The British government on Dec. 10 announced it would create a national space agency to replace the British National Space Centre (BNSC), which coordinates space investments made by a dozen government agencies but has had no program budget of its own.
BNSC Director General David Williams on Dec. 11 said the new agency is expected to be operational before the end of 2010 following a broad government discussion of areas including how the new agency handles military space work, and how far it should go in backing programs that have passed the research-and-development stage.
The decision, announced by Britain’s science minister, Lord Drayson, represents British acknowledgement that the BNSC structure puts Britain at a disadvantage as it negotiates work for its industry at the 18-nation European Space Agency (ESA) and, increasingly, with the 27-nation European Union.
In a speech announcing the decision, Drayson said the BNSC has worked well enough to help assure that Britain’s space industry today is thriving and “recession-proof.” Nonetheless, he said: “[W]e do need to raise our game in several areas — like strategic decision-making, like leading multi-partner programs, 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 organization. It will put the machinery of government fully behind the sector.”
In an interview, Williams said the budget of the space agency will depend on how well its managers argue their case in Britain’s three-year revolving budget cycles. He said he is optimistic that a coordinated program will win more overall government budget support than occurs now, with the BNSC partner agencies each limited to backing missions pertinent to their individual mandates in science, environmental protection and other areas.
Britain’s civil space budget is around 270 million British pounds ($444 million) per year, 90 percent of which goes to ESA, to which Britain is the fourth-biggest contributor after France, Germany and Italy.
Williams said the government now will need to address what the new space agency’s operating limits will be.
“How far do we go into the defense area? How far into operational services such as meteorology, or into … areas such as Earth observation? These are areas that need to be settled,” Williams said. “Also important to resolve is the question of how the agency will respond to what is expected to be coming out of the [European Union’s executive commission] in the coming years.”
British industry has long backed the creation of a space agency, arguing that the BNSC partnership structure has been unable, on occasion, to marshal the resources needed to secure contracts for British industry.
One of the more prominent examples was Britain’s inability to fund a sufficient share of one of ESA’s Sentinel environmental monitoring satellites to guarantee Britain’s Astrium Ltd. the role of prime contractor even though the Sentinel missions are in line with British government policy.
ESA prime contractors are selected based on how much each nation invests in a given mission. The failure to secure the Sentinel mission, British industry officials said, illustrated the limits of the BNSC structure, which was designed to limit space investment to programs of such interest to end users that the relevant government agencies would finance them on their own.
Richard Peckham, chairman of UKspace, which represents Britain’s space industry, backed the decision, saying in a Dec. 10 statement that a space agency “will enable a far greater return on the country’s investment in the space sector. With the space industry showing itself resistant to the recession and with an annual growth rate of 9 percent, space provides an example of the sort of high-tech industry that can lead economic recovery.”