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Regulatory Review: U.K. Space–Are The Glory Days Gone?

By | October 10, 2001

      Gerry Oberst

      In late July, the U.K. government released a substantial report, two years in the making, to evaluate its funding for civil space activities. Although the United Kingdom has a long history of pioneering involvement in this field, the U.K. Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) labeled the evaluation as the first comprehensive review of the impact and achievements of its government’s support to those activities.

      The evaluation is made up of reports from each of the U.K. government agencies that provide the funding for the British National Space Center (BNSC). The BNSC coordinates U.K. civil space activity between government departments, and provides a single voice within the European Space Agency (ESA) in order to represent all U.K. interests. Further, it administers the U.K. Outer Space Act of 1986, which regulates space activities in the United Kingdom, including launch and registration of commercial satellites.

      At the outset, the report provides an excellent overview of British participation in space activities, as well as a primer on ESA programs and the way that other countries have structured their ESA responsibilities. The report also sets out comparisons of national budgets, showing along the way the massively larger U.S. funding in the space domain.

      The evaluation seeks to answer key policy issues, including whether the current level of public funding is appropriate between major application areas, such as communications, earth observation and science. Part of the report appears to draw into question the priorities of the U.K. government to move from support of communications applications to earth observation satellites, a decision made in the late 1980s.

      At one time, the United Kingdom had a prominent involvement in space activities, including satellite launch and communications satellites. For instance, the United Kingdom was a key contributor to early satellite programs used as proving grounds for three-axis body pointing thrusters and antenna technology. That work, through ESA, ultimately gave rise to the European Telecommunications Satellite Organization, Eutelsat, and the International Maritime Satellite Organization, Inmarsat, the latter based in London. During the years 1978 through 1987, the U.K. government increased its funding for communications satellite applications significantly.

      In 1987, however, the U.K. government abruptly refocused funding on earth observation remote sensing activities. The budget dedicated to communications activities dropped precipitously, and today only about eight percent of public funds for civil space activities are directed to communications programs, a drop of more than two-thirds just over the last decade.

      The DTI says that the commonly expressed view of this drastic reduction is that it was “too much and too soon.” The funds for communications programs were a shrinking piece of a shrinking pie, as the United Kingdom cut its funding for all space activities and gave a much smaller proportion to technological developments in the satellite communications industry.

      The justification for these budget cuts was that the satcoms market was mature and had no further need for public funding. Events proved, however, that this assessment was short sighted. The potential uses of communications satellites and the technology continued to evolve, but mainly outside the United Kingdom. While the United Kingdom does maintain excellent technical facilities and highly talented personnel in the space arena, the DTI set forth the industry view that “the United Kingdom is now well down the league table of world players.”

      The DTI appears to question the amount for funding dedicated to earth observation activities in the U.K. budget. In cautious language, the DTI says that commercial benefits for earth observation data have not lived up to expectations; and while there have been scientific benefits, “the industry payoff is so far not apparent.” In many cases, the government is the primary, if not the only, customer for this space data.

      Even DTI’s downbeat estimates of the earth observation satellite sector may exaggerate its importance relative to the communications satellite sector. Estimates for earth observation activities include both data and value-added products (such as data processing and analysis). Corresponding figures for communications satellites omit the services provided over those satellites. In its estimate of market size, DTI appears to exclude even such stalwarts of the satellite industry as Inmarsat and parts of BT (British Telecom) dedicated to satellite services, as well as the satellite broadcasting industry.

      Of course, not all parts of the U.K. government share DTI’s perspective. Those departments that rely on government earth observation, such as the U.K.’s National Environmental Research Council and the Meteorological Office, think the proportion of funding for earth observation in the U.K. budget is just fine.

      A basic finding of the report is that the United Kingdom needs a meaningful overall space strategy. Nevertheless, it is not clear what will come from this substantial evaluation. The upper levels of U.K. government released an “official” response to the report that only faintly accepted the recommendations set forth in the almost 400-page document. The report is a substantial piece of work, but what will become of it?

      Gerry Oberst is a partner in the Brussels office of the Hogan & Hartson law firm. His email address is

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