Decoding the Atlantic Divide: Why UK Lags Behind US in the Space Race
In the global space race, the US and UK present contrasting profiles.
While both nations are propelled by a shared vision of advancing scientific knowledge and capitalising on the commercial potential of space, their paths diverge significantly due to disparities in growth, resources, and working practices. This divergence is more than a mere observation – it’s a phenomenon that warrants a deeper examination.
At EVONA, our journey over the past five years has given us a unique vantage point to observe these differences. Since our inception in 2018, an overwhelming 80% of our work has naturally occurred in the United States, a fact that underscores the undeniable skew in the international global space landscape. This US monopoly on our operations isn’t an isolated incident – it seems to reflect wider industry patterns.
This disparity between the two nations raises intriguing questions. Why does the UK lag behind the US in terms of space industry advancements? Could the UK’s working practices be an unseen barrier to its growth? We’re compelled to explore these questions further.
When assessing the growth trajectory of the space sector in both the US and UK, the scale tilts significantly in favour of the former. The US, known for its innovative spirit and forward-thinking approach, has had an accelerated growth trajectory in space exploration and commercialisation. The US space industry has expanded at an impressive pace, driven by a combination of public and private investments, as well as the audacious goals set forth by NASA and companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin.
The UK, despite being home to some of the world’s top scientific minds and institutions, has not experienced the same pace of space industry growth. The country has, however, marked notable progress, especially in the field of satellite technology. The UK ranks as the second-largest manufacturer of satellites globally, with Scotland playing a critical role.
Yet, even while coming in a close second to California in satellite production, the UK is still missing a crucial piece of the puzzle: domestic launch capability. Without it, satellites built in the UK must journey overseas for their launches, casting a shadow over the country’s significant contributions to the industry. This necessity of outsourcing satellite launches could indeed obscure the visibility and impact of the UK’s achievements within the sector.
In terms of broader growth in the space sector, the UK’s pace remains slower than that of the US. The UK’s space industry is still maturing, navigating through rapidly evolving technological landscapes and increased global competition. The slower pace can be attributed in part to the UK’s more cautious, measured approach, which contrasts sharply with the US space sector’s growth fuelled by robust funding, visionary leadership, and a culture that embraces risk-taking.
To appreciate the scale of this difference, consider NASA’s ambitious Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the Moon and set the stage for further exploration to Mars. This daring endeavour embodies the spirit of the US space sector, its quest for breakthroughs, and its pursuit of daring goals. On the other hand, the UK’s space sector is steadily reinforcing its presence, leveraging its strengths, and aspiring to secure a more significant foothold in the international space race. It’s a slower, but steady ascent that carries its own unique potential and promise.
Regardless, the key question lingers – how can the UK accelerate its growth and establish a stronger presence in the space ecosystem? Is it through revising strategic focus, increasing funding, or modernising working practices? The unfolding journey in the global space race will ultimately reveal the answers.
RESOURCES & FUNDING
The resource and funding differences between the US and the UK space sectors underscore the scale of the Atlantic Divide. The significant disparity in financial muscle between the US and UK underscores the differing pace and scale of their space ambitions. As we delve deeper into their funding strategies, we can better understand the constraints and opportunities that shape each nation’s trajectories in space exploration and innovation.
The Biden-Harris Administration’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget includes substantial funding for NASA, fostering American space exploration and innovation.
- The budget sets aside $8.1 billion for NASA’s Artemis I mission, laying the groundwork for a long-term human presence on the Moon and future Mars exploration.
- An investment of $949 million is allocated for the U.S.-led Mars Sample Return mission, aiming to return rock and soil samples from Mars, enhancing understanding of the solar system.
- Nearly $2.5 billion is devoted to Earth Science, including the Earth System Observatory, providing open access data on climate change and natural hazards.
- Over $500 million is invested in technology innovations to reach net-zero carbon emissions in the aviation sector by 2050.
