HC Deb 16 April 1981 vol 3 cc465-72 12.58 pm
Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity to discuss Britain's future role in space research and technology. I regret that I cannot claim any credit for being on the ball, in view of the topicality of this subject following America's great success this week in achieving the maiden flight of the first re-usable manned spaceship—the shuttle—which represents such an exciting next step in man's evolution.

I have attempted to raise this subject since last July. The House has not debated it for some time—not since the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) raised it in the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill in July 1973. The fact that the House is debating the subject now, merely as a result of a ballot on the eve of a recess after eight years, epitomises the attitude of successive Governments to one of the new technologies with the greatest potential.

Such a lack of interest has meant, as with so much else in our nation's recent past, that we have allowed ourselves to be overtaken in disciplines in which we were once pre-eminent. Other nations are now reaping an earlier and therefore greater benefit than we are in terms of employment opportunities, skills and standards of living.

That attitude was well defined by the right hon. Sir Philip Sassoon, Bt, MP, who was the Under-Secretary of State for Air in 1934. He wrote to the British Interplanetary Society as follows: We follow with interest any work that is being done in other countries on jet propulsion, but scientific investigation into the possibilities has given no indication that this method can be a serious competitor to the airscrew-engine combination. We do not consider that we should be justified in spending any time or money on it ourselves. That was four years after Frank Whittle applied for his first patent. Regrettably, it required a world war to produce a U-turn in favour of developing the world's first successful jet engine.

Throughout the world mankind has benefited dramatically from space research and technology. Today, remote sensing satellites locate mineral deposits, oil and gas fields, dam sites for hydro-power, water in deserts, pollution, shoals of fish, and diseased crops, and they also determine crop yields. Space technology has led to new industrial and managerial disciplines and efficiencies, the highest of skills, superior quality controls, safety evaluations and better manpower training techniques. It encourages decentralisation, diversification, smaller industrial units, reduced obsolescence rates, and the increased leisure opportunities that have resulted from the robot replacement of manpower. It has resulted in the development of new materials with domestic applications and in the development of microprocessors and telematics. Meteosat weather forecasting leads to savings in fertilisers, the treatment of trees, hailstone and frost forecasts and the better use of manpower in agriculture, construction, transport, trade, manufacturing, mining and tourism.

Radio astronomy has led to breast cancer detection. Space research broadens international participation and sharing and encourages the easier handling of questions of jurisdiction, boundaries and property rights, both on earth and in space. The rigour of manned flight in space has led to many invaluable discoveries that are advantageous to health on earth. For our participation in all this no one can complain that the British people spend too much on space research. We spend a total of £50 million a year, which includes the sum of about £37 million that is spent by my hon. Friend's Department.

The questions that face us today are whether these figures are too small to be meaningful, whether we are making the right investments and whether we are making the best use of the opportunities available, given that space is still one of the world's most employment-intensive industries. Those questions are particularly relevant now that Ariane and the space shuttle are reducing the cost of space flight by a factor of 10 at a time when so much else is rising in price. I imagine that the Government expected the Central Policy Review Staff—the Think Tank—to consider those questions when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced last July that it was to examine Britain's space programme and the opportunities open to us.

That was probably the first positive policy statement on space to be made by any British Government since the establishment of the European Space Agency—ESA—-in 1975 as a single body to conduct the complete range of European space activities for exclusively peaceful purposes. According to The Daily Telegraph of, I believe 16 January 1981, the Think Tank has reported. However, its report has not been published.

I hope that my hon. Friend will be forthcoming in his reply today. In particular, I hope that we shall learn that the first conclusion that the Think Tank has come to is to confirm that principle that European collaboration in space will achieve more than the sum of individual efforts, including our own, even though such a recommendation will, according to an article in The Economist in July last year, fly in the face of a strong lobby within my hon. Friend's Department which favours an independent British programme.

It must be cheaper and more sensible for Britain to remain fully committed to such a co-operative effort than to go it alone. Even so, should we, as I hope, confirm Britain's allegiance to Europe, we shall not find that the ESA is the optimistic, confident and united organisation that it was six years ago. Western Europe today appears to be indecisive and in some disarray in deciding what it wants to achieve in space, and how it is to proceed. Unilateral and bilateral initiatives by member States, contrary to the ESA convention, threaten European space co-operation and Europe's ability to compete.

Indifference towards the ESA's financing saps the agency's energy and distracts its staff from more constructive tasks. Contributions to it from member States are anomalous. France refuses to ratify the ESA convention and is currently developing its own telecommunications satellite, thus putting the ESA's programme at risk by competing with it.

