With Russia lagging with yet another Soyuz failure, Britain should up its game in the global space race, writes Alec Marsh
The failure of another Russian space launch — the twelfth since 2010 — underscores the global opportunity out there for cost-effective and effective space technology.
The fact that the latest Soyuz rocket, launched from the country’s new Vostochny spaceport, was loaded with a Meteor-M weather satellite and an astonishing 18 other smaller crafts, from Canada, Germany, Japan, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US, underlines the broader scale of the calamity.
By failing to reach orbit – and instead in all likelihood dumping down into the Atlantic – billions of dollars worth of kit, and irreplaceable highly specialist man-hours have gone up in smoke. Take that Meteor-M satellite: the Russians had intended it to now be going on a five year mission to monitor weather and climate on behalf of the country’s meteorological agency. Alas if reports are to be believed it will now be providing a habitat for fish, sea-cucumbers and whatever else lives several miles down at the floor of the Atlantic.
The failure of this launch also deals a strong blow more widely to the Russian space programme – and it’s ambitions. Don’t forget that it’s currently the sole provider of heavy lifting to the International Space Station, 400 kilometres away from the surface of the earth. And Russia’s failure underscores the opportunity for other space-going nations, notably the UK.
People forget that quite apart from Britain’s considerable role in the European Space Agency, with investment scaled up under the Cameron government, (and Theresa May’s government is piling billions into space investment, too) that this country is also a global centre of satellite production. Across laboratory-style facilities in otherwise unexciting locations such as Guildford and Stevenage, technicians are at this very moment labouring on satellites and rovers of such dizzying complexity they would make Neil Armstrong weep with joy. British technology underpins Europe’s Galileo, its global positioning system. And space is already worth north of £12 billion a year to the UK economy and this is only set to grow. Just the other day, in its industrial strategy, the government announced it was investing another £50 million into satellite launch capacity.
Because Britain can and should do more than just build these amazing satellites. Those with longer memories will recall the Black Arrow rocket programme of the 1960s and 1970s — stopped, criminally, following a successful test launch in Australia in 1971. Here Wilson’s white heat of technology was fatally cut off in its prime by the misguided parsimony of the Heath administration. Prospero, the satellite that the one successful British launch sent in to orbit, is still out there, by the way. One of the last Black Arrow rockets, meanwhile, is gathering dust in the Science Museum.
Already, though, there is a government consultation in place choosing the site of the future British spaceport. Whether it will be in Llanbedr in north Wales or at Prestwick in west Scotland is irrelevant, but the Bill is currently before the Lords, and there are hopes to have human flights and satellite launches from the UK by 2030 if not sooner.
And they won’t need to travel back to the Seventies to get up there. One UK world-leader, Reaction Engines, has got a pioneering air-breathing rocket technology which will potentially render obsolete the need for multiple stage spacecraft as we know it. Using its Sabre engines, which combines both jet and rocket technology, their aircraft of the future will be able to take off in a conventional sense, fly into space, and then zip along at speeds of Mach five or more. London to Sydney in minutes. Their Skylon aircraft will make Concorde look like a horseless carriage with a flunky running in front with a flag. Not for nothing has the government invested £60 million into Reaction Engine’s rocket technology — and BAE Systems has also bought into this rising star.
So there’s everything to play for, and Britain can be a world leader in space. With its position as one of the world’s biggest aviation manufacturers — and Lord Jones has been pointing out for nigh on 20 years, nearly half of the value of every Airbus that flies has been made in Britain — there is already a wealth of vitally important, highly aligned specialist expertise already here.
Regardless of Russia’s ambitions — or those of Elon Musk for that matter — the 21st century race for Space is on and Britain has a chance make up for shortsightedness of the past. Why shouldn’t the first Human to step foot on Mars be a Brit? (Jeremy Corbyn would be a perfect candidate.) The time has come. This is the moment for Britain to think big in Space. With Brexit upon us, we shouldn’t just confine ourselves to Global Britain, we can go universal. Now there’s a thought.
Alec Marsh is editor of Spear's