- An additional $1.39 billion supports research and development of new technologies to advance space exploration and stimulate the growth of commercial space companies.
- The budget allocates $158 million to NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement, with an aim to inspire the Artemis Generation and create opportunities for students from underrepresented communities.
- The budget is designed to offset its own investments by reducing deficits over the next decade, demonstrating fiscal responsibility.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the UK Space Agency’s budget is a mere £469 million.
The UK Space Agency’s Corporate Plan 2022-25 outlined a strategic concentration of its resources on several key points. These initiatives are designed to stimulate investment into the UK’s space sector, execute missions that cater to the nation’s requirements, and broaden our comprehension of the universe. Additionally, they aim to promote the advantages of space-related activities to investors, clients, and future scientists and engineers.
In adhering to these priorities, the UK Space Agency plans to reinforce cross-government activities. This collaborative approach is expected to help fulfil the initial commitments laid out in the National Space Strategy’s 10 Point Plan:
While the UK’s investments are significant, its total budget spread over three years is less than the US’s single-year budget for its Artemis program alone. This difference showcases not only the financial might of the United States, but also exposes a potential shortfall in the UK’s space ambitions.
Despite operating on a comparatively leaner budget, the UK’s space strategy reflects balance and foresight. It underscores the nation’s commitment to a multi-faceted approach to space exploration, spanning sustainability, innovation, and socio-economic equality. Yet, a larger budget could be the boost the UK needs to remain competitive in the speed and extent of its space ambitions.
In June 2023, the UK Space Agency announced multiple funding programs to boost their domestic space industry. The UK Space Agency’s Enabling Technologies Programme, part of the National Space Innovation Programme, aims to support UK businesses pioneering technologies that can enhance spaceflight capabilities.
The total of £2.1 million is divided across nine projects. It will be followed by several funding rounds open to commercial entities, academic institutions, and not-for-profit organisations that promise to deliver groundbreaking technologies and elevate UK space capabilities.
The funded projects represent various aspects of space technology, including fields such as space-based solar power, extreme ultraviolet integral field spectroscopy, electrothermal propulsion, and optical communications.
Despite these efforts, the need for a more substantial budget is evident. The financial comparison between the UK and US paints a clear picture: strategic allocation is critical, but without a significant financial commitment, the UK risks being outpaced in the global space race.
When you pull back the curtain on the employment practices in the US and UK, it’s evident that their distinctive approaches contribute significantly to the unique pace of their respective space industries.
In the US, job seekers in the space sector far outnumber available roles, resulting in a vibrant and fiercely competitive market. This density of talent points to an industry that’s brimming with energy and ambition. In contrast, the UK embodies a more harmonious balance between job seekers and openings, resulting in a less intense and more measured market landscape.
Hiring processes also differ significantly. While the US favours efficiency and rapid results, the UK leans towards a more meticulous, unhurried approach. These contrasting strategies are a reflection of broader cultural norms within the two nations. The US, driven by a culture of rapid growth and quick returns, tends to expedite the hiring process. The UK, with a more traditional business culture emphasising stability and long-term planning, takes a more meticulous approach. This difference in speed could be a factor in the UK’s slower industry growth.
When it comes to bringing in new talent, US companies tend to see recruitment agencies as a smart investment in their future growth. The UK, however, often views these services as an avoidable expenditure. This conservative stance could potentially stifle the rate of progress in the UK.
In the realm of employment conditions, there’s a stark contrast too. In the US, many employees work ‘at-will,’ meaning they can part ways with their employer, or vice versa, at any moment. This can foster a sense of urgency and diligence among workers who feel their position could evaporate overnight. Contrastingly, UK workers usually have greater job security and standard benefits, like the NHS, easing some of the pressures felt by their US counterparts.
Pay is another arena where disparities come to light. The US offers significantly higher salaries, reflecting robust financial backing for the industry and high value attributed to skilled workers. Conversely, in the UK, salaries can be considerably less, even for those possessing advanced degrees.
