HL Deb 26 May 1966 vol 274 cc1560-75

7.47 p.m.

EARL JELLICOE rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they can confirm that it is their intention to continue to give full support to the European Space Vehicle Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO). The noble Earl said: My Lords, I am asking this Question at this very late hour in this very full House on the eve of our holidays, because, rather boringly, I believe it to be my duty to do so. ELDO is perhaps Europe's most important joint venture in technology. Great doubts at present hang over its future, and those doubts spring pretty directly from the actions of Her Majesty's Government. It was on February 15 that the Minister of Aviation, Mr. Mulley, made a statement in another place calling in question continued British participation in ELDO. It was under the shadow of this statement that the conference of ELDO Ministers, which the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, attended, met in Paris at the end of April and adjourned without reaching any final conclusion. But although that conference reached no final conclusion, and although I think it is true to say a considerable variety of opinion was expressed, I think it was the unanimous view of six of the seven participants that ELDO should continue. There was only one doubting Thomas among the seven and that was the United Kingdom. In a few days' time, on June 9, that conference will be reconvened, and it is likely to decide whether or not this great project is to prosper or to perish. That is why I have felt I should briefly refer to this matter

I realise that the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, may be in a somewhat difficult position. He is only one of a covey of British Ministers concerned with space, and he is also suspended, as it were, between two conferences. I nevertheless hope he may be able to give us a reasonably reassuring reply, and I hope this because I believe that on practical and political grounds, for pragmatic reasons if you will, it is really supremely important that we should not, as a country and as a Government. "rat" on ELDO.

Why do I believe this? I shall try very briefly to explain. There are many practical applications visible to-day of space technology. I am not advocating—I should not dream of advocating—that we in Britain, or we in Europe for that matter, should try to race the Russians or the Americans to the moon. What I am arguing is a far more terre-à-terre pedestrian case. What I have in mind are the practical applications of space technology which are already perfectly apparent to us. There are V.H.F. communications by satellite, very important for the supersonic aircraft of the future. There are navigation satellites for aircraft and ships which will be in common use very soon. There are meteorological satellites, potentially of vast importance for the British and the European farmer, let alone for that increasingly rare bird the British cricketer or that ubiquitous bird in her bikini. There are telecommunications satellites—this is, of course, the most immediately obvious practical application of space technology.

As most of your Lordships know, we are already involved, thanks to the Washington agreements of 1964, in an interim global telecommunications system which is developing quite rapidly. However, without going into details at this late hour, I should like to remind your Lordships that these interim agreements embody a built-in American monopoly, whether we like it or not. They are due for renewal by 1970, and of one thing I am utterly convinced—namely, that Britain and Europe will in future play a far more modest role in world telecom-thereabouts, we can show that we are munications, and so will British and European industry, unless, by 1970 or seriously in this business.

But there is still another sphere which perhaps overshadows in potential importance all the other possible applications of space technology. It is the use of satellites for television broadcasting. Here progress has been, and is likely to be, astonishingly rapid. It was only two years ago that some 200 million Europeans were able simultaneously to participate in the grief of the United States at the funeral of their late President. Those pictures came over with poignant force. But of course they came by quite primitive means. They depended on a small, low-powered satellite, Telstar, which in turn depended on a whole battery of complex and extremely expensive ground stations. Technology here is moving very fast indeed, and within ten years or so—this is what the experts tell us, and I think it will be quicker rather than later—the advanced space Powers will be able to transmit by satellite directly to the individual sitting before his or her individual television set. There will be no need for these vast expensive ground stations. What can this mean? Let me take two examples. It could mean that the Russians or the Americans could station satellites in synchronous orbit above Europe, and provide a 24-hour direct television service for the individual subject. That may be a good or a bad thing. But more important perhaps than that is that the same can be done over the less sophisticated developing areas of the world.

We discussed all this at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg some three weeks ago, and I remember extremely well what the noble Lord, Lord Norwich, had to say. He had just come back from six weeks in the Southern Sahara, and he mentioned that even in the remotest areas of the Southern Sahara almost every adult possessed his or her transistor radio set. I would suspect that in about ten years' time these same Tauregs will be carrying with them their individual transistor television sets, and that those transistor television sets will be able to receive direct programmes from the Russians or the Americans or the Europeans.

