12 November 2000
News - Tourism (Bad)
British Government's Reply to 'Space Tourism Report' Avoids the Key Economic Issue!
...Duped by Own Space Agency?
by Patrick Collins
On October 27 the British government published its reply to the recent tenth Report of its Select Committee on Trade and Industry which had recommended an independent review of launch vehicle investment policy, including the issue of passenger travel. This was the first time that any country's space policy has been challenged on this issue at such a high politicial level - and the Blair government's response illustrates well the bitter resistance of the existing 'space industry' to long-overdue change - because it totally ignores the central economic issue raised by the Select Committee!

In the 1980s the Thatcher administration made a break with past British 'space policy', insisting that government-funded space activities should be justified either on scientific or on economic grounds; the vague catch-all objective of 'technology development' used by space agencies in other countries was not acceptable grounds for committing British taxpayers' money. The present government has continued that policy to some extent, most notably by maintaining the refusal to participate in either the 'Ariane 5' satellite launcher or the 'International Space Station' - making Britain unique among leading countries in saving large amounts of taxpayers' money from these loss-making projects.

However, the present administration has spent hundreds of millions of pounds on other uneconomic space-related activities, while continually refusing to provide any funding whatever for the only activity that promises to make space profitable - passenger travel.

This economically upside-down policy is particularly unsatisfactory since the British company Bristol Spaceplanes is widely recognised for its pioneering work in this field: it was singled out for praise in Nasa's space tourism report, and its strategy is increasingly being copied by US space entrepreneurs. But it has been prevented for years from receiving even the smallest financial backing by statements by the 'British National Space Centre' (BNSC) that investing in launch vehicles is against British government policy.

The Select Committee reported that, contrary to what the BNSC had long been saying, it is not British government policy not to invest in launch vehicles. The Committee also revealed the fact that the BNSC has performed no analysis whatsoever on which to base its continued refusal to allow Bristol Spaceplanes any funding. The Select Committee also noted that the BNSC's claims to be screening activities for commercial potential is largely a sham, since its expenditure of hundreds of millions of pounds on Earth observation is hopelessly uncommercial, and was based on no more than "...an expression of general but unsubstantiated hope that commercial markets will be generated..." (!)

As a result of this evidence that the BNSC is misallocating taxpayers' money on a huge scale, the Select Committee recommended that the government should perform a review of policy towards investment in launch systems, including passenger travel, independent of the BNSC, which it concluded is irremediably biased on this matter.

It is therefore breath-taking that the British government's response says NOT ONE SINGLE WORD about the matter of passenger space travel - thereby entirely overlooking what it is soon going to become the largest business activity in space!

The government appears to have just let the BNSC write their reply for them, and its refusal to even address this subject (exactly like Nasa administrator Goldin's cover-up of space tourism) represents government at its worst - doing anything to save face, rather than what is in the economic interest of taxpayers. Both the BNSC and Nasa are well aware that to admit that space travel is a good, indeed the best, direction for investment is to admit that they have been wrong for years - and so they are putting off that 'evil day' for as long as possible.

Give Them Enough Rope......

But by allowing the BNSC to write the government's reply to the Select Committee, which does not even mention this central economic issue, the government has proved the Select Committee's main point - that in this matter the BNSC is incapable of giving unbiased advice. Sadly, like every other space agency, the BNSC clearly places more importance on defending its own narrow interests than on the economic interests of taxpayers.

The government's counter-proposal was to use a computer model developed by British Aerospace to "...reassess the combined effects of development costs and timescales, revenue streams, market entry conditions and windows of financial return(sic) in the current and medium term launcher market." This would be far less valuable than the select Committee's proposal of an independent review for several reasons:

1) Both British Aerospace and the BNSC have for many years resisted the concept of passenger space travel, and so they are very unlikely to give the subject a fair treatment now, as the Select Committee specifically noted - and as shown by the BNSC's response completely ignoring the subject! It is unrealistic to expect them to admit that they have been mistaken for the past 10 years, and so they cannot perform an unbiased analysis.

2) The fact that the government's proposal considers only the 'launcher market' and ignores the market for sub-orbital space flights which is the key first step towards a passenger space travel industry, shows that they are hopelessly out of touch with the subject.

3) As Space Future Consulting pointed out in our Memorandum to the Select Committee, in order to realise passenger space travel it is essential to establish formal collaboration between space and aviation, a global commercial industry which carries more than 1 billion passengers/year, with a turnover which will soon reach $1 trillion/year (and which in both Japan and the USA is taking the lead in work aimed at passenger space transportation). It is thus not yet clear what is the best institutional structure for a passenger space travel industry - but the BNSC is certainly not the appropriate body to decide what its own role should be.

Last Ditch

The first sentence of the government's reply says that it would welcome a debate in parliament on the Select Committee's report and the government's reply - and so it will be fascinating to see how that goes. If the Blair government has any concern for the economic interests of long-suffering British taxpayers, it will take urgent steps to set up an independent review of the issue of passenger space travel, as the DTI Select Committee recommended. This review must give priority to economic issues, thereby aiming for the benefit of taxpayers rather than the vested interests of the taxpayer-dependent BNSC and its client companies.

Whether this happens soon, or whether vested interests again prevail with the Blair government, the issue of passenger space travel is set to become the BNSC's 'Waterloo' - as it is of all space agencies. The government's reply ends by stating that "cto help industry maximise profitable space based business opportunities" is one of the BNSC's "key ambitions". But this is directly contradicted by its dishonest refusal to even consider passenger space travel. Consequently, it is ultimately going to be seen that for years the BNSC has been knowingly working against taxpayers' interests - and it is to be hoped that its years of stone-walling on this issue are now approaching the last ditch.
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Patrick Collins 12 November 2000
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