Twenty-seven years after the first artificial satellite was launched, Britain is considering setting up its own space agency. Civil servants are discussing a plan, to be put to ministers in October, to establish a coordinating body that would break down rivalry over space matters between different government departments and ensure that Britain does not lose out in new applications in the cosmos.
The move comes about mainly because representatives from Britain's space industry think that without clear policy objectives from government, companies will fail to make the most of new opportunities in space, such as new kinds of remote-sensing satellites or international projects involving orbiting laboratories like Spacelab.
The argument is that, without government help, Britain will lag behind other West European countries that have a strong body of expertise in space technology incorporated into their administrative machinery. For example, France has its own space agency with an annual budget of some $600 million, because it is the main sponsor of Ariane, the pan-European satellite launcher.
Critics point out that Britain spends only about $120 million a year from public funds on the civilian application of space, about one-quarter of the amount spent by the governments of West Germany, Japan, or France. The figure is dwarfed by that of the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which has a budget of some $8 billion.
Without a clear lead from the government, Britain does not get a good return from even this meager investment, say supporters of a space agency. For example, Britain has contributed about 2 percent of the $1 billion that Ariane's development has cost. The sum is so small that no sector of British industry has been able to build up significant expertise in rocketry.
With responsibility for space affairs split among several branches of government, including the Department of Trade and Industry, the Ministry of Defense, and the Department of Education and Science, no single body has formulated a clear view on the US invitation to join in planning for a manned space station for the 1990s.
Members of Parliament and industry leaders have tried several times over the past 20 years to start serious discussions about a space agency. So far they have been thwarted by jealousies among the different parts of the government that deal with space matters. Officials in these departments have been disinclined to give up even their small amounts of power to a new supervisory body.
But even these officials are slowly changing their views. At a recent meeting of a joint industry/civil service committee that reviews progress by Britain in remote-sensing satellites, most participants voted for a space agency. A report on the issue will be put to the higher echelons of the government in the fall.
No one is dreaming of a NASA-style organization with a staff of thousands. The team would probably have no more than a couple of dozen people.
Leading ministers are unlikely to share the enthusiasm for the new body. The defense secretary said in March that Britain's interests were safeguarded by membership in the 11-nation European Space Agency.