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Patrick Harkness on World Space Week 2021

Patrick is Professor of Exploration Technology at University of Glasgow (writing here in a personal capacity).

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the UK’s first orbital launch, which used the Black Arrow rocket to launch the Prospero satellite. The history of space exploration might be dominated by the USSR (later Russia) and the United States, but just behind both, the UK was the third country to operate a satellite (Ariel-1, in 1962), and the third country to land on Mars (Beagle-2, in 2003). Today, our target is to attract no less than 10% of the global space industry by 2030, with the majority of the launch activity being directed – for geographical reasons – towards Scotland.

To understand these successes we need to examine the underlying research environment, and the ability of that research environment to throw up new innovations. This is where the UK excels: from antibiotics to graphene to Hawking radiation, our universities and laboratories represent one the very best places to discover new things.

The key to this success is our appetite for calculated risk in funding that research. Working together, we can afford to take chances on things that might not work, but which have the potential to be revolutionary. A smaller research system, even with the same funding per head, would have to invest in lower-risk, lower-payoff projects that were almost certain to succeed, rather than dare to aim higher. The focus, inevitably, would drift away from the stars and towards local certainties. That drift can easily be spun as a positive (for example, Academics for YES claimed, back in 2014, that “the completion of the powers of the Scottish Parliament will provide the best context for Scottish universities to work with the Scottish government … to develop Scotland’s economy for … all Scottish citizens”), but surely that is a deeply parochial, unambitious, and ungenerous vision that will never attract the best minds from around the world, never have the resources to lead the world, and – by the sounds of it – never even try to aim any higher.

Moving on, after the research phase of any project, comes the development and implementation. This is a slightly different landscape, and one which sets its sights on a particular target and seeks to minimise technical risk along the way. In many European countries, including the UK, a major vehicle for this activity is the European Space Agency. This organisation is not an agency of the EU, and it has many non-EU members such as Norway and Switzerland, but the underlying rationale remains the same: we can do more together than we can do alone.

However, that does not necessarily mean that the smaller members of ESA have the same opportunities as the larger ones. For example, the member states of ESA are currently discussing how to select the next astronauts for the return to the moon, but with 22 member states, not every member state will be able to propose an astronaut. Those member states which pay the most will have the first refusal, and naturally this favours the larger economies: France, Germany, Italy, and the UK, which together pay around 70% of the costs.

The future inspiration value of having a person put boots on the moon, and then return to do a careers-talk in a primary school, is incalculable. Together, every school from Lerwick to Lands End has an excellent chance of achieving precisely that, but apart, it is much harder to see how it could happen. That is a high price to pay for a flag that can never be planted.

Scotland has a great future in space. We are part of one of the world’s best research environments, and part of one of the large states returning to the moon. What we are doing, and doing together, is not broke. Don’t let the nationalists try to fix it.

You can read more about Space Week from Pamela Nash here.


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