On Her Majesty's space agency

by Ian Randall
Thursday, January 5, 2012

The United Kingdom is to have its own dedicated space agency, U.K. Minister for Science Lord Paul Drayson announced last month. Supporters of the U.K. space program hope the agency, which will coordinate all of Britain’s space activities, will not only bring more jobs and income but will also increase the profile of the space program.

The new agency did have a predecessor, the British National Space Centre (BNSC). That group, however, consisted of a voluntary partnership between 10 different government departments and research councils, and was staffed by civil servants from those departments on a rotating basis. The new agency, in contrast, will have a single staff and budget, similar other countries' national space programs.

As such, the agency will act to coordinate and streamline the work of the many organizations that manage the U.K.'s space program, while acting as a representative for the U.K. in business with its overseas partners. The agency was established after 12 weeks of discussion between the industry, the government and advisors.

The agency has yet to be given a title: A competition is to be held to select an appropriate name. Lord Drayson already has a suggestion, favoring “Her Majesty's Space Agency.”

Since 1999, the space industry has grown by about 9 percent each year — more than three times faster than the rest of the economy, said Lord Drayson in a speech given at the 5th Appleton Space Conference last month. The conference, held at the Rutherford Appleton laboratory in Oxfordshire, is an annual celebration of the U.K. space industry. Currently, the space industry contributes about $11 billion annually to the British economy.

The creation of a national space agency in Britain is a sign of growing governmental interest in involvement in future space projects, Drayson said. For example, he added, such an agency would be key in securing cross-governmental support for the space program and related education and outreach. “It will put the machinery of government fully behind the sector … and it will prioritize U.K. involvement in future space projects.”

With many countries establishing their plans to carve a place in the space exploration of the near future, the U.K. is keen to firmly establish the infrastructure that will enable it to join its international brethren. In fact, a British company, Surrey Satellites, recently landed a contract to build Sri Lanka's first observation and communications satellites; while the U.K. is also set to be at the core of a joint NASA/European Space Agency scheme to explore Mars in the near future.

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