Has the UK Government been pushed out of its own Space industry?

20th Aug 2020
Skylark Micro

The UK Space Agency should be very worried by one particular development in the UK’s space activity that happened this week as there are signs that the country may actually be hampering its own progress by not appearing as an active partner in what appears to be huge milestones.

In a week when Boris Johnson announced that all major UK-funded projects will be emblazoned with the Union flag, it came as quite a surprise that there was no sign of either UK Government officials or people from the UK Space Agency in attendance, or actively promoting online, the Skyrora launch from Iceland. The event happened almost unnoticed by the media (we were also late in picking up on it) and with absolutely no mention from either UK Government officials or the UK Space Agency. Have Skyrora gone rogue & flying entirely solo?

The company released a video of the launch from the spectator’s area.

We would have thought that the company would inform UKSA of their intention to launch from Iceland – although we are unaware of what the protocol or procedures are in this sort of situation. At the very least, we would imagine that this was not a secret mission and that the UK and/or Scottish Governments would at least know about it. You don’t ship containers full of rocketry, rocket fuel etc. between countries without each country being made fully aware of the shipment. If you do, then there needs to be an urgent security review of UK’s borders and customs export procedures.

This was a significant oversight by the UK government and one that is likely to cause it some embarrassment further down the line.

It would also be fair to say that the Scottish Government had also missed a trick by not being in some way involved with this milestone.

Here we have a private company, which, as far as we understand, will be in receipt of some sort of government funding, building relations with our neighbouring countries and actively demonstrating that their ability to launch has no geographical limitation. And why is this important? Because they have demonstrated they have absolutely no good reason to tie themselves to the UK. They could elope to Iceland, Norway, Portugal or even to Ireland, which would cause considerable embarrassment for both the UK Government and the Scottish Government.

If these private Space companies decided that UK wasn’t moving fast enough for them (or some other reason) and they decided simply to turn their entire attention to launching elsewhere – Ireland or the Azores for example – it could lead to the UK losing its position as the first European country to launch into orbit from home soil. We are pretty sure that if the UK Government lost that opportunity to Ireland, then the fallout would be immense and the Government’s already shaky position could be made to look even more like they haven’t quite got a grip on things.

Not only did Skyrora perform a launch from Iceland, but social media was awash with photos of their CEO, Volodymyr Levykin with the Icelandic President and senior government officials, showing clearly that the country was welcoming them in with open arms.

What could the UK Government have done?

In line with Downing Street’s plans to stamp the Union flag onto every project it has funded, this was an opportunity to shout from the rooftops about the UK’s ability to work pro-actively with other countries in its space ambitions and to showcase its homegrown enterprises that are able to transport an entire mobile launch complex across a body of water as well as a launch vehicle and specialist team, conduct a successful launch with the full support of the host country – all with relative ease.

Particularly in light of Brexit, that in itself has shown the UK as isolationist, this sort of opportunity offered up a chance to present itself as more collaborative and to place its Union flag firmly onto this sort of project to demonstrate that it was genuine in its desire to be seen as innovative & forward thinking.

Of course we congratulate Skyrora on yet another milestone, but urge caution to the company as they are looking increasingly like they are the UK Space industry and that the Government’s backing of the likes of Lockheed Martin and some smaller, relatively obscure entities, is not worth the paper it is written on. Because those who closely monitor the industry will see where real progress is being made.

We are at a point where we are also witnessing the same across the Atlantic, with SpaceX and Blue Origin taking the limelight and making more progress in just a few years than the government has in decades. But, the fact that SpaceX has secured NASA contracts to transport astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station, show at least some sign that the Trump administration know that emblazing the American flag onto those missions allows them to claim them firmly as US successes.

The UK Government’s recently acquired stake in US satellite company, OneWeb, could be seen as a major step by the country to pin the Union flag onto some significant Space industry assets, and to a degree it does. However, that particular transaction is still relatively mired in some controversy when it was revealed the government thought they were buying a GPS satellite navigation system (or a network of satellites that could be used for such purpose – maybe with some modification), but it turned out the satellites required the addition of atomic clocks that would turn that particular ambition into one extremely expensive project, and potentially not even viable at all.

It all feels a bit like the UK Government haven’t quite got their eye on the ball, or are otherwise demonstrating extreme caution in collaborating with others as part of their Hard Brexit approach to “going it alone” and showing no visible or tangible reliance upon any third party. However, this has lead to them missing some very realistic opportunities.

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