Why Britain Should Have a National Space Agency
In 1971, just two years after the Apollo 11 mission sent mankind to the moon, Britain entered the space race with the successful launch of its Black Arrow rocket. Previously the third country to have a domestically-built satellite in orbit (Ariel 1 entered low earth orbit aboard a U.S rocket in 1962) it now joined an elite group of nations with a launch capability of its own. That included the United States and the USSR as well as the likes of China, Japan and France.
This was seen at the time as the start of Britain’s space programme, yet the launch of Black Arrow, along with its Prospero satellite, was to mark its end. A few months earlier the Heath government announced that it would be abandoned as a result of spiralling costs, and that this third, ultimately successful, launch would be its last. From then on, UK-made satellites would hitch a ride with other space agencies, with American Scout rockets viewed as offering better value in the short term than domestic technology. Within a year, half of the engineers who had successfully launched Britain’s first rocket into space were laid off.
In 2008, and at the fourth time of asking, the Falcon1 built by SpaceX became the first privately developed launch vehicle to go into Earth orbit. While technologically inferior to the hardware used by various international space agencies, this was to prove a signal moment: space exploration was now a viable private industry.
SpaceX’s niche was immediately clear: contracted work with the ever-expanding number of commercial and national agencies who were to put yet more satellites into orbit. While undoubtedly lucrative, that was merely a means to an end and its founder, Elon Musk, was explicit from the start about its the ultimate ambition: to outdo even nation-states in reviving manned exploration of the solar system. It was because of this, as he would repeatedly say, that the company would not be publicly listed. These were goals more far-sighted than the immediate demands of shareholders.
Over the intervening decade, SpaceX has been at the forefront of progress in the industry, both in terms of new accomplishments and reducing production times and costs. In 2010 it became the first privately funded company to successfully launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft. Two years later it became the first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station. Then, in the final months of 2015, it landed the first ever orbital rocket–something unprecedented even among national space programs at that point. Two years later, in another first, it successfully reused a rocket that had already been in Earth orbit. Those final two achievements are particularly important. Not only did they illustrate the meteoric progress of the company’s research and development, they also signalled that space transportation - whether cargo to the ISS or satellites - would now become cheaper with each passing year.
The speed at which SpaceX has developed its programme, and the new technology this has been contingent on, is difficult to express. Whereas NASA’s space shuttle had 2.5 million moving parts, SpaceX machines presently have around 100,000. But it doesn't end there. With 3D printing being applied to ever more components, newer startups think they might soon be able to build rockets with 1,000 moving parts or less–fewer than most cars. While they don’t yet produce reuseable rockets, RocketLab are playing a similar game by building smaller machines–slightly smaller than the original Falcon1–which are intended to cost less than $5 million per launch. As a result their payloads will have to be lightweight: not much of a problem with the growing market in microsatellites and ‘nanosats’. In addition to increasingly regular launches (the company hopes to do two a week in the next few years) putting their payloads into orbit will use less fuel than flying a 737 from New York to Los Angeles.
While certainly less headline-grabbing than sending a car into space, Rocketlab’s Electron rocket went into orbit for the first time last month. It could well be companies like it, rather than SpaceX, which will be the water-carriers of this incipient industry.
This weekend, again without much fanfare, SpaceX will be launching prototype satellites for what it hopes will be a space-based internet. Under the name ‘Starlink’ the plan is to launch several thousand satellites into space by 2024, with this immense infrastructure meaning everyone on Earth–anytime, any place–can have access to ultra-fast 5G internet. The cost for this seemingly gargantuan project is expected to be somewhere between $10-20 billion. While that might sound like a lot, it will ultimately be about half the money that the UK government got for auctioning 3G spectrum in 2000 ($35 billion). And yet, despite the developmental advantages for the Global South (not to mention improving quality of life for just about everyone) nobody is discussing whether states, rather than private companies, should be building this near priceless infrastructure.
As of 2018, the United Kingdom is the only country to have successfully developed and then abandoned a satellite launch capability. What SpaceX could do by 2008, the British Space Agency had achieved by 1971–the same year that Elon Musk was born. Given that, the idea that private enterprise is uniquely capable of innovation while the unwieldy state lumbers behind is patently false. Now with the huge research and development costs of rocket technology footed by publicly funded research for seventy years, a private space industry finally beckons.
