I have an announcement to make.
The UK is going to have an executive space agency – a single, coherent organisation to support an industry and a research base that are one of the best advertisements for the UK.
Space directly employs 20,000 people in this country.
It contributes £6.8 billion to the UK economy.
And here’s perhaps the most impressive achievement: our space sector has been recession proof.
Astrium recently won a €500 million contract to manufacture four Eurostar 3000 telecommunications satellites. Facilities in Stevenage and Portsmouth will be handling much of the build.
Surrey Satellites has signed an agreement to build Sri Lanka’s first Earth observation satellite, and has already started work on that country’s first communications satellite.
Systems Engineering and Assessment has sealed a deal to provide the remote interface units being used on the BepiColombo mission to explore Mercury.
The space industry has grown in real terms by around nine per cent per annum since 1999/2000 – more than three times faster than the economy as a whole.
Going forwards, it’s forecast to maintain average annual growth of five per cent until 2020 – and, on their own, commitments made at last year’s ESA ministerial meeting have provided work for UK space companies for at least the next five years.
In fact, space provides the strongest rebuttal to all those people who knock the UK and argue that we no longer have the right stuff when it comes to manufacturing.
Think about it. Space is the toughest environment of all, where systems and components are subjected to the ultimate workout – instruments required to function at just a tenth of a degree above absolute zero. When you send multi-million pound kit into orbit, there are no second chances.
We compete in this environment – and we win.
A fundamental reason for that is that you’d be hard placed to find another sector where industry and the research base are so wedded together.
The knowledge transfer relationships are long established here – and the basic story of UK space is outstanding science delivering strong commercial returns.
As we rebalance the economy, this is precisely the high-value, highly-skilled, technologically advanced area we must focus on: for jobs, for growth, for prosperity.
Hence the agency.
The recent public consultation on the funding and management of our civil space activities found that the current partnership structure has served a useful purpose.
Through the existing system – and in the past year alone – the Herschel and Planck satellites are gathering the most detailed information we have about the birth and evolution of our Universe.
The European Space Agency centre has opened here at Harwell, a facility that will lead Europe on integrated applications, robotic exploration and the management of climate change data.
It will soon be joined by the International Space Innovation Centre, where publicly-funded science will take place right alongside industrial R&D. Together, the ESA and ISIC centres will serve as a vital cluster to exploit our competitive advantage.
But the majority of respondents to the consultation agreed that we do need to raise our game in several areas – like strategic decision making, like leading multi-partner programmes, like extending the space technologies in other high-tech, high-growth areas.
That’s what the new agency will do – not through more money, but through better organisation.
It will put the machinery of government fully behind the sector. It will secure cross-Whitehall decisions and buy-in on space-related issues – including education and outreach – and it will prioritise UK involvement in future space projects.
We need that unified approach to grab a greater share of the global market in space systems, services and applications – and remain at the forefront of advanced manufacturing.
Other countries have similar ambitions. At the moment, I’d venture that the UK is the place to be for space scientists and entrepreneurs.
Only yesterday, for example, we announced a new tax measure to support innovation – the patent box.
Businesses built on patents – as many in this sector are – will benefit from a 10 per cent rate on corporation tax.
That’s great progress – and we need to keep going in what is an increasingly competitive global market.
In the last 12 months, we’ve seen India – which has a comprehensive programme of launchers, telecommunication and Earth observation satellites – send its first probe to the Moon; carrying – I might add – an instrument built here at Rutherford Appleton.
The Canadian Space Agency has received a stimulus package worth $100 million to boost its robotics capability.
There’s been no let up in China’s programme to launch dozens of spacecraft, build its first manned space station, and dispatch probes to both the Moon and Mars.
It’s early days for the agency. A cross-Government group will now meet to begin planning the way forward – and there will be a formal agency launch in due course, where we’ll reveal its name.
If you saw the Times yesterday, you’ll know there’s already been some speculation about that.
Today, we’re also publishing an independent review of space exploration – one that’s unique in attempting to quantify the potential economic benefits from future human or robotic activities.
Although the broader economic climate means we’re not in a position to change our current approach to investment in space exploration, the data in this report will inform the work of the space Innovation and Growth Team – and, later, the agency. It only reinforces the case for space as a major growth sector.
For now, let’s celebrate an excellent 2009 – strong on the science side, strong on the commercial side.
I’ve had two personal highlights as minister.
The first was meeting apprentices at Astrium – young people describing the thrill of working on equipment being dispatched to the far reaches of space.
The other was news of Tim Peake’s success for being selected as one of ESA’s Astronaut Corps.
I know that BNSC are working on a publicity campaign featuring Tim that will encourage young people to study science subjects in school. Space has a unique capacity to inspire and Tim has iconic potential.
Next year, we’ll see more data from Herschel and Planck. The UK-led Cryosat mission to study ice thickness at the poles. The launch of the Hylas spacecraft, developed by start-up company Avanti Communications, which will deliver broadband across Europe to people unable to use surface links. And the imminent report from the IGT setting out a 20-year strategy for the sector.
So these are exciting times. Promising times.
A joint NASA/ESA programme of Mars exploration is being finalised with the UK at its heart. Space technology is being built in this very lab to monitor illegal destruction of the rain forests. And about 200 miles above our heads, there’s now a fully functional scientific laboratory on the International Space Station, conducting medical, material and biological research.
What we’ve got to do is build on what the UK already does extremely well, and really go for growth – growth backed by the agency.
The late Werner von Braun, arguably the greatest rocket engineer of the 20th century, once made a rather elegant quip. He said: “There is just one thing I can promise you about the outer-space programme: your dollar will go further.”
Von Braun’s observation applies in any currency. So let’s get our full pound’s worth – up there and down here.
Because, if you look carefully this sector, you can glimpse Britain’s future: built on great science, employing the most highly-skilled physicists and engineers, manufacturing leading-edge technologies in demand worldwide.
It’s a great future.