We have only to visualise this to recognise that space technology is placing in the hands of the great space Powers an instrument of immense power for good or for evil—what will constitute by far the most important medium known to man for information, for education, for entertainment or for propaganda. I doubt whether all Governments fully recognise this. I hope that the British Government is fully aware of it. It is an area which certainly should not be too lightly dismissed.

The question which I am asking the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, this evening, and one of the questions which the ELDO Ministers will be facing on June 9, is whether at this stage we and Europe would be wise to opt out of this technology; whether we should leave this whole developing sphere, with all its practical and political implications, to the two great space Powers of to-day, the United States and the Soviet Union, and to the great space Power of the future, China. In taking that decision I hope that the Ministers concerned will recognise that space technology is in its infancy. I think to-day one can probably say that compared with the automobile it is about the same age as the "Tin Lizzie", and compared with the aeroplane it is about the same age as those ponderous contraptions which the Wright Brothers used to fly. I question whether it would be wise for us in Europe to close our options at this moment.

The noble Lord may feel that I am overstating the case. He may argue that the options are not so stark; that we can jettison ELDO and still maintain a role for Europe in space. True, we could continue purely scientific work. True, we could continue developing scientific satellites—I do not underestimate the importance of that. True, we could continue to design and build satellites with practical applications. It is true that we could continue to thumb lifts for them off the Russians or the Americans. All I would reply is that while the Americans will certainly, in my view, continue to be generous, and the Russians might become so, about putting purely scientific European satellites into space for us, we are living in Cloud Cuckoo Land if we seriously suppose that we could hire their launchers on reasonable terms for those European satellites which were designed to compete with theirs, practically and commercially.

The noble Lord may in theory agree with this. But he or the Government may feel that there are certain areas of advanced technology which, unfortunately, we poor Europeans have to opt out of because we just cannot keep up with the rich Joneses in the United States and the Soviet Union. And he or the Government may buttress this argument by suggesting that in any event the type of launcher which ELDO is developing is out of date, useless for practical purposes, and quite intolerably expensive.

In the first place, I am not prepared to admit that Europe need necessarily opt out of any field of advanced technology, provided, and provided only, that we organise our efforts in Europe on a sensible co-operative basis. Secondly, whilst the ELDO A development has slipped in time, I cannot agree that it will not have practical uses. Above all, the new development of ELDO A which ELDO has been studying recently—that is, the ELDO A launcher, with an apogee and a perigee motor—could have most important applications in the telecommunications and television broadcasting field.

Thirdly, as far as cost is concerned, whilst I would concede, sadly, that expenditure has escalated seriously, I think we should remember a thing or two here. Some 250 million dollars have already been committed on this project. To cancel it would cost another 50 million dollars more. To complete it would cost, we are told, 425 million dollars. Therefore, if we cancel now we shall have spent three-quarters of the expenditure and got nothing in return. It is true that going on will be expensive. But we must keep things in proportion here. We sometimes talk as if our relatively modest space programme in Europe is laying a crippling burden on our poor, impoverished European shoulders. The facts are quite otherwise. The Americans spend 1 per cent. of their gross national product on space research, the Russians possibly double that. We in Europe spend .04 per cent., or possibly .05 per cent. We in Britain spend £20 million or so a year. These are not small sums, but I would suggest that they are hardly intolerable if the return is worthwhile. I have tried to suggest that it is, for purely practical and pragmatic reasons.

I suggest that we should keep our options open, and "keeping our options open" means keeping ELDO going. That is why I very much hope that we shall decide to give our representatives at this reconvened conference a brief to go ahead with ELDO A, in particular, with its further refinement with the apogee and perigee motor; and also that they will be empowered to support an intensive design effort with the next generation of launchers.

