The space industry is rapidly pacing forward, and ever more governments and agencies enter agreements that boost their space capabilities. To date, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) is one of the leading bodies to regulate these agreements and formulate space policies worldwide.
One of the recent UN initiatives, supervised by UNOOSA, is called the 2030 Agenda and is designed to use space capabilities for the betterment of our home planet. This implies using satellites for a variety of tasks, from climate change monitoring to improving farming conditions. But most importantly, the agenda is designed to urge all space countries to develop sustainable space technologies that would not endanger our planet.
Of course, the initiative implies collaboration between governments and aerospace companies. Now that the private space sector is growing, governments no longer play a crucial part in space exploration. And even though space technology is becoming more affordable, developing space tech is still a pricey and sophisticated process that calls for international collaboration.
On the other hand, some countries (the UK in particular) may rely on foreign talent too much. As the UK keeps advancing with its spaceport construction, aiming to become the first space-faring nation in Europe, it signs plenty of contracts with foreign launch providers like Orbex Space — despite having its own satellite and rocket building companies. So is international collaboration truly necessary, or should the governments try to invest in local talent?
Today, the speed of deploying spacecraft to orbits is truly stunning, which is no wonder why international space entities and companies like Orbex Space are willing to collaborate within the UNOOSA framework. NASA is probably one of the largest technology contributors, offering plenty of innovative solutions that reshape the world. Aiming to explore space, NASA tapped into bacteria as a clean and renewable energy source. This solution can help obtain electricity as the result of microbes breaking down and clean polluted waters.
NASA actively monitors our planet via satellites, offering insight on climate change and identifying any risk areas to respond to any challenges resulting from natural disasters like floods, earthquakes, and forest fires.
Asian-Pacific countries actively use satellite data to address healthcare challenges and combat the consequences of the COVID 19 pandemic. These satellites analyze the effect of lockdowns and help address many arising problems before they happen.
The European Space Agency (ESA) has satellite navigation program Galileo and recently approved an Earth Observation project, Copernicus. Copernicus will help track any changes on our planet and help come up with solutions to pressing problems.
The UK Space Agency actively participates in the ESA programme, contributing considerable sums of money to strengthen its international space relations, which includes funding Orbex Space and the rest. Besides, the UK has another agenda of building its own spaceports, and it actively attracting local and foreign investment, signing agreements with British and international companies like Orbex Space.
Like most other space organizations today, the UK is focused on the sustainable use of space and Earth resources. Great Britain has one of the strictest laws when it comes to fuel emissions, which is why some people doubt the country’s involvement in rocket launches to begin with, not to mention funding foreign-originating companies like Orbex Space.
On the other hand, UKSA’s involvement in the International Partnership Programme (IPP) gives the country access to tech innovations from all over the globe. IPP began in 2016, and soon after, the UK became the recipient of the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) award. The award was granted due to Great Britain’s involvement in satellite technology to prevent the spread of malaria, stop human trafficking and forced labour.
Still, changing the world comes at a price — in case of IPP, £30 million a year. Part of this funding goes to international projects, ranging across 44 countries and 120 space organizations.
To be fair, the UKSA supports local space industry development as well — mostly by funding rapidly developing companies in Scotland. Right now, the UK is formulating a legal framework for rocket launches that may happen as soon as 2022. Allocating grants to spaceport construction should eventually make the UK an independent space power, with its own rocket and satellite makers, launch operators, and spaceports.
Still, there is a catch. The same IPP that gives the UK access to international tech innovations also presupposes launches from UK soil. The initiative will surely result in revenue to the UK’s budget, but once again — too many experts wonder if the UK should place such high hopes on foreign operators like Orbex Space, Lockheed Martin and the rest, actively signing launch agreements with future UK spaceports.
Even as future spaceports sign agreements with foreign-originating companies like Orbex and Virgin, local aerospace industry in the UK keeps growing. Today, Scotland is the UK’s space hub, producing more satellites than any other region in Europe.
Like in any other country, commercial companies take the lead in space innovation. Some of the best examples in the UK’s private space category are:
This list can go on for pages, but the point is clear — the UK has plenty of promising local companies, perfectly capable of pushing its space industry forward. On the other hand, most proposed spaceport projects have already signed launch contracts with foreign-originating providers like Orbex Space.
Of course, the UKSA has its reasons for funding foreign originating companies like Orbex Space — mainly because spaceport construction is not cheap. So, allocating grants to Orbex Space and the rest gives a chance to save some money on launchpad construction. On the other hand, the choice of launch providers could have been more careful.
While some US-based companies planning to launch from UK spaceports have an impeccable reputation (i.e., Virgin Orbit registered in the US but owned by a British businessman), others do not. For example, many experts are concerned about giving grants to the UK division of the major US Defense contractor Lockheed Martin.
Even more industry specialists wonder why would the UKSA support Orbex Space, with its pretty dubious reputation. As already mentioned, spaceport construction is not a cheap undertaking, and the UKSA’s funds will not be enough to implement all of its ambitious projects. Space Hub Sutherland — the site both Orbex Space and local Skyrora plan to use — is currently estimated at £100 million, and not all of this funding has been secured.
So, UKSA urges private investors to support the project. While some entities, including spaceport developer Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, are ready to open up their pockets, others are in no rush to support spaceports that would have foreigners as its primary launch providers — especially unproven ones like Orbex Space.
Some spaceports, like Shetland with its Lockheed Martin and Cornwall with its Virgin Orbit, choose contractors more wisely. Even though both are foreign companies, Virgin and Lockheed already carry out successful launches. In case of Sutherland, neither Orbex Space nor Skyrora have carried out a single orbital launch. To be fair, it looks like Skyrora will succeed because it already has a series of operational rockets and successful firing tests from UK soil.
On the other hand, Orbex declares to be launch-ready sooner than Skyrora, but to date, Orbex Prime rocket has not passed a single firing test. So, it is no wonder that many investors doubt if Orbex Space will even be able to deliver on its promises. Given that Orbex was founded in Denmark by Peter Madsen, serving a life sentence for murder, it’s no big surprise that conservative British investors would rather spend their money somewhere else.
Then again, there is a question of UKSA’s £2.5 million grant to Orbex Space. In comparison to funds allocated to Virgin and Lockheed — £7.5 and £23.5, respectively — the sum Orbex received is insignificant. Still, given that the UKSA’s employee that finalized the grant was hired by Orbex Space soon after, the British space experts started asking reasonable questions about the transparency of Orbex’s financial affairs.
International Partnership Programme does have its benefits. On the other hand, UKSA’s support of foreigners like Orbex Space is a rather questionable choice. To be fair, Orbex alone is not the problem, despite its rather tarnished reputation and unproven Orbex Prime rocket. The issue is welcoming too many foreign launchers. Many British experts reasonably wonder where would the local taxpayers’ money truly go. Besides, it is unclear if Orbex and the rest will keep the UK’s interests in mind. So, the only reasonable suggestion would be to support fewer foreigners like Orbex Space and more local companies like Spire and Skyrora.
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