France and Germany have withdrawn their support from the ESA's L-SAT plan for direct television broadcasting satellites in favour of their own project. There is no doubt that should Britain decide to go it alone it will almost certainly mean that the ESA will become a second Euratom sacrificed to national ambitions.

As Mr. Roy Gibson who retired last year as the director general of ESA, said in his final report to the ESA council: The damage that this Franco-German initiative has caused to European space co-operation … will need a number of constructive Community decisions to restore the optimistic atmosphere we enjoyed in the first years following the signature of the ESA convention". It is in the making of those "constructive Community decisions" that Britain should now be taking a leading and fruitful role. We can do this by appreciating, first, that Europe has come a long way in the short time in which it has been in the business of space research and development collaboration and is today strongly placed to take advantage of immense and growing opportunities.

The failure of ELDO to gell together a successful European launcher capability in the 1960s—let us never forget that it was not Britain's Blue Streak first-stage rocket that failed—is now history, as a result of the comparative success of the Ariane launcher programme, not withstanding its abortive LO2 flight last year. The success of the Metosat and the OTS communications projects testifies to the ESA's ability to develop application satellites.

The European communication satellite programme is now in formal existence to make available to Europe's postal, telecommunications and broadcasting administrations satellite links capable of carrying much of the inter-European telephone, telegraph and telex traffic, and of transmitting Eurovision programmes. The agency is now ready to implement a decision to place three MAREC maritime communication satellites into service to improve ship-to-shore communications as part of the global INMARSAT programme. Perhaps the most exciting project to date is that ESA's re-usable manned spacelab can now be placed in the American shuttle, thus ensuring Europe's presence in the new era of manned space flights in the future, which was heralded this week.

Today the need is to concentrate the minds of European member States on how the ESA will keep up the momentum following the completion of its Ariane and spacelab programmes and especially how it can turn its expertise in research and development to new advantage in administering the fulfilment of those fast-growing commercial opportunities that promise such a high rate of return on investment and direct consumer benefits.

I note that Mr. Peter Hickman, the managing director of British Aerospace dynamics space division, has urged the Think Tank to accept that Britain needs to keep its European links if it is to exploit a world market for communications satellites which will be worth thousands of millions of pounds over the next decade.

The energy crisis suggests the most urgent need for a full-scale European solar power satellite technology programme. That is clearly an appropriate investment opportunity for a joint venture with private industry involving both oil taxes and profits. That would ensure Britain's continued leadership in energy after the oil runs out. In that respect British Aerospace—freed now from the dead hand of nationalisation—has the expertise and capabilities necessary to play a leading European role.

Following the success of Meteosat, that suggests a worthwhile European earth resources programme which can detect and exploit new reserves of gas, coal and oil, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) advocated in his report to the Assembly of the Western European Union last July. Great potential exists for the development of a European low-cost small shuttle, using existing technology, for manned missions to supply orbiting space stations and service satellites. Great commercial benefits are to be gained from the realisation of advantages of zero gravity and the benefits of a vacuum for the manufacture in orbit of very large and pure crystals, metal alloys, glass lenses, vaccines and drugs.

I welcome ESA's decision to co-operate with the United States in sending a probe to analyse Halley's comet on its next approach in 1986. That will be a European mission with United States help, rather than the other way round. Irrespective of the gains to science that will be made, that project will gain for the ESA and its members an enhanced prestige in industrial ability, which will be invaluable in helping us to sell high technology abroad. It is essential that Britain plays a full part in the venture. To do otherwise would be to throw away a business opportunity that we cannot afford to lose.

Those are all goals that should claim the attention not only of space agencies but of Governments and industry. Indeed, today they are sensed, at least, if not always understood, by the broad spectrum of public opinion.

In this short debate I have attempted to point out that space technology has proved of great benefit to mankind and promises future opportunities on a dramatic scale. I have tried to emphasise that the European Space Agency has shown that Western Europe has a role to play, has the capability to play it, and is prepared to co-operate. The closest possible collaboration remains the key to success. I find it very sad that the Council of Ministers of the agency last met over four years ago. According to a reply that I received from my hon. Friend in February, there are at present no plans for a further meeting.

As Europe now stands uncertain how its future role in space should be played, let us accept that Britain has the technological, commercial and diplomatic skills with which to take a lead once again for the future benefit of the whole of mankind. That should be our role in space today.

1.14 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Industry (Mr. John MacGregor)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) for his interesting and timely remarks, and I congratulate him on choosing this subject. He has given me the opportunity to explain the Government's view of Britain's role in space at, as he said, an important time for our space industry. I listened with great interest to what he had to say. I hope that I shall be able to demonstrate to him that there is indeed no lack of interest on our part, nor of activity.

