Four decades on, it is coming a lot closer to home.
The space race has already transformed such fields as telecommunications, TV broadcasting, climate and weather forecasting, information sharing, commerce, security, banking and navigation.
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Almost unnoticed by the public, which probably still associates space with manned flight [see box], the space technologies economy has expanded to the point where it supports 68,000 jobs in the UK, directly and indirectly, and contributes £6.5 billion to the nation. Without it we wouldn’t have the high-speed broadband, GPS services and high-definition TV that so many of us rely on. The global market for space manufacturing, applications and services has been estimated to be worth at least £400bn by 2030 –and Britain is determined to boost its share of the market from 6% to 10%, creating up to 100,000 jobs by 2030.
A new £40m International Space Innovation Centre at Harwell in Oxfordshire, announced last March, will establish centres of excellence to exploit data generated by Earth Observation satellites, use space data to understand climate change and boost the security of space systems and services.
“The sky’s the limit,” said Dr David Parker, director of space science and exploration at the UK Space Agency, as he ran through an impressive list of British achievements and looked ahead at potential developments.
“If you look forward, I can imagine we will all have mobile satellite and information systems that we use as part of everyday life, in the way we use the internet now.”
Already, social media sites such as Facebook are incorporating devices which allow users to pinpoint exactly on the map where their friends are.
Parker added: “The data you will be able to get will be so much better, and that will include the position data. Imagine a system that is built into your car; you’re in an accident on the motorway, and you’re unconscious. The car will signal the ambulance system automatically to come and find you. That is perfectly feasible.
“If you look 20, 30 years into the future, one can imagine the generation of solar power in space, beaming it back down to the Earth as a very efficient form of power generation.
“People talk about starting to exploit the mineral resources within the solar system. What we really want to see, to make all of that sort of stuff possible, is a much lower-cost way of getting into space, with a reusable launch vehicle.”
One London firm, Reaction Engines, is working on Skylon, an unpiloted, reusable space-plane intended to provide inexpensive and reliable access to space. According to the company website, the vehicle, currently in proof-of-concept phase, will take a decade to develop and be capable of transporting 12 tonnes of cargo into space. Another of its projects is the Sabre hybrid air-breathing rocket engine.
As for Scotland, scientist and space entrepreneur Craig Clark expects the sector to generate at least £5bn over the next 20 years, creating at least 10,000 jobs.
Over the last five years Glasgow-born Clark and his colleagues have nurtured their company, Clyde Space, to become an important player globally, with a growing list of overseas contracts to its name.
The company, based in the West of Scotland Science Park in Glasgow, specialises in high-performance subsystems for small satellites and micro-spacecraft, and has supplied in excess of 130 CubeSat power systems and batteries to teams all over the world.
“We work with small 5kg satellites, which are used for a number of different things. We’re getting more and more interest from military, commercial and science use, and most of our customers are based in the US,” said Clark. Via third parties, the satellites are supplied to such high-profile bodies as Nasa and the US army.
Clark, who is a member of the government’s Space Leadership Council, is eloquent on the subject of Britain’s space potential.
“Space affects people’s lives on a daily basis, almost without them realising it, whether it’s watching Sky TV at home, or using GPS in their car or while out on the hills, or using a satellite phone around the coastline. Inmarsat, [a space company] which is based in London, provides that service on a global scale.
“In the future, there are a lot of things happening in the UK. One London company, Avanti, is launching two satellites that will provide broadband to every part of the UK. There are still areas, especially in Scotland, with a poor broadband service, and a lot of people think the solution to that is to lay cable, but it is probably easier to upgrade, and move forward, if you have satellites in space.”
Space technology could turn out to be important, too, in such matters as detecting bush fires, such as those that swept through Victoria, Australia, last February, killing at least 200 people and destroying entire communities.
“One of the ideas I am working on is an early-warning system for bush fires. At the moment, communities still use human spotters stationed at the top of posts who look for smoke. But in space, if you have a satellite passing over every 10 or 20 minutes, looking for fires, you are getting real-time warning. How much money would that save insurance companies? It’s not just Australia that suffers bush fires: north America, south America, Africa, Europe and China all have problems with this. What you need is a global solution, and space can provide that.”
On the issue of continuing investment in the space programme, Clark is not alone in thinking it will hinge on the returns, whether it’s government spending or a commercial venture.
“Inmarsat bought three satellites from Boeing a couple of months ago for $1.2bn. They are generating enough revenue from their space-enabled data services that they are able to largely fund this internally. That shows there is an appetite to invest in space.”
But Britain is far from alone. It is a founder member of the European Space Agency, has signed memorandums of understanding with countries such as China, India and Japan, and in July the UK Space Agency signed a “historic” deal with Russia, opening the way to greater collaboration in space between the two nations. As he signed the agreement, the agency’s acting chief executive, Dr David Williams, said: “Space provides governments with the possibility to improve lives across their communities, along with offering novel commercial opportunities. It is a truly global activity and one where it is right that we should work together.”
A joint Statement of Intent for potential co-operation with Nasa, signed in July, detailed areas of bilateral co-operation including space science and human and robotic space exploration.
The space community is clearly excited by all this potential.
“Space,” says Clark, “is a global market, with huge export opportunities, and the UK has an incredible opportunity to achieve its potential as a major player in the international space arena.”
The sky is, indeed, the limit.