a space explorer

The only way is up – matching aspirations with action in space

Space is in.

On the 20th November, NATO Foreign Ministers met in Brussels to prepare for last week’s NATO Summit in London. Much of the noise around the summit has been political – in the UK, it was focussed on how Boris Johnson would nullify the threat an often tactless Donald Trump might pose to his election campaign, and on how Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour could use the NATO visit to their advantage. Further afield, much has been made of a brewing France vs Germany fall-out, after Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly (albeit not directly) rebuked French President Emmanuel Macron for his claims that NATO was suffering from ‘brain-death.’ 

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the discussion of concrete NATO policy – and British foreign policy at all – has fallen by the way when it comes to the popular press – in favour of debate surrounding the long-term viability of NATO. The NATO Summit in London on the 3rd and 4th was dominated by coverage of the splits in the NATO family, from Trump vs Trudeau to Macron vs the world. In a world in which the international liberal order is fracturing, there are major big picture questions which need answering.

But key policy changes need addressing as well – and space is increasingly becoming an important aspect of foreign policy for NATO and its member states. Here in the UK, in particular, we’ve been dreaming big on post-Brexit space plans. The Conservatives have made a pledge to establish the UK’s first ‘Space Command’ in their manifesto, and several Ministers have made calls for the UK to embrace space as a ‘new frontier’ in foreign policy. Spaceports have been proposed, and plans for new satellite systems drafted – but the truth is that Britain must do even more to make our actions match our aspirations. According to Joshua Posaner, in Politico, the UK’s cash commitment to projects under the European Space Agency lag way behind the big hitters – posing a problem for UK Aerospace companies, and threatening to derail any grand space ambitions before they’ve even got going.

It’s certainly true that the British government has pledged to raise its overall contribution to the European Space Agency – a rise of 15% to an overall contribution of €440 million annually – but that needs to raise in order to match the efforts of other countries with space ambitions. Spain, for example, raised its contribution by 25% – to €850 million. 

The UK’s ambition is coming through strongly in certain areas. The government is dead set on opening a spaceport in the early stages of the coming decade, as a first step in realising its space ambitions – but this ambition is being matched across Europe. Sweden, for example, has committed to starting rocket launches from Kiruna by 2022. Norway aims to beat that – and has 2020 in its sights. Portugal matches the UK’s space ambitions – and aims to open a spaceport in the Azores. France, Germany and Italy all spend a substantial amount more than the UK does on space exploration specifically. 

For British leaders to target space is encouraging. Space and space exploration will be a key aspect of foreign policy in the not-too-distant future, and Britain should aim to be amongst the countries writing the rulebook. Beyond that, though; space centres can become hubs of hi-tech innovation, and important focal points for scientific research and progress. The tech industry is already one of the key aspects of the UK’s soft power approach – and investing in space can be a key way to expand that, as well as a development on its own terms. Being seen to lead the way, or at least be not too far behind other big hitters, is essential in terms of establishing Brexit Britain’s commitment to progress in the world – and as a key player in emerging arenas. The whole concept of ‘global Britain’ could stand or fall in areas of future foreign policy debate such as this.

The key members of the next government – whoever they may be – will likely continue to make wild proclamations on the future of space and the new possibilities it presents to the UK. To make these dreams reality, the government needs to step up its game – and that means matching our neighbours on action and funding. 

For more on the UK’s foreign policy in space, join us on the 12th March. 

Matt Gillow

Matt is the Communications & Events Manager at the British Foreign Policy Group.