Space is no longer just for superpowers and dreamers like Elon Musk; large corporations are expressing huge interest in space exploration and the potential profit it may bring in the near future. Space technologies will usher in a new era of development for humanity, and those on the spearhead of innovation will generate immense wealth.
Meanwhile, the UK space sector, though receiving a serious influx of funding from abroad, faces the risk of failing because of rather weak domestic investment. German businesses, on the other hand, are realising the crucial task of supporting the space sector from within, and Porsche has already poured $75 million into the Isar Aerospace startup to promote Germany’s space efforts.
Though the UK remains one of the world’s leading countries in terms of the number of space projects, topped only by the US and China, it is becoming obvious that a lack of domestic investment might have serious implications in the long run.
Corporate Investment in Space Startups
Privately owned corporations are becoming increasingly interested in space technology and seem willing to pour millions into promising startups that have strong potential for promoting their corporate interests in space. A little over a week ago, Porsche invested in the domestic space startup with hopes that their investment will boost the mobility market.
The US, however, is leading the way in the amount of private investment in space tech startups. Blue Origin is one of the most promising, since it has the backing of Amazon’s immense capital and Jeff Bezos’ personal interest in the project. Only last month, Bezos made a short trip to space aboard the New Shepard rocket. Bezos clearly sees huge potential in Blue Origin, and investments in the company will not shrink anytime soon.
Besides space tourism, corporations also show keen interest in applications of space technologies to solve real business problems. Google, for instance, intends to create an impressive fleet of more than 50 satellites orbiting Earth to assist in collecting data and improving access to the web for people around the globe.
However, space tech initiatives might not be going as smoothly for other large corporations in the US. Facebook pulled the plug on efforts to launch its own satellites to deliver internet connectivity to remote areas after Amazon acquired the team of specialists working on the project. Similarly, Qualcomm’s ambitious OneWeb program to launch a swarm of more than 600 satellites has been put at risk by the program’s impending bankruptcy.
Regardless of all the friction and rough edges, it is clear that private investment in space technology as well as the involvement of large corporations like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Porsche, and Google are vital for further development in the domain. So why don’t British companies invest in domestic space tech startups?
Well, some do. But statistics show that domestic investment amounts to only a third of total investment in the UK’s space industry, currently amounting to roughly $15 billion a year. Nonetheless, if British national space efforts are to keep the edge in the long run, domestic investment needs to surge drastically.
Lack of Corporate Investors in British Industry
The tech scene in the UK has been booming over the past couple of years, with VC investment from abroad being the main source of money for tech companies across the country. Right now, around $9.4 billion (63%) of the $15 billion in tech industry investment comes from foreign investors. Apart from the UK’s Virgin Group, Britain seems almost devoid of domestic investors interested in putting millions into space exploration.
A huge problem is that the UK’s space sector has historically relied heavily on its partnership with NASA, who has been providing spacecraft carriers and payload delivery services for the British government and privately owned corporations for decades. Even the British Black Arrow satellite carrier program has been cancelled because it was simply cheaper to use American rockets. The problem is that most businesses in the UK underestimate the potential benefits of using space technologies.
As of now, satellites are used in many domains: Earth observation has immense value for healthcare, agriculture, urban planning, and forestry; offers better connectivity for the automobile and transportation industries; helps in finding new prospects for resource mining; and even enables space tourism. While it is still a bit early to talk about asteroid mining or extracting resources from neighbouring planets, such industries might become huge within the next couple of decades.
Considering all the possible benefits and immense profits that can be gained out of space technology and exploration, it is rather odd that UK businesses ignore it almost entirely.
The Problem Goes Deeper into Government
The UK lags drastically in government spending on a national space program. Though the UK is a rather active participant in the space race, the government invests much less than governments of a number of other European countries, not to mention the US, which spent more than $40 billion on its space program in 2020. The UK government, in the meantime, only has an annual space budget of $894 million, which pales in comparison to other developed countries.
At the same time, the UK is home to 5.7% of the world’s space companies, second only to the US. But these companies seem to receive much less support from the government than do US companies. Such disinterest in space technology is staggering, especially considering Britain’s ambitions for occupying a considerable portion of the global space market within the current decade.
Truth be told, the UK has a lot to worry about these days, especially after Brexit and the social and political turmoil that ensued. Because of these issues, however, the government is missing out on a huge opportunity to capitalize on the benefits offered by space exploration and the possible perks it might bring in the foreseeable future. Government and corporate investment is critical to properly developing the UK’s space program and achieving Britain’s plan to take a considerable chunk of the global space market. Right now, most of this investment comes from abroad, which means foreign investors will be the ones to receive the fruits of that labour when it finally pays off.
Porsche’s investing in a domestic space tech startup and a number of examples from the US might inspire UK-based corporations. There’s money to be made in space, and encouraging corporations to invest in that domain might be the best idea for the UK’s long-term economic development. Government encouragement and public recognition of the importance of space exploration might just be what Britain needs to address future challenges and boost its economic growth for the decades to come.