Opinion

Published

Using sci-fi to lure talent to UK space sector – one dominated by satellites and manufacturing

12 Mins

July 14 marks the first successful Mars approach by NASA’s Mariner 4 in 1965. It was the fourth in a series of spacecraft intended for planetary exploration in flyby mode. Of course, it succeeded and just past midnight the next day it sent the first ever images – taken at a distance of just 6,000 miles – of what lay beyond our Earth-Moon system.

This is just one of NASA’s numerous accomplishments, including Pioneer 10 completing the first mission to Jupiter, as well as being the first spacecraft to escape velocity from the Solar System.

Needless to say, the US space industry has experienced a boom. This is largely thanks to president Barack Obama having promised in 2010 to hand NASA $6bn to seed private space companies. NASA also pumped an additional $7bn into contracts with SpaceX and Boeing to build spaceships to take US astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017.

In comparison, Britain was largely quiet in its success until it developed its own NASA equivalent – the UK Space Agency – in April 2010. This wasn’t always the case. Britain built the first commercial passenger jet, the DeHavilland Comet, which established the UK as the world’s foremost aircraft maker. At the same time, Britain was a leader in rocket development. However, Britain withdrew from efforts to build a European spacecraft in June 1966 due to a lack of finance. This move, according to Doug Millard, senior curator of the Science Museum’s space department, “signalled the UK’s exit from any further substantive development of space launch vehicles“.

And despite the key role played by British scientists in the development of satellites, nothing was more attention-grabbing than Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon, or Mariner 9 orbiting Mars. This was echoed by Ken Pounds, professor of space physics at the University of Leicester, who said: “The problem is most people just associate space exploration with humans in space, but this is a relatively small part of the work that goes on.” 

In fact, the UK is home to Surrey Satellite Technology and IMMARSAT, the biggest satellite operator in the world, a business with products covering 85 per cent of the globe. Of course, few probably know that fact. Pounds suggested that it would only really gain the attention of most people if one of the satellites were knocked off by a giant solar flare. Due to its lack of unmanned flights, the UK’s sector seems far less glamorous.

However, Pounds is of the belief that humans will be heading back to the Moon in the next 15 to 20 years, and said the UK must be involved.

Ultimately, Britain’s space industry has more than doubled its turnover over the past decade to £11.8bn a year and is punching above its weight in the international marketplace. The findings came in a new report, “The Case for Space”, which suggested that companies involved in manufacturing satellites, providing communications, broadcasting services and finding practical applications for data produced from space vehicles have, when combined, delivered an average annual growth rate of 8.8 per cent turnover since 2000.

It becomes incredibly clear that the UK and its “makers” have done well to be established as the veins manufacturing the goodies needed by other companies. British exports have undoubtedly increased, but, once more, there is little space exploration being done.

“The space industry is largely misunderstood by the public,” said Andy Green, co-chair of Britain’s Space Leadership Council. “The future for Britain’s space industry is not about huge fireworks that cost tons of money into space. We’re looking at smaller, cheaper investments that will provide returns. That’s why we’re so encouraged about the government supporting a British spaceport. That’s basically just a very long runway but it means we can use aircraft to launch smaller satellites at a much lower cost than rockets.”

Read more about the space industry:

Britain is still making its mark in the space industry as a satellite maker. Some of the major players in the sector include Avanti, Astrium, Inmarsat and Sky’s parent company BSkyB. Avanti Communications is known for having developed the Hylas 1 and 2 satellites, which have highly accurate steerable beam technology that allows spot delivery of broadband connectivity. Meanwhile Astrium, which is Europe’s largest space company, won a contract from the European Space Agency to build a heat shield-protected spacecraft called Solar Orbiter. There is also Surrey Satellite Technology, a spin-out from the University of Surrey, which creates bespoke satellites that carry payloads of less than 1,000kg. 

