Owen Thompson – 2021 Speech on the UK Space Industry

The speech made by Owen Thompson, the SNP MP for Midlothian, in the House of Commons on 4 February 2021.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of the UK space industry.

I am delighted to have secured this important debate today and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for us to consider such an important topic. We all need good news stories in these difficult times, and I believe that the growing space industry, with timely and sensible support from the Government, could quite literally provide a rocket boost to the economy and be a force for good for the country and the planet.

Space is one of the UK’s fastest growing sectors, trebling in size since 2010. It will inspire the next generation and provide fantastic opportunities in science, engineering and technology. It has huge potential for the levelling-up agenda, creating highly skilled jobs right across the UK from Shetland to the south-east of England. It can also play a crucial role in measuring and meeting climate change targets. I welcome the fact that space has been recognised as a critical national infrastructure, in that we now depend on space for navigation, communication, broadcasting, running public services and increasingly for national security. It impacts all our everyday lives and has the potential to really enhance them. So while I am delighted by the recognition of the scale of the potential for space, there needs to be a better co-ordinated and determined effort to support the industry to reach its goals, and I look forward to getting the details on that from the Minister later today.

Space is already a growing success story. It supports 41,900 jobs in 13 of the regions and nations of the UK, bringing in some £14.8 billion in 2016-17. The Scottish space industry also punches well above its weight and is home to almost a fifth of the total jobs in the UK sector, valued at £880 million in 2017-18. Scotland now hosts more than 130 space organisations, including the headquarters of 83 UK space firms. We now need to build on that strong base to be globally competitive at every stage of the process from the design and manufacture of smaller satellites through to the launch and the interpretation and application of the satellite data produced. We have our unique selling points, and we are making great progress. Glasgow is now a European capital for manufacturing small satellites, building more than any other place outside California.

Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He is absolutely right about the importance of the space industry and the significance that it has for Glasgow’s economy. Research in the space sector is hugely important as well. Madam Deputy Speaker, I was sporting a University of Glasgow mask, just as my hon. Friend was sporting an Irn-Bru mask. The University of Glasgow has played a huge part in the identification of gravitational waves, for example, which is helping our understanding of the universe as well as driving forward technological developments.

Owen Thompson

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Use of the data that we can gather from space is important in so many different ways that can contribute to so much that we can take forward.

Innovations by companies such as AAC Clyde Space, Spire Global and Alba Orbital are already driving this world-class agenda. We are leading the way in rocket development in Europe through firms such as Skyrora in my Midlothian constituency and Orbex in Forres. We are making progress in the research and analysis side of the industry, and companies such as Ecometrica, Carbomap and Space Intelligence are helping to move Edinburgh towards becoming the space data capital of Europe. Edinburgh is the only place in the world to work with a NASA robot, the Valkyrie, outside of its headquarters.

Key industry players such as Ukrainian-born Skyrora boss Volodymyr Levykin tell me that they moved here because of the connections, the skilled workforce and our suitability as a place to live. Scotland is developing a space industry ecosystem, and the more it develops, the more it triggers further exponential growth. The Scottish Government were therefore right to identify space as a key priority for future growth. Their support has helped to give the burgeoning young industry a shape and structure, with the ambition to be Europe’s leading space nation and capture a £4 billion share of the global space market by 2030.

The Scottish Space Leadership Council has helped to bring together key figures from the public and private sectors, to ensure that their views are represented at all levels of government and to drive growth and collaboration, but we need co-ordination across all levels of government. A space strategy has often been promised, but we are still waiting to see it delivered. I am sure those watching today’s debate will be as keen as I am to hear what the Minister has to say on that front. To take things forward, we need to get low-cost access to space from UK soil. It is good news that seven UK spaceport sites are working together through the Spaceport Alliance to support launch activity. It is also good news that the space hub to be built in Sutherland’s A’ Mhòine peninsula received planning permission last year. With locational advantages for flight paths and access to orbits that 95% of small satellite launches require, it is now set to be a national centre for vertical launch and could support 400 jobs in the highlands and islands by 2025.

Yet getting the regulations in place is at times more like moving through treacle than rocketing away into a new space future. We need to get the regulations to permit rocket launches, to give clarity about how the system will work and to get it right. The framework was set up in the Space Industry Act 2018, but it is still not in place, and we still await the outcome of the consultation process. When we hear the results, I certainly hope that the Government will have listened carefully to industry voices and taken their concerns on board. So far there has been a lot of dither and interdepartmental confusion, and unfortunately a lack of determined leadership from the Government on these regulatory issues. I might be tempted, Madam Deputy Speaker, to suggest that a rocket somewhere might be helpful, but I shall resist. However, it is not always clear who is in the driving seat, if anyone.

