LONDON — The stratospheric ambitions of the British space industry and its role in discovering life on Mars will not be blown off course by Brexit, according to the UK Space Agency boss.
Chief executive Katherine Courtney said she is confident that the growing sector, which now contributes more than £5 billion ($6.3 billion) to UK GDP, will continue to thrive once Britain leaves the European Union.
The UK Space Agency collaborates closely with the European Space Agency (ESA) — perhaps most notably on the ExoMars mission.
The British government is providing £47 million of funding to help send an unmanned rover to Mars in 2020. The first part of the mission, to send a satellite to study the atmosphere of the Red Planet, did not go to plan in October 2016 when the probe crash landed.
Europe is also the biggest export market for the British space industry. A London Economics review of the sector in December last year found that 18% of its £13.7 billion revenue came from Europe in 2014/15. This includes £351 million from the ESA and £65 million from the European Commission.
Speaking to Business Insider from the Airbus Defence and Space centre in Stevenage, Courtney said she is upbeat about the future. Far from raising fears about what a “Hard Brexit” might mean for British space trade in Europe, she was cheered by Prime Minister Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech last week.
“Brexit obviously is an important change for the country. I’m quite confident that, actually, the close collaboration that we’ve always had in science and space will continue after Article 50 is triggered and beyond,” Courtney said.
“European funding is important to our industry, but we have a very strong domestic industry in the UK space sector. We export outside of the EU as well. We have strong collaborations with other countries on space programmes. EU funding is one element of what is driving the sector’s growth.”
She was “particularly reassured” that May singled out space in her Brexit speech. The UK Space Agency is an executive arm of the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, and the prime minister said last week it will continue to be central to collaboration with Europe on “major science, research, and technology initiatives.”
May said: “From space exploration to clean energy to medical technologies, Britain will remain at the forefront of collective endeavours to better understand, and make better, the world in which we live.”
Courtney was speaking to BI at the opening of a new Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths centre at Airbus in Stevenage on Thursday. British astronaut Tim Peake was also at the opening, fresh from announcing that he is returning to the International Space Station with ESA.
Peake has previously made clear that the UK’s involvement in ESA will not be affected by Brexit because the agency is a “separate entity” from the EU. But he did say the result of the 23 June 2016 referendum has created uncertainty. “What we do have to be careful of is science, which will be affected by the EU referendum, and I know that there are many people involved in science in the UK who’re concerned about how that’s going to be affected,” he told the BBC last year.
Courtney said Peake’s work underlines the health of the British space sector, which aims to capture 10% of the global market for space by 2030. She explained: “The UK space industry is one of the fastest growing, it generates over £13 billion in revenue for the UK economy and employs 37,000 people. It’s a very thriving industrial sector for us and having an ambassador [like Peake]… that continues to show the world that the UK is a leading space nation.”
The mission to find life on Mars
One of the UK Space Agency’s top priorities is finding life on Mars through the ExoMars mission, Courtney said. The discovery rover is being assembled and tested in a giant sandpit “Mars yard” in Stevenage, with Peake playing with a prototype last year.
“That search for signs of life has long been a fascination for scientists and the general public alike. Understanding the history of the universe and that search for signs of life continues to be an interesting and stimulating bit of scientific work we do through the space agency,” she said.
“I have been told by people who are much smarter than I am that it’s not a question of if, but a question of when. Missions to asteroids and other planets have shown that there are the ingredients for life.”
Courtney also provided hope for Elon Musk’s vision to colonise the Red Planet. The SpaceX founder and billionaire wants to launch a million people to Mars in hopes of saving humanity from doom.
She said: “If you look at some of the entrepreneurs out in the US, like Elon Musk, there are lots of people who are absolutely convinced that’s not only feasible but they have plans to make it happen. It’s bold and ambitious to have a vision that says: ‘I want to go to Mars and come back.’ And actually at one time when I was born in 1963, taking humans to the moon and back safely was a bold an ambitious mission. Now it’s almost pedestrian.”