It was for that reason that the Government nominated my fellow Under-Secretary of State for Industry—my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Mr. Marshall)—to take responsibility and to set up an interdepartmental committee to co-ordinate policy. As my hon. Friend will know, it is my fellow Under-Secretary who carries the particular responsibility for this matter and who would, therefore, normally have replied to the debate. However, it is perhaps a mark of interest that he is currently in America discussing common interests in space matters with various American organisations and has been attending the historic launch of the space shuttle. I know that he will be very sorry to have missed this opportunity to contribute to the debate on a subject in which he is so keenly interested. He would certainly have been much more expert than I shall be in replying to it. In the time available I hope to be able to cover a number of the points that my hon. Friend has raised.

First, I am sure that the whole House would, if it were here on this last day of term, wish to join me in paying a tribute to the magnificent achievement and immaculate precision and teamwork involved in the successful launch and completion of the shuttle mission. It is yet another of the marvels of our age.

With that fresh in our minds, this is a good time to consider how Britain is set to take advantage of the challenges and commercial opportunities now rapidly unfolding in space. That is why, as I say, my hon. Friend's choice today is so opportune. Communications are the most obvious example, where for some years international post and telephone authorities have been using Intelsat satellites to pass long-distance telephone traffic between large Goonhilly-type stations. But technology has now advanced to the point at which ground stations can be very much smaller and individual factories or even homes can have direct access to satellites via personal stations situated on their own property. As the capabilities of electronics expand into the office or home of the future—for example, as my hon. Friend indicated, word processors, data and facsimile transfer, computer-to-computer links, teleconferencing and other services—the potential for using satellites to support these services and provide the communication links is growing rapidly.

There is considerable private interest in providing such services, and British Telecom has recently announced that it plans to provide a specialised satellite communications service to business users. In America several privately financed satellites are already providing business and television services. With the hoped-for reduction in the cost of launchers, we can expect even greater advances in services and value for money. Direct broadcasting, telephone links, electronic mail and mobile communication to ships, aircraft and land vehicles are among those developments.

The real significance of a space programme lies not just in having the satellite but in the business represented by the services that it can provide. My hon. Friend gave many examples. The United Kingdom has carefully directed the majority of its limited research and development resources into space science and telecommunications. The United Kingdom's participation in the science programmes of the European Space Agency is complemented by arrangements with other nations. A long period of collaboration with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is a prime example. It extends back to the launch of the United Kingdom's Ariel I satellite in 1962.

United Kingdom scientists have been deeply involved with three NASA science missions currently in orbit. The first, the international ultra-violet Explorer satellite, is a joint NASA-ESA-United Kingdom mission, conceived in the United Kingdom. It has been an outstanding success and is still making important discoveries through astronomical observations in the ultra-violet part of the spectrum. The second, Nimbus 7, is an atmospheric climate satellite, in which the United Kingdom has played a major role. The third mission is the joint Solar Maxima mission, an experiment to observe the sun at the peak of its sunspot cycle. This mission was seen by the Prime Minister on her recent visit to NASA's Goddard space flight centre.

The next NASA mission to be launched is the infra-red satellite, which is a NASA-Netherlands-United Kingdom joint mission planned for launch in 1982. The United Kingdom is providing the ground station for that mission at the SRC's Rutherford and Appleton laboratories at Chilton. Other missions in earth observation and astronomy are planned jointly with NASA for the rest of the decade.

Other opportunities for space science are also under review and include possible collaborative projects with Germany, Japan and India. The current and topical example of such joint scientific and technological studies is the memorandum of understanding with the Indian Government, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister intends to sign during her current visit to India.

In technology, British Aerospace is the prime contractor for all the European Space Agency's communications programmes, including the orbital test satellite, which is being used in important demonstration projects for future services such as I have mentioned. That will lead into a European regional telecommunications system, based on the ECS series of satellites, which are also primed by British Aerospace.

The spread of capability in British industry is reflected by the current early studies for an ESA large satellite in which British Aerospace and Marconi are involved in the platform and payload respectively. In the light of those spectacular developments, we felt last year that a full review of the United Kingdom's space activities was called for to ensure that British industry was given the maximum encouragement to exploit the substantial commercial opportunities that are in prospect.

That is why my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary announced to the House on 11 July last year that the Government had asked the Central Policy Review Staff to undertake a study of space activities in the United Kingdom. It was to look at the way in which the various departmental interests are co-ordinated and at the national and international developments and opportunities for our space industry.

