It's a little surprising that the land of Sir Isaac Newton does not have its own space agency. An attempt to fill that void came with the announcement in December that the UK would create a "bureaucracy busting" organization to oversee British civilian space and satellite activities.
Now comes the hard part. The announcement did not specify who will lead the new agency, how much funding it will receive, how those funds will be distributed and to what projects, or where the agency will be based, among other things. "All that has happened is that a decision has been taken to set up a space agency," says Richard Peckham, business development director for space systems company EADS Astrium and chairman of UKspace, a space industry trade association. At press time, a government working group was being set up to sort out the many details.
Until it does, space activities will continue to be coordinated through a small office called the British National Space Centre. Unlike the new agency, the BNSC doesn't have its own funds to distribute or its own research agenda. The money instead comes from 10 government entities; the BNSC's role is to establish which department or research council or office will pay for what. If the program crosses disciplines or applications—as the European Union's Galileo global navigation system does—that process can quickly bog down.
"BNSC is almost like a beggar with a hat," says Peckham. "They spend a lot of time trying to stitch together funding, sometimes without success, and we end up not joining an important program simply because departments won't fund it." As a result, he says, the UK rarely takes the lead in proposing new efforts. "There's no continuity, no real strategic approach to space," he says. "It's very ad hoc." The British government spent about £230 million (US $370 million) last year on civilian space programs, about 90 percent of which gets funneled into the European Space Agency.
The idea of creating an independent space agency first emerged in the 1980s, says Rob Coppinger, a writer and blogger for the aerospace publisher Flight. "We got the BNSC instead," he says. The idea was resurrected three years ago during a national review of space policy, and momentum began building last July, when ESA announced it would set up its first UK-based research center in Oxfordshire.
Experts hope the new agency will lift Britain's standing among space-faring nations. The December announcement was "widely welcomed by the whole UK space community," says Richard Holdaway, director of space science and technology at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, where the new ESA space center is based. The country already has world-leading expertise in space-based instrumentation and microsatellite technology, he notes, as well as a robust space industry that generates about £6.5 billion of revenue and employs some 68 000 people.
"There are huge economic and educational benefits to having a space program," Holdaway says. "The general sentiment is that now is the time to set up a space agency."
This article originally appeared in print as "UK Gets a Space Agency of Its Very Own."