In conclusion, I should like to consider what a decision to opt out, to abdicate, in this matter could mean in political terms. We must remember that it was we who fathered this child; it was we who hawked it around Europe and eventually found a home for it in Europe. We must also remember that, on a purely financial basis, this baby of ours has proved quite profitable to its parents. Up to now we have, I am told, received £112 from ELDO contracts in this country for every £100 we have put into ELDO by way of contribution. We must remember, too, above all, that we are in partnership. We have five European partners up to the neck in this project, and we have a partner in Australia deep in it, too. All our partners wish to persevere. If we alone now lose heart and opt out; if, worse still, we drag our feet because the going has got a bit rough, or has got a little expense and difficult because we have our special economic problems, we run the risk of gaining for ourselves in Europe the reputation of being fair weather partners.

I ask the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, to recognise that I appreciate our problems here. I am not unaware of our financial difficulties. Nor am I unaware that, hitherto, we have borne by far the largest percentage of ELDO expenditure. But our special problems here are not unrecognised by our partners in Europe. Moreover, it is now generally agreed within ELDO that it is only reasonable that our share of future ELDO programmes should be reduced.

By the same token, I very much hope that the noble Lord and his colleagues will appreciate that there are far wider political considerations at stake here. I remember very vividly the words used at the meeting in Strasbourg, three weeks ago, by M. Peyrefitte, the French Minister of Science. At the end of a very remarkable speech, and referring specifically to the crisis in ELDO caused by our actions, M. Peyrefitte permited himself to say—and I paraphrase his words—that each of the member Governments should think not only of the damage to ELDO itself which would be caused by a brutal slamming on of the brakes, but also, and above all, of the repercussions which such action would have on the other attempts to organise European co-operation, and for European co-operation in all fields. I believe that the Government would be wise to ponder those words very carefully indeed. They were intended, I think, not as a threat, but more as a warning and as a statement of fact.

In any event, my Lords, if the Government are serious about joint projects with Europe—and I believe they are (at least we have a number of very important projects on our plate, not least with the French)—then I ask them to ponder very carefully before opting out of the most important of all of these joint projects. If they are serious about entry into Europe—and we must assume that with two Ministers for Europe they must be—then I ask them to ponder very carefully before withdrawing from one of the very few organisations in which they are active partners with five out of the Six—and that just at the moment when the vista of our possible entry into Europe may again be opening up. Above all, if the Government are really modern-minded, and really European-minded, I ask them to continue to put their shoulder to a project which is both. I ask them, above all, before they reach for their knife, to ponder on the wound which they could thereby inflict on the whole cause of European co-operation. That is why I sincerely hope that in his reply the Minister, who is, I think, both modern-minded and European-minded, will be able to sound a positive note.

8.6 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Jellicoe upon initiating this discussion to-day, as it is the last opportunity Parliament will have to consider this matter before the next Ministerial Conference of Member States resumes its deliberations in Paris on June 9. I wholeheartedly support my noble friend's initiative, for I think it would be disastrous if we decided to opt out of ELDO. For by such a move we should establish for all time the absolute superiority of the United States and U.S.S.R. in the field of medium and heavy launchers.

It can be truthfully said, I feel, in the same way that a nation is not in aviation if it does not manufacture aircraft, a nation is not in the space business if it is not concerned with building and operating space-launching vehicles. I feel, too, that it would be a very retrograde step if we considered, as a short-term or stop-gap measure, the acquisition of more powerful American launchers; because I sincerely believe that it would prove to be a short-sighted measure indeed. At the moment the market for space equipment in Europe must be uncertain, while the market for launchers may also at this stage appear to be a little limited. But there is absolutely no doubt that the British industry is viewing with grave concern American advances in various fields of technology solely due to their space programme.

This broadening of the technological gap between Europe and the United States should cause all of us the greatest concern—and by "all of us" I mean both those in Parliament and those outside. We certainly do not need a curtailment of programmes, but a definite expansion of space activity in Europe as a whole, if we are not seriously to lag behind the Americans in various fields of technology. This desirable objective of European space expansion must be matched by a useful and strong domestic space programme. It is interesting to bear in mind that France, which last year spent around £20 million on such a programme, as compared with the approximately £15 million which we spent on a domestic programme in this country, is reaping most of the rewards regarding European business in the fields of sophisticated space electronic gear and tracking radars.