Despite the ideological glitz, what SpaceX rockets do is fundamentally no different to what the Black Arrow more than four decades ago. Indeed the core concept of rocket boosters remains the design of the German V2 rocket, the first machine humans sent to space in 1944. The mastermind behind that program, Werner Von Braun, was smuggled out of Germany by U.S forces in the final months of the war along with many of his colleagues. Over the next quarter of a century he would work for NASA, leading on the production of the giant Saturn V rockets that were used for the Apollo missions. The Falcon Heavy may be more powerful than anything built in recent years, but in terms of thrust and weight it still falls short of a machine principally designed by someone born before the first world war.
What has changed since then is the burgeoning information revolution. Almost unbelievably, the reusable SpaceX rockets are self-piloting when they land. This was inconceivable just a few years ago, and as recently as 1997 (when NASA sent the Mars Pathfinder to the red planet) they expected it to land within an ellipse 150 kilometres across its major axis. In plain English that’s like throwing something at a moving dartboard thirty feet away; accuracy is unlikely. And yet today, with technology similar to that which will soon become ubiquitous with autonomous vehicles and drones, Falcon rockets land within ellipses of 60 and 20 meters across, whether its on a Cape Canaveral landing pad or one of SpaceX’s sea-going barges.
That mesmeric change has nothing to do with Elon Musk or SpaceX, and everything to do with the exponential progress of computational power, digital imaging, bandwidth and data storage. Furthermore the rise of 3D printing, while often generally overstated, is a game-changer in this industry. Much of the Rutherford engine used by RocketLab’s Electron rocket was 3D printed; something that will become increasingly common. Between this and the continuation (if gradual deceleration) of Moore’s Law, the costs of entry to space are dramatically falling. That explains why SpaceX can now feasibly aim to create a global 5G internet for about the same amount as the personal fortune of a middling global oligarch. As the industry increasingly resembles an information technology (rather than just powerful machines moving as fast as possible) costs will continue to plummet.
Peter Diamandis, one of the principle ideologues of Silicon Valley, has repeatedly claimed that the world’s first trillionaires will be in the space industry. That seems like a decent bet and it may even be Musk–after all, SpaceX isn’t a publicly listed company and he’s been clear on not taking it to IPO until the company’s ‘Mars Colonial Transporter’ is flying regularly. That makes sense once you consider the possibility of global 5G internet and the fact that the capital stock of the ever rising number of satellites currently in Earth orbit already exceeds half a trillion dollars. And that’s before we think about potential resource extraction of near Earth asteroids with literally quadrillions of dollars worth of resources such as platinum, gold, nickel and cobalt.
But why is it preferable that space industries create trillionaires rather than ensure everyone on Earth has access to free, ultra-fast 5G? For the Global South, which is far more connected than many in Europe and North America fully comprehend, this would be a boon, providing them with instant access to information such as prices of goods, knowledge of the weather, the ability to communicate and coordinate, pay taxes and conduct financial transactions. And all that for the same as what Britain currently pays in its annual overseas aid budget.
In what will be one of the fastest growing industries of the next several decades it’s no wonder, then, that the UK’s industry recently called on the government to launch a national space program and while there are, as yet, no calls to pull Britain out of the European Space Agency, British companies are almost certain to be excluded from working on two of its biggest projects–the Earth observation system Copernicus and the Galileo GPS programme–as they receive EU funding.
But perhaps withdrawal would be for the best. After all, the idea that nation-states must collaborate in the field because of its high cost of entry is quickly being proven false. If that is to happen it must be soon and decisive–Britain has sufficient skills and resources, and private enterprise has yet to completely subsume the gains of publicly-funded research. By starting small and replicating the likes of RocketLab it could, in time, look to create its own global 5G internet–offering everyone on Earth the internet for free–before handing it over to the UN for supervision, specifically the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). This isn’t turning back the clock, it’s inventing the future. Because either we do it, or the oligarchs will.