UK space chief wants a place for bright young minds in the domain of billionaires

Agency chairman David Willetts sees the cosmos as crucial to getting people interested in science

Britain has ambitions to be a launchpad for space missions, with the far north of Scotland seen as a suitable site to put satellites into polar orbit. PA
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It was impossible for former minister David Willetts to conceal his surprise when a Nobel prize-winning biologist sharing the balcony at London's Royal Society produced an astronomer’s telescope while revealing that his accomplishments were inspired not by the human body, but by space.

Now the chairman of the UK space agency, Mr Willetts uses the anecdote to illustrate how stargazing can make young people enthusiastic about the possibilities of science and technology, and drive one of the flagships of tomorrow’s economy.

Bringing the burgeoning, if seemingly somewhat niche, £16 billion ($19bn) space industry to the masses has been one of Mr Willetts’s main aims since being appointed to the agency role in April.

“Space is a key part of national infrastructure. It’s not some luxury good that’s just for American billionaires,” he told The National. “I think it’s one of the most exciting things happening in the world.”

Britain and many other countries are excited about space because it offers high-skilled jobs and technological progress as well as firing the imagination of explorers, scientists and the public.

The space sector is credited with keeping the world informed about climate change and powering much of the navigation and communications that people have come to rely on in their everyday lives.

I think it’s very enlightened that the UAE has decided to make that significant investment in space
David Willetts

There is a geopolitical dimension, too, with a UK foreign policy review in 2021 declaring space a “sphere of competition”, and welcoming potential British launchpads as a way to defend the country’s interests in what lies beyond our planet.

But the sector is not immune to the staffing problems plaguing much of the post-Covid economy, and the government has spoken of a wider skills shortage in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) jobs.

For Mr Willetts, who was minister for state for universities and science from 2010 to 2014 ― a period in which the agency was founded ― space should be given a much more visible place in young people’s education.

As chancellor of the University of Leicester, a space industry hub, he would also like to see such institutions reap the benefits of the sector by acquiring miniature satellites that students can use in research projects.

An admirer of the UAE’s space programme, he believes it could achieve for education similar things to what he would like to see at schools and universities in Britain.

“I think it’s very enlightened that the UAE has decided to make that significant investment in space,” he said. “Space doesn't just need people with high-level scientific skills, it pulls other people in.”

Commercial spaceflight has enjoyed something of a boom thanks to the billionaires Mr Willetts mentions, such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, but much of what interests space agencies happens behind the scenes.

The UK is home to companies that make highly polished glass for space telescopes and provide communications for the Lunar Pathfinder mission (a “kind of sat nav for the Moon”, as Mr Willetts describes it).

He said the adventures of Tim Peake, the first Briton to become a European Space Agency astronaut, had led to a growing interest in science from young people but that developing an economy in the sector meant more than just training commanders and crew members of spacecraft.

As well as engineering wizardry, there are roles in the space industry for data analysts who crunch the numbers being broadcast by satellites, insurers and financiers arranging satellite flights, and writers who cover the sector, he said.

“Almost regardless of where your skills are, you’re likely to find a space-linked way of using them.

“Basically, almost any activity which requires knowing exactly where you are, seeing what is happening in the world or communicating with other people, you’re very likely to be dependent on satellites at some stage in that process.”

The devolved government in Wales has its own ambitions for the space sector, which insiders hope will contribute to a rebirth of the nation’s manufacturing heritage.

One of Wales’s flagship space companies, satellite manufacturer Space Forge, has a slot on a launch from England’s south-western tip later this year and hopes to have paying customers booking slots on its orbiters by 2024.

Satellites are credited with monitoring climate change and enabling modern communications and navigation. Photo: MoD

The planned launch, with a rocket made by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit, will also carry customers from America and Oman and marks an early victory for Cornwall in the race to host Britain’s premier spaceport.

Mr Willetts said Cornwall was an example of the historic strengths that Britain brings to the sector, with the Goonhilly satellite station that broadcast one of the first transatlantic television signals ― transmitting a speech by John F Kennedy in 1962 ― now involved in the spaceport project.

“One of the advantages of space is that it’s spread out across the country,” he said. “And if you’re launching into polar orbit, the north of Scotland is a great launch location, so there’s a real effort going on for the UK to enter the launch sector.”

European launches have until now taken place from a spaceport in French Guiana, while co-operation between the ESA and Russia has been largely suspended because of the war in Ukraine.

The ESA is not a European Union institution and, as such, Britain did not leave it after Brexit. Mr Willetts believes that the UK has heeded a call by the European agency to remain close collaborators in the cosmos.

He similarly looks to partnerships with Nasa and hopes to increase co-operation with the UAE. "It’s marvellous that the UAE is also now becoming a major player,” he says.

“I’m optimistic about space. It’s a great new resource to make the world a better place. I think Britain has got something really strong to contribute.”

Updated: July 08, 2022, 6:00 PM