I feel that possibly the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, on comparing the two expenditures of £20 million and £15 million last year, will reply that, on the other hand, we spent £14 million last year on ELDO and ESRO, whilst France spent only around £7 million. But to that I would echo the words of my noble friend Lord Jellicoe, that I think it is true to say that anyhow the French recognise the need for another look at this question of the percentage of British participation in ELDO—it seems a little high at the moment, with 38.79 per cent., against France's 23.93 per cent. and Germany's 22.01 per cent.—for I understand that it has transpired that the actual expenditure on Blue Streak is turning out to be a lesser proportion of the total than was originally anticipated.

I am strengthened in my feeling regarding the French attitude, because last week a French Parliamentary delegation came over here, and one of the subjects which we discussed in one of the Committee Rooms in the House of Commons was Franco-British cooperation in aero-space activity. The question of ELDO was naturally touched upon to some extent, and I have the feeling, as had other members, that the French Parliamentarians were very willing to meet us halfway, and felt it most desirable that the technical and financial problems affecting ELDO should be solved very promptly.

To turn now to the present technical situation, I think it is important to bear in mind that the working group under the chairmanship of Mr. W. H. Stephens, Technical Director, unanimously agreed last year on the choice of ELDO B as the most desirable objective for the Organisation's future activities. The working group deprecated any foreshortening of the initial programme, and also recommended the continuation of the initial programme. It is regrettable to think that only the last—that is, the continuation of the initial programme—was approved at the April, 1965, meeting of the Ministerial Conference.

In a very interesting paper presented last Monday at Brighton, during the 6th European Symposium on Space Technology, Mr. A. V. Cleaver, Chief Engineer and Manager of the Rocket Department of Rolls-Royce, expressed deep concern that the ELDO B programme was not proceeded with during 1965. I think it is important to heed some of the opinions and remarks of Mr. Cleaver, for it is his considered opinion that they are shared by all the engineers and managers of the ELDO contracting firms. Their experience has been one of frustration and disappointment, I understand, if not of anger. They believe, very strongly, I am informed, that technical effort on major projects cannot be turned on and off, like water flowing from a tap. This lack of continuity, and short-term funding—that is, on a yearly budget—is bedevilling the whole scheme.

As in certain quarters there has been criticism of the fact that insufficient attention has been paid to the operational requirements or missions for ELDO A and B, can the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, say whether there has been any progress in ascertaining these requirements? Can he say, too, when it is expected that the CETs—that is, the European Conference on Satellite Communications—will be able to report on what exactly is required to develop a European capability in satellite communications? My understanding at the moment is that there is a requirement for communications satellites, as mentioned by my noble friend, to be injected into geostationary orbits for incorporation in a basic global system. But it would be interesting to know—and this was referred to in some detail by my noble friend Lord Jellicoe—what consideration is being given to the future with regard to the launching of broadcast television satellites, as well as to their use in radio navigation and radio meteorology.

According to last year's CECLES-ELDO report to the Council of Europe, the ELDO A launcher with an apogee stage launched from a equatorial site would only be able to place into a geostationary orbit a payload of 40 to 50 kilos, so that would not seem to have a great commercial future. On the other hand, according to a French source, the ELDO A launcher, with the perigee and apogee rocket system, could place a payload of around 140 to 190 kilos into a similar orbit, which would seem to have great advantages from a commercial point of view. Other people think that the ELDO B1 rocket, with an apogee stage, could place a satellite weighing around 300 kilos into a geostationary orbit. No doubt, with the apogee and perigee rocket system, it could place an even heavier satellite into orbit, and I feel there are quite a number of persons on the Continent who believe that that may be a better objective to pursue.

I certainly think that one of the most important recommendations of the working group was the need for continuity. That is something which seems to have been sadly lacking over the past months and year or so, with regard to the initial programme and the further work on other programmes. That is why I sincerely hope, like my noble friend, that the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, will this evening be able to lift a little the veil concerning the Government's intentions as to the future of ELDO, and as to the way they would like to see the initial programme and other programmes developed. I think that would allay to a very great extent indeed the fears of industry in this country, and also allay the fears of quite a number of our European partners who are rather worried, as was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Jellicoe, about any curtailment of such a programme, because they believe very strongly indeed in the future of collaborative projects on a European basis.