And finally, public engagement with the space industry differs significantly. In the US, space exploration is a source of national pride, thanks to their history of iconic achievements, like landing a man on the Moon. In the UK, however, public engagement with the space industry is less noticeable, particularly among those not directly involved in the industry. This could sway both industry investment and the morale of industry workers.
Ross Crosby, EVONA’s Head of Contract, shared his insights on this comparison, “The UK space sector has a unique balance and a steadfast commitment to quality – that’s our strength. But, we also see the need for a shakeup. We have to weave in some of that audacious spirit that we see in the US space industry. While holding on to our core strengths, we’ve got to speed up our hiring, cast our nets wider for global talent, and develop a bigger appetite for risk-taking. It’s time to cultivate an environment that champions ambitious space ventures, driven by a diverse and talented workforce.”
In sum, the US space industry presents a bold, brisk, opportunity-laden landscape, whereas the UK’s methodical, risk-averse approach, though steady, may need an injection of audacity to compete at the global level. The contrasting work ethics, pay scales, and levels of public engagement ultimately define the trajectories of these two nations in the space industry.
While the US has a firm footing in the space industry, the UK, despite its modest size, has a unique set of strengths and opportunities that can help narrow the Atlantic divide. Here’s a look at some potential ways forward for the UK:
- Enhance Funding: Boosting the investment in the UK’s space sector is a fundamental first step. Increased funding can fuel innovative research and development, facilitate the upskilling of the workforce, and promote the growth of domestic space companies. Government, private sector, and international collaborations can be explored to secure these additional funds.
- Develop Domestic Launch Capability: Building on its impressive success in satellite manufacturing, the UK can work towards developing its own domestic launch capability. This would not only bring added prestige and visibility to UK space activities but also create jobs and stimulate economic growth. To achieve this, fostering partnerships between academia, the government, and the private sector could be key.
- Cultivate an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem: The UK can learn from the US’s entrepreneurial spirit. Encouraging a risk-taking, bold approach in the UK’s space sector could fuel faster growth and progress. This might involve creating favourable policies for space startups, providing grants or tax incentives, and setting up incubators or accelerators dedicated to space technologies.
- Revamp Hiring Practices: Modernising the hiring process can attract more global talent and fresh ideas. Embracing efficient hiring strategies and viewing recruitment agencies as strategic growth partners, rather than an unnecessary expense, could be transformative. The UK could also consider attracting international talent through competitive salary packages and benefits, similar to the US model.
- Increase Public Engagement: Boosting public interest in the space industry could spur further investment and create a nurturing environment for the next generation of UK space scientists and engineers. This could involve initiatives such as public lectures, space exhibitions, school partnerships, and more extensive media coverage of the UK’s space achievements.
- Promote Collaboration and Innovation: Collaboration and innovation are key drivers of growth in any sector. The UK can prioritise joint initiatives with other countries, academia, and the private sector to speed up innovation. Also, research and development focused on the commercial applications of space technologies can stimulate growth and ensure the UK’s space industry stays competitive.
- Focus on Sustainability: As we look to the future, the sustainability of space activities is becoming increasingly important. The UK could lead the way in developing cleaner, more efficient space technologies and advocating for responsible practices in space, such as space debris mitigation.
Undeniably, the UK’s space sector has a compelling journey ahead. Although the scale of the industry may not match that of the US currently, it has the building blocks necessary for growth and the potential to evolve into a significant global player. It’s a dynamic landscape ripe for innovation and progress.
With increased investment, strategic alliances, transformative hiring practices, public engagement, and a focus on sustainability and innovation, the UK’s future in the global space race can be bright. This isn’t a sprint, but a marathon, and the UK, with its measured but steady strides, is demonstrating its commitment to shaping a sustainable and inclusive future for space exploration.
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