UK plans Earth’s second spaceport by 2018

The UK government plans to build a commercial spaceport by 2018 and is pressing ahead in developing its space industries. But is Britain already falling behind its rivals in the space race?

When Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the surface of the moon in July 1969, he came not so much in peace as in competition. Both the US and the Soviet Union had been striving to outdo each other in space and spent incredible amounts in the process. The struggle was over international prestige and visible technological mastery. By the time Britain got its first astronaut in space in 1991, that space race was long over.

Today however the British government is eager to exploit the vast business opportunities that space now offers. The science minister, David Willetts, is expected to announce plans for a commercial spaceport in the UK by 2018, which will be the first of its kind outside the US.

While a site has not yet been chosen, a remote area of Scotland will be the likeliest choice, which will be a boost to the ‘better together‘ referendum campaign.

The spaceport will give UK companies their own base from which to launch satellites into space. The UK already builds 40% of the world’s small satellites which can be harnessed for a variety of tasks from communication to detecting illnesses in remote regions of the world.

The government also hopes that ‘space tourism’ companies like Virgin Galactic will use the new spaceport and generate tax money for the UK. Virgin intends launching its first flights into space from the US later this year, with passengers paying around £120,000 to fly 62 miles above the Earth and experience zero-gravity.

The UK space industry has boomed in recent years, generating £11bn last year and now employing 34,000 people. With its spaceport as part of its strategy, the government hopes to capture 10% of the global space market by 2030 and create a further 100,000 high-tech jobs.

If Neil Armstrong reached the moon thanks to superpower rivalry, the UK is hoping its space achievements will be brought about by competing companies. Yet the government’s £300m investment in space is dwarfed by competitors like the US, China and even France. Should it spend more to encourage space enterprise?

Space on a shoestring

Some say that the strategy of providing a spaceport for commercial space exploration is a clever move. The £10.3bn the US spends on space exploration would be better used on schools or health care. In contrast, the UK will get the tax benefits of commercial companies’ efforts without contributing greatly itself.

Yet others say that the UK needs to commit far more funds to space projects. India spends £700m on its space program, and China plans to have its own space station by 2020. In contrast Britain’s market-driven effort looks lazy. It must do far more if it plans on not missing out on the opportunities of space exploration.

You Decide

  1. Should the UK spend more on its space program? Or are space programs unnecessary and expensive luxuries?
  2. ‘With so many problems to solve on our own planet, wasting money on space is pointless.’ Do you agree?

Activities

  1. The government hopes the spaceport will create 100,000 new jobs in the ‘space industry’ by 2030. In groups, try to list as many of those jobs as you can think of. Compare with the class.
  2. Creative writing: Imagine you have been to the moon and looked back at Earth. Write a diary entry of how the experience might have changed your perspective on life and the planet.

Some People Say...

“Commercial companies are going make a mess of space just as they have our Earth.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I care about space?
While only the super rich can afford space travel at present, satellites are a huge commercial opportunity. They form an increasingly important part of the world economy, providing communication and data on all aspects of the planet. Last week, a UK company launched the first ever satellite fully assembled in Britain. It will measure the Earth’s atmosphere and how it might affect satellite and GPS transmissions.
What other innovations is the UK working on?
Space technology is just one of the ‘eight great technologies’ the government has identified as important for the future. The others include big data, robotics, synthetic biology, or building digital devices with DNA and bacteria, and regenerative medicine, which would help human tissue to regenerate itself.

Word Watch

Soviet Union
The Soviet Union’s economy was organised centrally by the government of what was, in principle, a socialist state. In contrast, the US stood for free market capitalism. During the Cold War (1946-1991) both fought for global domination by their respective political and economic systems.
Space race
Beginning in 1955, after the US announced it would send a satellite into space, the fierce rivalry spawned great achievements in space technology. The USSR sent the first satellite into space in 1957 and the first man into space in 1961, but the US was the first country to send men to the moon in 1969.
Better together
Supporters of Scottish independence have claimed that only they would focus on building Scottish space technology. But the UK government has now shown it is also committed.
Illnesses
Disease-detecting satellites are one of many exciting technologies under development. The UK is also prioritising ‘big data’ research, that is, the collection of huge swathes of interconnected information and analysing it for overall trends. Satellites could be of huge use in this task.

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