8.20 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure we are all very grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, for raising this Question to-day, and indeed to the noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, for adding his most valuable contribution, and for giving us an opportunity of pursuing, although it will have to be very briefly, the very interesting and informative debate on space age science and technology that we had in this House on November 3. I must add, too, that I found the opening remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, most impressive in their imaginative view of the way in which this sort of technology might develop.

But, my Lords, when together with our French partners we proposed in 1961 the setting up of a European organisation for the development of these satellite launchers, the estimated cost of the programme over a five-year period was £70 million. Since then, the cost has rather more than doubled, and the time-scale has spread from 5 to 7½ years. The mounting cost of this programme and the delay in its completion have been a cause for concern to all the participating Governments—and especially, of course, to the Government of the United Kingdom, who, as the noble Lord has said; contribute between 38 and 40 per cent. of the total costs of the ELDO programme. Because the value of a launcher of this sort depends not only on what it will cost to produce and fire, but also on its ability to meet the requirements of the day in terms of technical performance.

The noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, has talked—and, as I said, talked most imaginatively—about the need and the possibility of the development of navigation satellites for supersonic aircraft, and he has talked of telecommunications satellites and of satellites for television broadcasting. When we embarked on the ELDO programme it was hoped that the launcher might be useful for putting a communications satellite into orbit and for putting up scientific experiments, particularly for the European Space Research Organisation, ESRO. As the noble Earl has said, in the intervening period satellite communications have made rapid progress; and, as he has also said, progress in television broadcasting is likely to be even more dramatic. We might even reach the stage of direct broadcasting from satellite to domestic television sets. But it now seems certain that the communications satellites which will be used for the global system to which the noble Lord referred will be, as he suggested, geostatic satellites—that is to say, satellites in a position in space which remains constant in relation to any fixed spot on the earth's surface. This means that they have to be put into orbit at least 23,000 miles above the earth's surface.

It is beyond the capacity of the ELDO launcher as it was originally planned to put satellites into orbits of this kind, and so we have had to ask ourselves what customers there will be for the ELDO launcher when its development is completed. It is true that ESRO may require two launchers for its large astronomical satellite, but it is not clear at present how many other potential users there may be.

As the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, has mentioned, in these circumstances, together with our partners in the project, we have been looking at proposals for improving the payload of the ELDO vehicle by the addition to the original three-stage launcher of two small motors, called, as we have heard, the apogee and perigee motors—called so because they are timed to fire at the furthest and nearest points to the earth in the orbit of the launcher, and in this way to force the launcher from a parking orbit into a higher, and even perhaps geostationary, orbit. As the noble Earl has implied, this refinement would have the effect of allowing the ELDO launcher to place a satellite in geostatic or geostationary or synchronous orbit, whatever one might like to call it. Indeed, if, as has been suggested, the launcher were fired from an equatorial site, this satellite could have a payload of about 200 kilogrammes—that is to say, about three or four times the payload of the existing American telecommunications satellite, Early Bird.

But the fact remains that the possible customers for such a launcher are limited, and although it can and has been argued that in due time—and possibly a relatively short time—this telecommunications technique and the relaying of television programmes by means of satellites will be a normal part of our daily life, we cannot be sure that even an improved ELDO launcher will be suitable for these purposes. Perhaps only the proposed programme of the European Conference on Satellite Telecommunications—the CETS, to which the noble Lord referred—would make use of it for the purposes of orbiting experimental satellites, and only a few of these would be required. I cannot answer categorically the noble Lord's question about when the CETS will come up with its full estimate of requirements, but my impression is that it will be quite soon, and perhaps in the course of the next year.

As a result of these considerations, at the meeting in Paris in April of this year, which I attended, the Ministers of the Governments taking part in the project reviewed the current activities of the organisation and discussed adapting its programme to the requirements of possible users. At the same time, they considered the feasibility of defining more clearly the general aims of European space activities. It was agreed that the proposals for upgrading the performance of the ELDO launcher—the apogee-perigee system, to which I have just referred—should be given the closest consideration, and that the cost and consequences of doing this should be carefully studied. As we have heard, to allow time for these studies to take place the Conference adjourned until June 9, when it will resume its deliberations.

