Asking the Hard Questions About UK Space Policy
Because the Royal Society will not
by Patrick Collins
The current debate in Britain over whether the government should support "manned space flight" will unfortunately not likely result in benefits for the public…because the terms being used hide the most important issue.
The critical fact being obscured is that governments' continuing refusal to support the development of low-cost space travel -- for more than 50 years so far -- is the single most costly error of economic policy of the post-WWII era.
As previously discussed on SpaceFuture, sub-orbital space travel in piloted reusable vehicles could have started during the 1950s, since the technology was developed in Germany in the 1940s. If that had happened, orbital travel could have started in the 1960s and would by now be an industry vying in importance with air travel. Just think of the jobs that could have been created. Instead, we have our fingers crossed that sub-orbital travel services are going to start in 2010 -- 60 years after they could have started.
Sadly, none of the contributions to the debate reported in the press mention this vital fact. For example, one contributor whose comments have received a good deal of attention is Martin Rees, the current president of the Royal Society. It would seem reasonable that such a leading scientist would be well informed. But he speaks as though "manned space flight" can only be with NASA at costs that are far too high to be worthwhile.
So Rees' argument that Britain, and indeed Europe, should stop government funding of human space activities and concentrate on robotics "...because NASA's way is too expensive" is extremely deceptive. How could any member of the public, hearing this, understand that there is another, far less costly, far more beneficial option?
Even allowing for the fact that the Royal Society is more interested in science than in economics or business, there is really no excuse for such ill-informed comment. Does its president really not know that Britain built and test-flew a rocket-plane in 1957? And that an updated version of this, the "Ascender" spaceplane, could be built at a cost of just 3 months of Britain's annual space budget?
If he is not, why not? This was stated at the same session of the Science & Technology Select Committee at which he himself testified.
Furthermore, a member of the committee said to this author: "That is the most astounding claim you have just made…", and asked for further written information on the subject. This was provided and is published on the committee's website, along with Martin Rees' and other witnesses' written testimonies here.
So why, a year later, does the president of the Royal Society -- who surely has a very serious responsibility to the British people to speak with as much scientific accuracy as possible -- continue to speak in such misleading terms? Does he care so little about the truth?
The scientific truth on this subject is that Britain could have an operational sub-orbital spaceplane prototype, capable of carrying people to space and back, at a cost of 10% of the current civil space budget over just 3 years. More and more companies and governments around the world now agree that passenger travel is the most promising commercial activity in space as British researchers have been publicly explaining for more than 20 years.
So surely the president of the Royal Society should explain to the British government how it can use "manned space flight" to fulfill the long-standing objective of British "space policy": namely to "..help industry maximise profitable space-based business opportunities."
Although the British government is often said to be mean in funding space development, over the past 20 years it has spent nearly 4,000 million pounds, or about 6 billion Euros! About half of this has been spent on scientific projects; the other half, on activities claimed (incorrectly) to be "commercial."
If this were normal commercial investment, it would have created a commercial industry with revenues of some 2 billion pounds/year, which would directly create around 30,000 jobs. But in fact this huge investment has created almost no new jobs at all. If the government cut its budget, most of the people who get this money would lose their jobs. Why? Because the government refuses to invest in the one project which is commercially far more promising than any other: passenger travel.
Nor is this unknown. This very policy was bluntly criticised as having "failed" by the Parliamentary Trade & Industry Committee back in 2000. In spite of this, the minister responsible for this waste, David Sainsbury, continued to spend most of the supposedly commercial budget on the same loss-making surveillance satellite projects and nothing on passenger travel, despite the Select Committee urging this.
Six years later the result is the same as before: no new jobs, and no prospect of any.
By contrast, the potential for passenger space travel to grow into a major new industry like passenger air travel is now widely understood to be very high. So it cannot be argued rationally that it is better for British taxpayers to have spent nothing on even investigating this possibility, and instead to have used all their funds on uncommercial surveillance satellites. But this is the policy that HMG has pursued for 20 years, while maintaining silence about passenger travel.
(Unfortunately Sainsbury resigned after the Science & Technology Select Committee announced its investigation of space policy, so he has never had to answer the question why he chose to pursue this economically disastrous policy. Government accountability requires that he should be cross-questioned about it.)
The state of space habitation technology is very similar to launch vehicles: the cost of the ISS to date is US$100,000 million and counting. At such an absurd cost, it was definitely not worth building, as the British Science Research Council and the American National Science Foundation have correctly argued for decades (though the press rarely mention this). But this does not mean that safe, low-cost, comfortable habitation in orbit should not have been built, as it could have been decades ago; this can be done for a few thousandths of this cost, as Bigelow Aerospace is demonstrating.
Consequently, the terms used in the current public discussion about whether Britain should participate in "manned space flight" are seriously misleading.
The public should not be asked it they support "space exploration" and "manned space flight," that is, government astronauts riding on expendable rockets and performing "missions" for the government, which create essentially no new jobs, at great cost to taxpayers.
The public should be asked more useful questions, such as:
- Do you think the government should continue to refuse any funding for low-cost passenger space travel, which research shows is the most promising new market for space technology?
- NASA-funded research shows that sub-orbital space flight services could grow into a market several times larger than commercial satellite launches. Do you think Britain should continue to refuse any funding for a sub-orbital spaceplane which could eventually reduce a passenger flight to 3,000 pounds?
- For the past 20 years, British researchers have argued that space travel is the most promising direction for space development, but they have received no funding at all for their work. Now that other countries are investing in developing such systems, do you think Britain too should finally participate (in order to try to salvage something from these two wasted decades)?
- Economic growth in space depends, above all, on low launch costs. Passenger travel seems to offer the key to enabling low-cost space travel and hence commercial development of space. Do you think Britain should invest 10% of its annual space budget in realising it?
Anyone who is interested in seeing a commercially profitable space industry growing to millions of passengers/year, and leading on to large-scale employment in space, would surely vote a resounding "Yes" to all of these. What is there to lose? The answer: A few tens of millions of pounds which would otherwise be spent on even more loss-making surveillance satellite systems.
For further referenced arguments, see SpaceFuture's written submissions: Memorandum 15 and Memorandum 109 here.