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Article from Thinkpolitics

Putting Britain back in orbit

by Neil Craig

NEWS THAT comes up but once a generation – and arguably less often since the history of British scientists being innovative in space and British politicians resolutely destroying that vision goes back 50 years -– has arrived through a new policy from UKIP.

Scientists launched Britain's only satellite in 1971, in spite of an order to decease from the politicians. This has been largely successfully airbrushed out of history by the bureaucracy.

Now UKIP has broken that 50 year record by its call for Britain to put the £275 million we currently give to the European Space Agency (ESA) into a British Space X-prize Fund.

Lord Monckton, Head of UKIP's Policy Unit who’s mission is to provide it with the best policies of any British party, said "offering prizes is a good way for governments to stimulate technological advance. The development of controlled re-entry by private enterprise has vastly reduced the cost of space travel: no doubt further inventiveness will become evident if only we can get the costly bureaucracies out of the way and reduce general taxation to the point where it becomes at least potentially profitable to take big risks."

Nigel Farage, party leader, has also confirmed "It is inconceivable that UKIP would allow the EU to retain control of Britain's space-research. Conversely, it is inconceivable that UKIP would wish to participate in the European Space Agency."

A UKIP government would take the £275 million wasted in the ESA bureaucracy - that has yet to put a person in space, except by buying tickets on the American and Russian craft - and instead use it in the most efficient way available - prizes. Technology Prizes do not provide subsidies to rent-seekers, and they entice imaginative thinking which is why they are at least 33 times – and according to Professor Freeman Dyson, possibly 100 times – more effective than conventional funding.

This can give Britain an orbital shuttle flying close to daily. Though our space budget will be unchanged and still far lower than NASA's the effective budget will be higher because prizes are so much more efficient.

As US space expert Jerry Pournelle says, "a conclusion, confirmed by a number of those in the rocket entrepreneurial community, and also several Pentagon people: if we stay outside NASA, the technology exists to build a reusable orbiter for under a billion dollars; probably far less than a billion."

This could be done by prizes, and at the moment there are two prize schemes to consider: a single prize of $1 billion [£636m], or a first and second prize of $500,000,000 [£318m] for first and $250,000,000 [£160m] for second. The notion of a second prize is intriguing but harder to sell. A second ensures that more than one firm can raise capital to compete."

These specific prizes represent only two years of our money given to ESA and since building such a British shuttle would take considerably longer than that, these prizes, and more, could be offered immediately in the knowledge that the fund will still be in surplus after the shuttle is flying and the prize won.

The economic potential of the commercial space industry is recognised even by the current government that has refused to put token sums into it. The British space industry is not only one of the few growing but our fastest, at 10% annually. It has been the consensus of civil service departments that it will be worth £40 billion annually in 18 years. With the world space industry growing at 10% this was actually a low estimate, but such is the way of civil services

That was before the recent commercial SpaceX launch. SpaceX is, as Lord Monckton points out, launching at 1/20th the cost of NASA and promising, as Elon Musk, SpaceX's founder says "far more dramatic reductions in price in the long term".

Even before that, the US commercial space industry was growing at 17.6%.

For those countries willing to support the industry, even to a small extent, the sky is not close to a limit. "Once you are in Earth orbit you are half way to anywhere in the solar system" in energy terms, as the visionary writer Robert Heinlein said. Potential industries include a massive expansion of telecommunications satellites, solar power satellites providing more energy than we could ever need with no fuel costs since sunlight is free and the sun never goes down in orbit; unlimited mineral resources, including gold and platinum, in the Asteroids; and ultimately new homes for humanity.

So far the other parties have refused even to think, let alone talk about this. They, in the worst traditions of Luddism, are content to tell us to live without growth, and have managed to achieve it, even though, outside the EU the world economy never stopped growing at 6% a year.

Doubtless most of the old parties will still oppose it but with UKIP having thrown down the gauntlet, they can no longer refuse to say why.

They cannot claim they don't want to spend the money because UKIP is not proposing spending any more than they have been wasting for decades on ESA. They cannot claim that it would be wasted if it didn't work (as it largely is being with ESA) because part of the beauty of prizes is that the prize is only awarded when the spaceship is working.

They are left with the only argument being that they are against human technological progress. This has always been an argument of the "Greens" but leaders of other parties have been more reticent  about saying so.

UKIP has made the main division in British politics abundantly clear. It is between those who desire human progress and look forward to a better future and those who are uncomfortable with growth and prefer a managed decline, albeit a comfortable one for the managers. It will force members of all parties, not just the Conservatives, to consider what they really got into politics for.

The Conservatives proved unable to fully win an election, even against "the worst prime minister in this country's history" as one Labour candidate described Brown . It is clear they cannot win another except in tandem with UKIP. 

Things are looking up for the UK. 

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Article from Thursday 12, July, 2012

User Comments

From the viewpoint of a professional astrophysicist, this is an incredibly stupid idea. To dismiss the UK contribution to ESA as 'wasted' is incredibly ignorant: since its inception ESA has launched a series of scientific missions which have been world leading in scope and have pushed forward our understanding of the universe immeasurably. What's more, thanks to the fact that we have a strong academic sector in the UK, we play a leading role in many of the missions to a greater degree than would be anticipated based on our financial contribution. In other words, we get excellent value for money. For example, the recently launched Gaia mission was part-built in the UK, and a large fraction of the most exciting science will be done in universities here. This mission cost 750M euros, or between 2 and 3 times the UK's yearly contribution to ESA, just for this one mission! When you consider that ESA currently has 19 missions flying, with 22 further missions in development, you see that by being part of ESA the UK can participate in a space programme which no individual nation has the desire to fund. Leaving ESA would shut UK scientists out of some of the most exciting science of the next century. At least UKIP is consistent. They propose a technological future for the UK which is just as dark and bleak as their social future.

Posted on 11/07/2014 by Chris Copperwheat