In 1969, a British engineer was invited to the White House to meet with President Nixon. His name was Francis Thomas Bacon and had developed the fuel cells used in Apollo 11. Now known as Bacon fuel cells, these energy sources consume hydrogen and oxygen to produce fuel. water, heat and, in theory, a continuous supply of electricity.
His invention was considered so essential to the success of the Apollo mission that Nixon told him, “Without you Tom, we would not have made it to the moon.”
Bacon is one of the many heroes in the history of Great Britain in space. The United Kingdom was the third space country in the world, after the USSR and the United States. And in the years since Apollo, several British space companies, including Inmarsat and Surrey Satellite Technology, were formed, building on the work of these early British space engineers.
Over the past 50 years, however, few would describe Britain as a truly global space superpower. While the UK has great expertise in the development and production of satellites, it has less experience in launching them. Britain has not independently launched its own satellite since 1971. Only 5% of the 2,600 satellites in orbit today are registered in the UK.
Yet over the past decade space has proven to be one of the fastest growing sectors in the UK. Its size has tripled since 2010. Today the UK space industry employs nearly 42,000 people and generates an income of £ 15 billion a year. Over £ 300 billion of the wider UK GDP is supported by satellite services including telecommunications, metrology, Earth observation and navigation.
The UK’s current membership in the European Space Agency (Esa) will not be affected by Brexit. Esa is not an EU institution. But the UK’s departure from the EU will affect UK involvement in European space programs to varying degrees. These include the Galileo satellite navigation program, Copernicus Earth Observation and the EU space monitoring and tracking program.
The government wants the UK to be the most attractive place in Europe for those looking to get into orbit and beyond. The global market for launching small satellites is worth around £ 400 billion. The UK wants 10% of this market by 2030.
To achieve this, the UK will need the ability to launch its own satellites into space. This is why the UK is investing in a number of space ports (think airports but for rockets) across the country. More recently, the government gave Lockheed Martin the green light to transfer its small satellite launch operations to the Shetland Space Center on the Scottish island of Unst.
The Shetlands have a number of qualities that make them ideal for traveling to space. Their northern latitude provides easy access to polar orbits, good for small, low Earth satellites. And their remoteness allows launches to be directed over the sea, away from heavily populated areas.
Shetland is not the only region in the UK to have increased its investment in space. Space ports are also being developed in Cornwall and Sutherland.
The government also announced this year the development of new “space hubs” in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each will use government funding to bring together expertise from local authorities and businesses to create a strategy on how this region can benefit from the race for commercial space. And with the ability to launch its own satellites into space at a lower cost, the UK is also hoping to build on its legacy of innovation in space.
In 1941, the writer Isaac Asimov imagined giant solar panels positioned in space, capable of capturing the sun’s rays and projecting them towards the earth and the grid. It was fiction. But last month the government commissioned new research to understand what it would take to make space solar power a reality. For the first time, technology (including lightweight solar panels and wireless power transmission) and economics (lower cost space launches) make this a possibility.
Bacon’s fuel cells, provided they had a continuous source of hydrogen and oxygen, provided a continuous supply of electricity. In space, where the sun never sets, solar panels hold the promise of a continuous supply of renewable energy. They represent an example of a potentially revolutionary innovation as the UK traces its next 50 years in space.