Space Science and Technology - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:24 pm on 15th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 8:24 pm, 15th July 2019

My Lords, like virtually all other noble Lords —I exclude the noble Lords, Lord McNicol and Lord Ravensdale—I too can remember the grainy pictures on television 50 years ago of the landing on the moon in 1969. I am probably exactly the same age as the noble Lord, Lord Mawson—but it is not unusual in this House for our minds to go back that far.

I begin by joining the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, for giving this boost to the People’s Moon project. Like the noble Lord, Lord McNally, I hope that it gets reasonable coverage because, although we in government recognise the important role that space can play in our economy, security and environment, also important is its unique potential to inspire the next generation. I was grateful for what the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, said about that—the need to get into schools and the work that he is doing on that front. If the Government can help in one department or another, my door is open; he can come to me and we will see just what is possible.

So soon after the debates on net zero, it was also useful for the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, and my noble friend Lady Nicholson—and I think the noble Lord, Lord McNally, as well—to mention the impact of those photographs of Apollo 8 six months earlier, and just how suddenly and completely they changed our view of the world we live in. Again, I remember those photographs as they appeared in the newspapers at the time.

It is right that we mark the 50th anniversary. It was a truly historic moment in human history, and we should also use this moment—I believe this debate will help do so—to celebrate the United Kingdom’s growing space sector while looking into the future. I hope to say a little about that.

In the 1960s, the space race was fought between two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Since then, there has been a remarkable growth in the number of spacefaring nations—I forget how many mentions I have seen in the press over the past two days of missions from India, China, Israel and so on—and an unprecedented level of international co-operation on projects such as the European Space Agency. I can give a commitment that we will continue to be a member of that because, as the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, said, it has nothing to do with our withdrawal from the European Union.

When many of us think about space exploration, we see those early pictures of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin taking those first steps on the moon—but it is also important to remember President Kennedy and his remarkable speech some seven years earlier in 1962 in Houston, when he set America on its path to the moon. He said:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills”.

I believe that the resulting Apollo programme was indicative of what a Government can do and how quickly they can do it. It also shows what citizens can achieve when they put their mind to it. However, as other noble Lords reminded us, it should also be remembered that it is not only hard but very expensive. Both the noble Lords, Lord Mawson and Lord Rees, reminded us that, at the height of Apollo, 4% of federal government spending went into the NASA budget. As a result, in seven years they achieved what they did. One might pause and think just how long it is taking us to sort out this Palace—but that is possibly not the proper thing to say at this stage.

While we recognise the achievements of the past, we should also look to the future, where the United Kingdom aims to play a leading part. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, kindly said that we were doing well—but, as always, she then said that we could do better. The space sector is a success story. It generates an income of £14.8 billion, employs 42,000 people across the country and supports a further £300 billion of economic activity through the use of satellite services. But she was right to draw attention to the need to do more. I can confirm that we are involved in programmes dealing with debris removal and that we are committed to the Sutherland spaceport in Scotland and will continue to be so whatever happens. Scotland is the best place in the UK for vertical rocket launch. We are in regular discussions with the Scottish Government about development of spaceports.

The UK is also a world leader in space science—in designing, developing and operating spacecraft in the most challenging environments imaginable and returning data and observations. We are working closely with industry and, I want to emphasise, our world-class university sector, which both help to grow the UK space sector further as part of our modern industrial strategy, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley.

I have mentioned this to the House before, but I will mention again that I saw for myself the results of some of that work when I visited a company designing, building and exploiting the data from microsatellites in Glasgow. The noble Baroness talked about the strength of Glasgow in that field. Why does a company that comes from the west coast of America want to build satellites in Glasgow? The simple fact is that the expertise and the universities are there and it is a jolly good place to work. We should be proud of that.

The UK Space Agency also delivers a space science and space exploration programme through the European Space Agency and in partnership with other agencies around the world, funding cutting-edge technologies and inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers.

I was grateful for the reminder from the real expert in this debate; the noble Lord, Lord Rees. There is a range of different experts in this debate, but I think that the noble Lord is the one with the most pertinent expertise. He reminded us of our expertise and that of the European Space Agency in unmanned flight. There is a real opportunity for the UK space sector to strengthen its international relationships and enhance bilateral opportunities while continuing to collaborate with our close partners across Europe. My honourable friend the Science Minister will be speaking more about this tomorrow at the Policy Exchange, including about our plans to increase collaboration with NASA as we approach the moon landing anniversary.

I will mention public engagement and the Apollo 11 anniversary, because the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, asked how we would celebrate that anniversary. We have conducted a crowd-sourced history campaign, capturing the memories of those who are old enough to remember 1969—unlike the noble Lord, Lord McNicol —when humans first walked on the moon. The UK Space Agency and the Arts and Humanities Research Council will publish a collection of those memories later this week, which will include newly unearthed photographs and stories that highlight the lasting legacy of Apollo. The Government have also supported a series of outreach activities to engage the next generation in space.

My honourable friend the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation recently attended the launch of the Science Museum’s Summer of Space activities, which included two new exhibits: the Apollo 10 command module which orbited the moon on the final test mission before the Apollo 11 landing and Tim Peake’s Soyuz spacecraft which safely returned Tim and other astronauts to earth in 2016 following their stay in the International Space Station. I believe that making use of those opportunities is a good way of marking the historic anniversary and I can think of no better way for Members of this House to mark it than by visiting the museum and seeing those historic artefacts which are a physical reminder of the extraordinary feats of space exploration and, as is clear from noble Lords’ memories of just how crude the equipment was, the bravery of those astronauts and the ingenuity of the scientists and engineers who supported them on their missions.

I conclude by stating that the Government recognise the historic and scientific significance of the Apollo 11 landing and the potential that space has to improve our life on earth. We are seeing rapid growth in the UK space industry and will continue to support it through the industrial strategy, which includes a programme to establish small satellite launch capability from UK soil as well as investments in new space infrastructure such as the National Satellite Test Facility at Harwell. Last week the Government also announced a £40 million investment in Space Park Leicester through the UK research partnership investment fund, leveraging further private investment. Again, I note what the noble Lord, Lord Rees, said about the need for private investment in this field, and further public investment by the likes of Lockheed, Amazon and others.

As I said, we will also continue to be a member of the European Space Agency once we leave the European Union and we will work with other partners as part of humanity’s efforts to explore the final frontier while engaging the public in our efforts to help the UK lead the new space age.

Sitting suspended.