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United Kingdom’s new comprehensive space strategy: develop a robust private sector

Map of UK space strategy

Capitalism in space: The United Kingdom yesterday released a new comprehensive space strategy that seems generally focused on encouraging the growth of a private aerospace industry.

You can read the actual strategy here [pdf].

Though most of the text is high-sounding but mostly meaningless political talk, the overall strategy is excellent. It is focused not on creating a “space program” that the British government will design and build — what had been the traditional but generally unsuccessful approach since the 1960s — but to instead find ways to encourage the private sector to achieve what it wants to do. The map to the right, taken from the strategy document, illustrates this. The focus is entirely in supporting the growth of a commercial private industry by either creating industrial centers for space manufacturing or spaceports for launching satellites.

In this context, the vagueness of the strategy’s goals makes sense. The UK government has properly concluded that it is not its place to set those goals, but to let the commercial sector do it based on where they think they can make the most profit.

All in all, this strategy bodes well for the UK’s future in space.

Conscious Choice cover

From the press release: In this ground-breaking new history of early America, historian Robert Zimmerman not only exposes the lie behind The New York Times 1619 Project that falsely claims slavery is central to the history of the United States, he also provides profound lessons about the nature of human societies, lessons important for Americans today as well as for all future settlers on Mars and elsewhere in space.

Conscious Choice: The origins of slavery in America and why it matters today and for our future in outer space, is a riveting page-turning story that documents how slavery slowly became pervasive in the southern British colonies of North America, colonies founded by a people and culture that not only did not allow slavery but in every way were hostile to the practice.  
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“Zimmerman’s ground-breaking history provides every future generation the basic framework for establishing new societies on other worlds. We would be wise to heed what he says.” —Robert Zubrin, founder of founder of the Mars Society.


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  • Jeff Wright

    I don’t agree…when a left of center gov’t says “privatize X” that means they don’t care about X. British aerospace these days is a match under a waterfall. Longshanks would have killed off carriers and subs with us Yanks building them…and used their budgets for Skylon.

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “The focus is entirely in supporting the growth of a commercial private industry by either creating industrial centers for space manufacturing or spaceports for launching satellites.

    In this context, the vagueness of the strategy’s goals makes sense. The UK government has properly concluded that it is not its place to set those goals, but to let the commercial sector do it based on where they think they can make the most profit.

    If the government sets a goal of having 10% of the world’s space market, a goal that the Space News article said Britain had in the past, then the government will feel compelled to take actions to force the commercial companies to do things that the government thinks will reach that goal. There is little freedom or liberty in central control. It was a good goal to eliminate, as the companies now have the freedom to grow their nation’s market share in a more liberated way.

    From His Majesty’s Government Space Strategy paper:

    Space is inspiring; the whole world gathered to watch humanity take its first steps on the Moon in 1969 and every child has looked up in wonder at the stars. But perhaps fewer of us realise just how essential space is to every aspect of our modern daily life. Every time we use our smartphones to navigate, every time we take a flight, every time we check the weather forecast – we are using space.

    They acknowledge the value of space. No wonder so many countries want to take part in using space for the benefit of we earthlings.

    In the following statement, opportunities and a threat to Britain are identified:

    Space was once only the preserve of superpowers but increased commercial use of space will trigger a new wave of competition. Governments around the world will use a range of methods to compete, and this could include technologies intended to disrupt and deny others’ use of this domain.

    Commercial space will trigger a new type of competition, competition between commercial products, not national technocracies.

    The United States made the mistake of prioritizing its own space program over commercial space opportunities, and the British have clearly learned from this terrible mistake. Recent developments in the space industry have shown that commercial space does far better than government space, and the British intend to capitalize on this lesson. The United States did not learn this lesson until after the loss of Columbia, and it has taken more than a decade for the lesson to become clear. Because government had declared space to be its own purview, it took several billionaires to finance private commercial space until they could show that government really had given over the domain to the private companies and investors became brave enough to invest.

    Some years ago, Luxembourg also chose to become a nation with a strong space economy, and she attracted several companies to conduct business within her borders. Britain seems to be making a similar move, with the additional benefit that polar and sun synchronous launches can be performed from the British Isles.

    Space activities often entail high capital expenditure, significant risk, and long periods for return on investment. With space-enabled services and applications, the upfront costs may be lower, but there is less tangible capital to offer as collateral. The UK has an end-to-end offer for space enterprises including an unparalleled financial services centre in the City of London.

    Britain recognizes — and is attempting to help overcome — the problems that space endeavors currently take a lot of capital, take a lot of time to develop, and entail a great deal of risk. Luxembourg does something similar.

    Because the U.S. government was virtually the only customer for the U.S. space industry, it bureaucratically set the rules and determined the methods that the manufacturers of space hardware and services must follow in order to operate in the space industry. Once the U.S. government allowed more flexibility, space companies took up the cause of improving the rules and methods, and they have already reduced costs and found additional markets for space products.