My hon. Friend referred to the CPRS study. The report has been received, but it is confidential advice to Ministers and there is no intention of publishing it. However, I can tell him that it looked at the sort of actions that industry and Government need to take if the United Kingdom is to share in what promises to be a large and expanding business. It also concluded that European collaboration in space would achieve more than the sum of individual national efforts. Therefore, it recommended that the United Kingdom should remain in ESA.

Mr. David Atkinson


Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend referred to the European programme and an independent British programme. We must distinguish between research and development programmes and the development of operational satellites. The Government remain convinced of the value of Europe's pooling its resources in space research and development, but industry must be left free to select industrial consortia appropriate to meet the operational requirements.

My hon. Friend referred to possible dissension within the ESA. The ESA convention has been ratified by all the member States, including France, and it came into force formally in October last year. However, that was a formality, because the ESA has developed vigorously since its formation in 1975.

With the arrival of opportunities to sell satellites in the market place, nations are having to consider carefully the role of the ESA. The United Kingdom is taking a leading part in these discussions, which we hope will lead to an even stronger ESA appropriate to the new situation.

Government involvement in the space programme has hitherto been largely devoted to research and development, funded almost entirely by my Department and the Department of Education and Science, through the Science Research Council. The figures given by my hon. Friend were not quite accurate. The amount involved in 1980 was nearly £60 million.

In the early 1970s we decided that the future of our space programme lay in collaboration with the ESA, which currently absorbs 90 per cent. of my Department's expenditure on this matter. The Government remain convinced of the value of Europe's pooling its resources in space research, thus enabling costs to be spread, particularly for the science programme, and a wider international participation and interest in development work considerably enhance the commercial prospects of the resulting operational systems.

Collectively, the European nations have the industrial know-how, a potentially large single market, the need for satellite-based services, a launch capability and a sizeable influence in international organisations. Even American firms must of necessity join multinational consortia to bid for contracts for satellite systems. I am pleased to say that United Kingdom companies have a prominent place among such firms.

Looking to the future, it is our intention, first, to maximise the commercial benefits to the United Kingdom, especially in communications systems and their application to the future. Secondly, we intend to support the reform of the ESA to make it more efficient and more inclined to foster the development of market-oriented technologies, whilst continuing to support scientific experiments. Thirdly, we intend to maintain a national space effort on commercial applications and cost-competitive technology, thus enabling United Kingdom companies to bid successfully for contracts. Fourthly, we intend to encourage greater investment from private sources in satellite business systems and satellite-based applications.

The Government have taken powers under the British Telecommunications Bill to license alternative telecommunications activities, and with burgeoning opportunities for the commercial exploitation of space applications the Government will look increasingly to the private sector to raise the necessary finance. Up to now our space industry has of necessity subsisted largely on Government funding. Little internationally competitive marketing effort has been needed. For the future, United Kingdom space firms will have to build up their marketing expertise to exploit the capability to which the Government have contributed. Only through continuing success in export markets can the United Kingdom space industry expect to expand. The Government will be willing to play their part in the effort to win export orders.

Some services can be offered over British Telecom's own lines. They are the services into which Professor Beesley inquired and to which the Secretary of State referred yesterday. We hope that competition will develop soon.

Many interesting ideas have been floated for new services which compete with the network and do not involve British Telecom. Licensing must be carefully thought out. We are still examining what it might be possible to do.

Another example is the Ministry of Defence, which is about to place a contract with British industry for a communications satellite. In addition, last year the Home Secretary initiated a study into the options for and implications of direct broadcasting by satellite in the United Kingdom. The study has been completed and is expected to be published next month.

It will not be a blueprint for action, but it is intended to provide a basis on which decisions can be reached. Among other factors, it will deal with commercial prospects for our space and elecronics industries and the implications of direct broadcasting by satellite for our existing broadcasting system. The report will be helpful in exploring the opportunities in the context of the United Kingdom's broadcasting policy.

The Government have established machinery to ensure that Government action is proper:y co-ordinated and to give an overall view of priorities. We are involving industry in our discussions through the establishment of a new forum—the space consultative committee.

A number of important decisions have to be taken in the course of the year. I assure my hon. Friend that the House will be kept informed of progress. Our aim is to promote the British space industry by giving firmer and more coherent Government support and by encouraging firms to adopt a more positive attitude towards the commercial exploitation of their undoubted expertise.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to make a few remarks to the House. I hope that I have convinced him that the Government are exploring and exploitating many of the factors that he mentioned.

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