).

These may seem like superficial changes, nothing more than a new name and some managerial shuffling. But alongside this, another change occurred that was much more important: a change in the UK’s attitude towards space.

In 2009 Major Timothy Peake, a British citizen, was accepted into the European Space Agency’s astronaut corp. In 2015, funded by the British government, he went on to board the International Space Station – the same International Space Station that had been described as “not worth it” just over a decade earlier.

Though the government has been steadily increasing the UK’s space budget since the establishment of the UKSA, it still lags far behind other large European nations. In 2018, the UK spent $894m on space, less than half of France’s $3.16bn or Germany’s $2.15bn.

The British government has, however, begun developing the legal framework needed to let the private sector make its own advances in the industry, for instance through the 2018 Space Industry Act, which sets the legal groundwork for the launch of satellites from British soil by private companies.

This is part of a push to begin the establishment of a commercial spaceport in the UK, with the A’ Mhòine peninsula in the Scottish Highlands already selected as the location, its high latitude being ideal for placing satellites into a polar orbit. While construction has yet to begin, it is intended to host a rocket named Prime, manufactured by British company Orbex, with launches potentially taking place as soon as the “early 2020s”.

If the project goes through to completion, this could be the first time since 1971 that a British rocket places a payload into orbit. However, in this project the UK is diverging from mainland Europe, which has almost exclusively invested in ESA’s Ariane and Vega rockets – programmes which the UK has decided not to take part in.

Another development is that of Reaction Engines Limited (REL). REL, based in Oxfordshire, received £60m from the UKSA and ESA in 2016, along with considerable private investment, to develop a ground-based demonstrator of what they call the SABRE engine.

A proposed application for SABRE is the Skylon spaceplane, an ambitious single-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle that would take off and land on a horizontal runway. SABRE looks promising, but with development costs in the order of $12bn, Skylon is unlikely to be realised without commitment from the government.

We also need to address the elephant in the room – Brexit. The UK’s space industry is greatly overshadowed by that of mainland Europe and it is hard to foresee the incentive for foreign investment in the UK with such a large market stationed just across the channel. The UK will continue to be part of the European Space Agency post-Brexit, as the ESA is a separate entity from the EU, but withthe EU as the largest single contributor to the ESA budget, tensions are rising over the UK’s involvement in EU-funded projects.

This has culminated in the UK being denied access to parts of the Galileo programme (the European equivalent of the American GPS), and eventually withdrawing from it – losing the £1.5bn that they had already invested. The British government has begun to investigate the possibility of developing its own replacement for Galileo, but this is doubtful given that the costs would completely dwarf the UK’s current space budget.

The private sector will likely play an important role for the UK in the new space race, but there is no substitute for dedicated and reliable government backing. To avoid missing out on its future in the sector, the British government needs to make up for its history of tentative interest in space and provide the industry with the funding and support that is desperately needed for it to catch up with the rest of the world. If we are to avoid being left behind, there is no better time to make this move than now.