    While NASA was directed by Congress to move away from reusability, commercial companies are thriving because they embraced reusability. New engines, new fuels, and new techniques are being developed in order to further reduce the costs of access to — and operations in — space. Commercial companies are being founded and are thriving based upon the benefits of smaller satellites and probes. Commercial companies have accomplished what only governments have done in space, and now they aspire to accomplish what governments have only dreamed of doing. Commercial space is doing better and expanding faster than government space has done. Using space does not have to be as expensive as governments had made it look and more can be accomplished in space than governments had been willing to do.

    The reason government does not work well on space projects comes from Milton Friedman’s theory: (3 minutes)
    There are four ways to spend money:
    1. Spend your money on yourself
    2. Spend your money on someone else
    3. Spend other people’s money on yourself
    4. Spend other people’s money on other people.

    – Spending your money on yourself results in spending efficiently on quality. This is the most efficient, because it means buying the least costly products while demanding the highest quality. This drives the suppliers to find the most efficient ways to make high quality products.
    – Spending your money on others tends toward buying the least costly products without much concern for quality. This encourages suppliers to make the least expensive low quality products.
    – Spending other people’s money on yourself tends toward buying expensive and high quality products, encouraging suppliers to charge too much money for quality products.
    – Spending other people’s money on other people tends toward buying expensive products without consideration of quality. This encourages suppliers to charge too much money for low quality products.

    The more we spend money the first way, the faster we get high quality products for lower prices. The more we spend money the fourth way, the longer we have lower quality products that cost too much.

    From 1962 to 1970, the Apollo project looked like the third way of spending. We were getting quality products because of the nation’s collective desire to get to the Moon first, but we were spending large amounts of taxpayer money to do it. The government abandoned the Moon, because it believed the costs to be unsustainable.

    Ever since 1970, government’s spending on space looked like the fourth way of spending. Government spent large amounts of taxpayer money in order to benefit the taxpayer, but we weren’t getting as much as we had been led to expect. The Space Shuttle was supposed to fly for a month at a time and was supposed to have such a short turnaround time that we would get 64 missions each year. The quality of the Space Shuttle was lower than expected. We thought we would get more flying Shuttles than we ended up having, so the quantity was lower, too. The reality was that a flight could not exceed 16 days (thus, missions were planned for two weeks in order to provide some margin of safety), and we only got 6 flights each year. The best we could hope for was 1/20th of what we thought we had payed for. The quality (capability) of the Shuttle Transportation System was lower than we had paid for.

    The ISS was originally going to cost $32 billion, but Congress thought that was too expensive and demanded a size reduction, resulting in a reduction in its capabilities. Congress then allowed Russia to join the ISS project in order to prevent Russian rocket scientists from giving China, Iran, and North Korea rocket technology. Building the ISS cost us $70 billion more than Congress thought was too expensive — but China, Iran, and North Korea got rocket technology anyway. More than $70 billion was wasted. We got much less than half of what we could have under the original design but paid three times as much for that lesser amount and lesser quality (capability).

    Constellation and Artemis expenditures are approaching $70 billion, yet the plan takes us back to methods and expenses that are like Apollo but with fewer flights per year. Costs remained high and quality has not much improved over the Apollo project. The purpose of Artemis looks like government is spending money in order to keep people employed, which means that it is spending taxpayer money on other people. It looks more like a welfare program than a space program. If the Space Shuttle and ISS are indicators, then we are likely to get less from Artemis than was promised.

    The real advances in technology, methods, and cost reductions are happening in the commercial space industry, where companies are spending their own money on themselves, the first way to spend money. Satellites are coming down in size, weight, and price, and many, many more companies are putting satellites into space in order to do business or to do exploration.

    Commercial launch vehicles are beginning to become reusable, reducing prices and increasing launch cadence. Lower launch costs combined with lower satellite costs is allowing far more companies to begin doing business in space, including launching large constellations that provide much more capability and quality for customers. These new customers are demanding low prices and high quality, because they are spending their own money on themselves. Unlike government space projects, these companies are getting their money’s worth, and as efficiencies improve, they get more and more for their money.

  • Edward

    India’s space industry seems to be doing something similar. Space News has an essay pointing out this trend there:
    India at the Inflection Point:
    However, ISRO does not outsource space services to the private sector, which would yield space technology IP and infrastructure that companies could sell to other customers, such as components of the Indian government or businesses and organizations around the world.

    “New space companies are not looking at ISRO as a customer,” said Prasad. “They are looking upstream and downstream to create capacity by investing in IP. This is where you see a radical shift. They have chosen to build IP on their own, and they don’t have contracts with the space agency.”
    India’s space industry did not have the same problem as the U.S. space industry, where the government was virtually the only customer. Such a monopsony did not exist in India, giving that country’s commercial space industry a better leg up than the U.S. gave its own commercial space industry. For half a century, the U.S. had stifled her commercial space industry in a free market capitalist system, and had to prove to investors that she was now willing to allow a commercial space industry to flourish, but India did not stifle her own industry in the same way, and for many years she has been moving most of her industries toward free market capitalism, resulting in around half a billion people coming out of poverty.

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