Spazio Commerciale

So here we are then. The United Kingdom has its own brand new Space Agency, courtesy of Lords Mandelson and Drayson (or Peter and Paul as they’re known to their fans). It was launched today at a glitzy do in Westminster attended by everyone who’s anyone in space science, which obviously doesn’t include me. There’s even a new logo.

According to the BBC, the new agency will be “muscular”, but I’m not really sure what that means. Perhaps brains might be more useful than brawn in this context (unless it’s Werner Von, geddit?) In fact I’m not at all sure what the new agency is about at all. The UK is already part of the European Space Agency (ESA) and a big slice of the new agency’s budget will presumably be eaten up by the ESA subscription. Much of what we do in space exploration and astronomy is dictated by decisions at the ESA level so I don’t think the new UK Agency will have much impact on that. On the other hand, the only current UK space agency is the British National Space Centre (BNSC), which is an organisation notable only for its irrelevance. I’m not even sure whether it exists at all as anything other than a logo and an accommodation address above a chip shop in Swindon.

It’s somewhat easier to see what the new UK Space Agency isn’t about. The accompanying press release doesn’t mention astronomy at all, so it’s clearly not going to help us lowly scientists who would like to use space observatories to do interesting science. It seems that it is primarily aimed at commercial space activities, and the science bit will continue to be managed mismanaged by the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

I’ve got nothing against the commercial exploitation of space, in principle, although it did provoke my feeble attempt at an Italian joke in the title of this post. The French, Germans and Italians spend much more than we do and this is obviously an area of great potential growth. I don’t object to the government using public money to help the space sector grow, either. In principle. The problem is that in these tough times the money has to be taken from somewhere else in the budget. Many of us were still hoping that the government might intervene to reverse the awful cuts we’ve suffered in physics and astronomy recently, but hiving space science off into a separate pot will probably make life even tougher for those of us left with the rump of STFC. I fear it means even less money in future going into fundamental science, and our decline is therefore set to accelerate even further.

There have always been tensions within the astronomy and space science community. Space exploration has scored many recent triumphs – such as the joint ESA-NASA Cassini-Huygens probe – but there are always difficult questions about the scientific value for money involved in sending things pottering around our backyard in the  solar system compared to, e.g., building observatories (either in space or on the ground) that can see things across the other side of the Universe. It’s difficult to see what the implications of the new agency are for this, but it seems likelyto me  that increasing amounts of public money will go on exploration at the expense of observation. I’m biased, of course, but I think there’s a lot more interesting science in the distant universe than there is nearby. In fact there’s more of everything further away than there is nearby! We may end up killing off ground-based astronomy in order to put a British flag on the Moon. That would be very sad.

But maybe this is too pessimistic. We don’t know yet how things will be divvied up between the new agency and the old STFC. Will there be any science  in UK Space, or will it be entirely commercial? Perhaps new missions and experiments will be funded through that route while exploitation continues to be  (under)funded by STFC?

Or maybe, since the new agency comes into existence on 1st April 2010, it’s all just an elaborate joke?

And while I’m being facetious, I wonder how many of you are thinking that the new logo looks like it was taken from the opening credits of Dad’s Army? I wonder if that choice was awfully wise, Captain Mainwaring?

STFC Chief Executive Keith Mason is very keen on the new outfit and is looking forward to working with it.  I know what Private Frazer would have said. We’re doomed.

PS. Andy Lawrence was there, and invites you to pump him  in the debriefing room over at the e-astronomer.

PPS. The new agency has now got a wikipedia page. It says there that the space agency will take over responsibility for space technology and instrumentation funding from other research councils. Presumably exploitation of space missions will either remain the responsibility of STFC or there won’t be any at all, which may amount to the same thing.

10 Responses to “Spazio Commerciale”

  1. […] In the Dark A blog about the Universe, and all that surrounds it « Spazio Commerciale […]

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    A central concern I have is that there is a strong industrial lobby pushing for more British participation in space activities, but that this lobby is motivated primarily about getting money off government to fund its activities. The industry is very good at arguing its case and does not care what the money is used for other than for space engineering and contracts for itself.

    Like Peter, I fear that government may fall for this, believing that funding space engineering is good in itself, with the result that the strategic motivation is not thought through. This would lead to a subsidised industry that has no real commercial applications, simply doing things in space because it is an end in itself. There are genuine free market applications of space, such as satellite broadcasting, where companies pay engineering companies to build satellites and pay space agencies to launch them. Then there are genuine reasons for governments to fund non-commercial space activities, such as basic research (including astronomy), Earth monitoring and meteorological observations.

    Let us hope that people in government are intelligent enough to understand that space engineering is not an end in itself. What matters is the motivation, and basic research is worth funding for its scientific returns, and only because of those scientific returns. Without a genuine motive, space engineering would be like a perverse parody of British Leyland in the late 1970s, a state-funded vehicle manufacturer but one that produced cars that nobody wanted to own.

  3. Thanks, Peter. For the last couple of days I’ve had the theme tune for Dad’s Army playing in my head. I’ve seen a few other blogs using the UKSA logo and whenever I see it the tune starts again! Aaarrgghh!


    PS. I loved the TV series but I can do without the mental image and tune…

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    This logo has just made it to this week’s interactive BBC quiz of the week’s news, at

  5. telescoper Says:

    They paid £10,000 for it, apparently.

    I’m in the wrong job.

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    OK Peter, design a better – preferably satirical – one!

  7. Rhodri Evans Says:

    Only 10,000. I was expecting it to be ten times that. At least.

  8. Rhodri Evans Says:

    And I agree Peter, it is totally rubbish.

  9. […] not the only one to have expressed reservations about the quality of the new outfit’s logo which, though clearly intended to present a thrusting, dynamic, reach-for-the-skies image, ends up […]

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