But that may be a problem. With the “UK Space Innovation and Growth Strategy 2010 to 2030” estimating the future need for 100,000 new highly-skilled workers, schools and universities will need to raise awareness of the opportunities afforded by a career in the space sector. However, the misconception of the type of jobs available may mean that kids are missing what makes the industry so great.

Universities such as Southampton, Cranfield, University College London and Surrey offer specialist postgraduate courses and research opportunities. About a quarter of Surrey’s postgrads go on to further study, said Chris Bridges, lecturer at the University of Surrey’s MSc in space engineering.

Systems engineer Stephen Greenland of the University of Strathclyde works with Glasgow-based company Clyde Space, which develops CubeSats. Greenland said Clyde Space has doubled in size, with universities and research institutes keen to make use of these mini satellites.

“We frequently recruit graduates who’ve taken some postgraduate study – either an MSc or PhD – as they will have had some industrial placement and more experience in general,” says Greenland.

But what is it that truly inspires young people to “discover how the world works”?According to Adrian Hon, founder of Six to Start, the Apollo missions were hugely influential for a whole generation of children, but what inspired the Apollo engineers in the first place?

“Science fiction is one answer; Donna Shirley, former manager of Mars Exploration at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, read Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Martian Chronicles’ and Arthur C Clarke’s ‘The Sands of Mars’ as a child,” he said. “She recalled, ‘It was clear to me that space exploration wasn’t just fantasy … I thought, ‘Gosh, I could do this.'”

We’re no slouches in Britain when it comes to world-class science fiction, Hon said. Indeed, we can count HG Wells, John Wyndham, and Aldous Huxley, as well as Iain Banks, Stephen Baxter, Ken MacLeod, Charlie Stross, Richard Morgan, and China Mieville among the UK fold. 

And the increasing interest in such literature was something that NASA has capitalised on quite well. In 2011 it hoped to encourage math and science education by publishing a series of science-based books around the concepts pertinent to its current and future work

NASA also hoped it would attract and retain students in STEM fields, thereby strengthening NASA and the nation’s future workforce.

“When I was a boy, books by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and their colleagues excited me, inspiring a lifelong fascination with space and the science and technology that would get us there,” said US book publisher Tom Doherty, who works alongside NASA to publish the books.

Hon suggested, however, that science fiction should not be limited to books. When it comes to TV, Hon pointed out that Britain has the longest-running science fiction show in the world – Doctor Who – which he claimed had “inspired more than a few budding scientists in its time”.

He also highlighted Star Trek: The Next Generation’s very British Captain Jean-Luc Picard, who loves Earl Grey tea and Shakespeare – and has a crew set on re-enacting Robin Hood and Sherlock Holmes on the Holodeck. 

Let’s also not forget popular games such as Halo, Dead Space, Crysis 2 and Little Big Planet. Hon suggested that this is where most children find their scientific and engineering inspiration. “The recent Deus Ex, with its impressive grasp of near-future human augmentation devices (such as prostethic limbs and organs) will be sure to get a few teenagers curious about medicine and robotics”, he said.

In 2011, Google’s Eric Schmidt criticised Britain’s education system in saying that it was “drifting to the humanities” and neglecting the sciences. He also remarked that Britain should look to the “glory days” of the Victorian era for reminders of how science and art work together.

“It was a time when the same people wrote poetry and built bridges,” he said. “Lewis Carroll didn’t just write one of the classic fairytales of all time. He was also a mathematics tutor at Oxford. James Clerk Maxwell was described by Einstein as among the best physicists since Newton – but was also a published poet.”

Maybe Britain needs to start focussing on linking the two concepts together once more.

All right, there’s a big difference between science and science fiction. However, there’s substantial evidence to suggest that the genre can spark a lifelong interest in science. 

Read more about using science fiction to attract females into the space sector.

Share this story

Dell to bolster EMEA operations with 450 new employees
Made in Dagenham 21st century style: Sainsbury’s and Asda face wrath of women for unequal pay
Send this to a friend