We cannot jeopardise the achievements of an innovative home-grown industry by letting it drift and losing out on launch capability to neighbouring nations. The Minister will be aware of the real threat of international competition to UK launch businesses. One of our home-grown companies, Skyrora, has already tested a rocket with a 26 km altitude, but it had to do so from Iceland, where the regulations were taken forward, with all the essential safety aspects, but more quickly and far more favourably than has been managed here.

The concern is that the licence application process for launch will take far too long to process, resulting in the industry being uncompetitive. I hope the Minister can assure the House in her response today that there is a development strategy in place that embraces all parts of the space industry and has a clear imperative around which the Government, regulators and industry can coalesce to ensure the full potential of space ambition.

I was slightly concerned that, despite not having our home-grown regulation sorted, the Government were so happy and keen to sign the transatlantic technology safeguards agreement, to enable US launches from UK soil, potentially to the detriment of the industry here. The TSA was signed last June and announced by press release, but the text was not made public until October. Many industry players in the UK say they did not have a chance to read and comment on the plans until that point and had not been consulted on the details, nor was there an opportunity for questions and debate in this place, despite the promise given in response to written questions that I submitted. This might turn out to be a benign agreement, as the UK Government have claimed, but there has been no process to scrutinise it, and some aspects certainly raised the concern that UK start-ups could be ousted for big US-based corporate players.

The Government must do more to allay industry fears that it could transpire to be an exclusivity agreement, and they must reassure the industry that they understand and are sensitive to the commercial context in which these companies operate. The industry remains in the dark about how the agreement will actually function in practice, and it will only see the impact once it starts to acquire export licences. That kind of scenario testing should have been conducted openly and transparently beforehand.

Some might question why we are talking about space at all, in the midst of a public health emergency and when people cannot feed their families, but space shapes all our lives. The sector helps to keep us safe, and it is precisely the sort of high-skilled growth industry that we need to support to drive the economy to recover.

There is also a responsibility—the green role that could be carved out by the space industry, which the Scottish Government are certainly very keen to pursue. Space is central to tackling environmental and social justice issues around the globe. Forget the outdated image of a space race, with astronauts boldly going where no one has gone before. The future will be very much focused on making things better where we are now. Data from satellites plays a crucial role in the fight against climate change and finding solutions for major issues that scar our planet. Some 35 of the 45 essential climate variables defined by the UN are measured from space. Similarly, of the 17 sustainable development goals set by the UN with an aim of ending poverty by 2030, satellite data plays a critical role in 13.

Data from earth observation satellites has been used to combat wildfire spread in the Amazon, to monitor glacier melt and air pollutants, to aid disaster relief operations, to measure ozone damage, to measure damage from natural disasters, such as the Fuego volcano, to track and predict malaria outbreaks and to tackle illegal deforestation and pirate fishing vessels.

It is great to see Scotland leading the way. Satellites built and launched in Scotland can monitor the environment in ways not previously possible, including mapping global carbon levels. Glasgow University and Strathclyde University focus on that work with their innovation district, and I welcome plans for the new £5 million satellite centre involving the universities of Edinburgh and Leeds, which will use cutting-edge satellite technology to help combat climate change, including helping lower the risk of people being affected by flooding.

Rocket launches do not exactly have a reputation for being green, but the new space industry must be an environmentally responsible one. Efforts must be made to reduce harmful emissions at launches, and I would like to see a role for environmental regulators such as the Scottish Environment Protection Agency in regulating spaceflight. The good news is that modern micro-launches being developed are a world away from the traditional massive gas guzzling old ones. Orbex, for example, built a micro-launcher fuelled by bio propane, which produces 90% fewer emissions than standard kerosene. Skyrora has successfully tested a fuel called Ecosene, which is created from plastic waste that would otherwise have gone to landfill.

In conclusion, the UK space industry is a massively positive story, but to ensure a happy ending, the Government must: give clarity on their long-term strategic goals; sort out the regulations with urgency; improve the level of scrutiny and consultation in their agreements; show an understanding and sensitivity to market forces; and show ambition in harnessing the potential of space in boosting our post-covid recovery and in tackling climate change. We are at the edge of a vast universe of possibilities for the space sector, so it is vital now that the Government provide the necessary vision, energy and direction to propel us forward.