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National space agency for Blighty, says Drayson

Skylon spaceplane fleet to follow? Hmm...

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Biznovation minister Lord Drayson has announced that the UK is to get a proper space agency along the same lines as the USA's NASA, French CNES and German DLR.

Until now, British government space business has been handled by a loose alliance of departments and research councils - though the UK commercial space sector has become a major world player, approaching the turnover of Blighty's car industry.

"Our space sector hasn't missed a beat during this recession," said Drayson, addressing the Rutherford Appleton Space Conference in Didcot, Oxfordshire yesterday.

"This is the classic story of outstanding UK science and entrepreneurship continuing to create jobs and achieve exceptional growth."

The nearest thing the UK has had to a space agency thus far is the British National Space Centre, a liaison group between the various government bodies concerned with space - six Whitehall departments, two research councils, the Technology Strategy Board and the Met Office.

Meanwhile, without making a lot of ink (except occasionally from us here at the Reg), the UK space biz has become a major industrial player. The sector is now judged to have a turnover of between £6.5bn and £7bn, achieved on the back of meagre government spending of just £270m (mostly in the form of contributions to unmanned European Space Agency projects). Some 68,000 workers are employed in Blighty's various space enterprises.

By way of comparison, the perpetually ailing mainstream British automotive sector* has turnover of £9.8bn - only a bit more than space - but gets enormously more in the way of government support.

A central space agency would seem a long overdue step for a fairly major space nation. But the plans aren't detailed - Drayson didn't specify a timetable, much less a budget.

Then there's the matter of manned spaceflight. Blighty has long had a firm policy against paying for manned space missions, even as part of the ESA coalition. (Despite this, the ESA has lately selected British Army test pilot Tim Peake as an astronaut - fairly openly hinting as it did so that the UK might care to rethink its manned-missions policy.) Can a proper space agency really continue with this stance?

All these matters need to be settled before plans can become firm, and it seems fairly likely that Drayson's remaining tenure as a minister is now to be measured in months. He may not get the chance to turn words into deeds.

However it appears that the agency, at least in the form of a bureaucracy of some sort if not a serious national space programme, will become a reality anyway. We contacted the Tories for comment, and got a response from shadow Science minister Adam Afriyie:

We welcome the creation of a British Space Agency but this announcement smacks of pre-election spin. Clearly the devil will be in the detail and we’ll be examining the proposals very closely...

There is a clear case for improving space policy coordination and I hope a new agency and a new government can take the industry forward.

Meanwhile, there is of course the knotty question of what the proposed body should be called. The Tories' "British Space Agency" tag has the merit of being simple, but rather humdrum. Just to get the ball rolling, we would offer the "Department/Directorate of Astronautical Research and Exploration": DARE, in honour of Blighty's best-known fictional space ace.

Let's hope that this bold new initiative will see British astronauts of the future hurtling into orbit aboard brilliant Blighty-designed Skylon spaceplanes, before assembling the payloads into part-British deepspace plasma drive void cruisers and heading out to the planets.

Even if it does seem likelier that in fact nothing much will change. ®

* As opposed to motorsport, which is another huge UK industry success story.

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