The British space defence strategy needs greater ambition on manned space flight because “the future is coming fast”, an influential think tank has said.
The report from Policy Exchange, titled “UK’s Defence Space Strategy in Context”, said the UK also needs to build an international launch site which all the other five permanent members of the UN Security Council have developed.
But the report praised the Ministry of Defence for being “hawkish” in the control of space, as it is a signal to both adversaries and allies that Britain “does not intend to be a passive space player”.
The UK’s first Defence Space Strategy (DSS) was published this month to address growing threats in the cosmos while announcing £1.4 billion to invest in “cutting-edge technology to protect UK interests in space”.
However it failed to mention developing a British astronaut programme at a time when both countries and companies are doing so.
“The DSS missed an opportunity in not even mentioning human space flight as a subject of interest,” wrote Gabriel Elefteriu, head of space policy at Policy Exchange. “This does reinforce the sense of a 'terra-centric' space strategic vision that only looks at what satellites can do for us here on Earth.”
The report said, however, that “the future is coming fast” and it was inevitable that there would be increased human activity in orbit with “space stations, cheap crewed space flight and most importantly, spaceplanes”.
“Other space nations are thinking seriously about how to prepare for these incoming changes to the space strategic environment,” said the report.
The Ministry of Defence needs to focus on human space flight and particularly astronaut training, it said.
The London-based think tank, which has close links to the Conservative Party, also called on Britain to use its territories around the world for space launches.
While France, Russia, China and the US all have their own programmes, the UK does not, which was labelled a “critical vulnerability”.
It has been suggested that Ascension Island, right below the equator in the South Atlantic, could be developed into a home for space launches.
The ministry also needs to become more involved with the UK Space Agency to push space flight.
“The long delays and the unsatisfactory state of the civil-run programme suggest there may be benefits in a stronger [ministry] involvement to help sort things out, particularly given the [ministry's] heritage this area,” it said.
“Assured access to space — in particular, having a sovereign responsive launch capability that can be relied upon at all times — is fundamental for any space power, so one would have expected Defence to take more interest in this issue.”
Britain also does not have sovereign access to its own GPS system which was “an increasingly risky bet” making it reliant on the US or France for positioning, navigation and timing.
The report welcomed the DSS’s “assertive, no-nonsense messaging around the hard-edged security questions in space”, particularly with anti-satellite missiles and potential cyber attacks.
“These have become an urgent priority, given that in recent years governments have awoken to the extraordinarily damaging consequences to modern society of a co-ordinated attack on space services; the closest equivalent would be the impact of a nuclear attack,” stated the report.
Mr Elefteriu praised the strategy as an “excellent document with an assertive message” that mapped out a “logical path towards UK space power”.
He added that while Britain’s space programme faced major challenges, it was also an “economic tool that can shape the industrial landscape”.