The noble Earl mentioned the proportion of the gross national product in Europe which is being spent on space research, and the noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, made mention of several figures in this respect. But I think that the relevant and important figure is that we in this country spend 2.5 per cent. of our national income on advanced research and development, and, as noble Lords will find if they refer to the figures, this compares favourably with those proportions of national incomes or gross national products spent by any of our European partners. My Lords, little of this expenditure is of economic and commercial importance in the short term, and we must, I submit, inevitably exercise some choice as to how we use our limited resources. We cannot afford everything, and, however desirable some of these imaginative space projects may seem to be, we must make a choice, and a careful choice, as to where we spend our money. I must say, my Lords, that we still have doubts about the programmes of ELDO.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord for one moment? I accept his figure of 2.5 as the percentage of the gross product expended on research and development, and I would agree that that is higher than the amount of many of our European neighbours. But he is aware, of course, that some of our European neighbours—and I have in mind the West German Government, for instance—are going to increase considerably their research development expenditure. I think the West German Government propose to raise their proportion from 1.9 per cent. to 3 per cent. by 1970. I wanted to put that as a gloss on what he said.


My Lords, I take the point the noble Earl has made; but I think it underlines the point that I was about to make; that is, that, so far as this particular project is concerned, we still have doubts about whether the objectives which we can achieve in ELDO justify the allocation to this project of the necessary resources of money, facilities and scientific effort.

Therefore, to answer specifically the question put by the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, I have to say that until the studies which were put in hand at the April meeting are completed, and until we have had an opportunity of further discussions with our partners, Her Majesty's Government cannot confirm that it is their intention to give full support to the European Launcher Development Organisation. We have been carefully considering the advantages of completing the initial programme and of improving its performance. We are fully conscious of the interest our partners in the project have shown in continuing to co-operate with them in the Organisation's programmes, and we have, of course, taken full account of this. As the noble Earl said, there is a firm belief among our European partners in the future value of ELDO, and this has naturally been a major consideration in our balance sheet of the conflicting factors. The issue has had, as he rightly said, significant political content, quite apart from the technological and other aspects; and we have been fully alive to this.

But I should like to take up one point which I think we sometimes interpret in a careless way. The noble Earl pointed out that we were the sponsors of this project and therefore have special responsibility for continuing it. I should like to put that in another way, and say that as we are the sponsors of this project we have a very special responsibility in seeing that it continues effectively and that its results are commensurate with the cost expended on it.

Whatever our decision, however, it cannot be said that we have ignored the importance of these political considerations, and especially the considerations of collaboration with Europe. I should like to take the opportunity now of making it clear that we remain very conscious of the need for European co-operation in all fields, including that of space technology and research, and that this principle is not questioned by Her Majesty's Government which, as the noble Earl will know, quite apart from the question of ELDO, took a leading part in organising the European Space Research Organisation and the Conference on Satellite Telecommunications. But it goes without saying that we must ensure that all these international organisations are conducted efficiently and with sensible and logical objectives, and that their cost, as I have said before—and this is most important—is commensurate with the results to be obtained.

I should like to end by commenting by implication on the words of the noble Earl when he paraphrased the remarks of the French Minister. M. Peyrefitte. I would suggest that we must not be hypnotised by this word "co-operation", even in the very topical context of European co-operation. If we engage in co-operative adventures that turn out to be, at the end, unproductive, we shall, I suggest, have done nothing but damage to the whole European idea.


My Lords, before the noble Lord resumes his seat may I ask him one question, and may I also thank him for his very full reply? It did not go as far as I hoped, but he has not shut the door to continued participation. He talked of there being no market for the ELDO A, and then went on to say that there might be a market for the ELDO A with the apogee and perigee motor. Is it not the case that the French Government offered to buy two ELDO A Launchers?


My Lords, there has been a qualified provisional suggestion from the French Government that they might be in the market for two of the launchers with apogee-perigee motors; but the offer was qualified and was provisional.