Interview

Katherine Courtney, UK Space Agency

7 November 2016 | By Edwin Smith

Reinvigorating the role of the UK Space Agency has the power to boost UK industry, from cutting-edge technological innovation to skills for young people 

In the history of space exploration, the UK has done something no other country on the planet has ever done – but it’s hardly a source of national pride. We are the only state to have developed our own launch capability and then forfeited it. The Black Arrow rocket’s fourth and final flight into low Earth orbit in 1971 is still the most recent British lift-off.

What’s more, until last year, the British people who had been into space had not done so under the auspices of the UK government. The first, Helen Sharman, was funded by private business and travelled on a Soviet Union mission in 1991. Subsequent Brits in space have been part of Nasa missions thanks to their adoptive US citizenship.

So when collaboration between the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency resulted in Major Tim Peake’s voyage to the International Space Station and his triumphant return this summer, there’s no doubt that it was a symbolic event. UK Space Agency chief executive Katherine Courtney believes it will prove to be more than just that.

“The perception,” Courtney says, “is that the space industry builds rocket ships and sends astronauts up.” The reality is more complicated. As the recently-installed chief executive of the UKSA, part of the Department for Business and Skills, it’s her job to spread the message about just how important and varied the UK space industry is becoming. “So many of the things we take for granted every day are reliant on space: TV, broadband, mobile phones, sat navs – they’re all underpinned by space systems and assets. Even the timing signals for the trades on the London Stock Exchange come from satellites. That’s what determines whether the trade is made a second before the market closes or not.”

But there’s more, Courtney points out, what some describe as “overspill” – technological advances made in the course of research and development for the space industry that have other applications. Examples include technology used in airport security scanners, surgical robotics and even crisp packets. But Courtney singles out one start-up based at the International Space Innovation Centre in Oxfordshire that has developed carbon dioxide sensors for earth observation satellites. “They have realised that these can also be deployed in a hospital setting to monitor patients’ exhalation, which means doctors can diagnose the onset of septicaemia four or five days earlier than using current methodologies. My husband, who is a surgeon with the NHS, says, ‘you cannot understand what a game-changer this is.’ That’s what’s so fascinating about the space sector - leading-edge technologies that can be used to solve other problems elsewhere.”

Inspiration for growth

Courtney, who has an American perspective after spending eight years in the US, says that the UK space industry may have been guilty of “hiding its light under a bushel” in the past. She hopes Peake’s exploits will help to change that, particularly by inspiring children to start off down a path that could lead them to careers that use knowledge of STEM subjects.

The UKSA’s position is that if only a few thousand more children do this, the investment in Peake’s mission will have paid off. “From a pure economic perspective,” Courtney says, “every pound of taxpayer funding invested in space innovation generates more than £10 in return to the UK economy. The productivity of people who work in the space sector way outperforms most other sectors in the UK. And every job in the space sector accounts for a further two jobs in the wider economy.”

Indeed, the UKSA has set out an ambitious target to grow the space industry from £9.1bn in 2010 to £40bn in 2030. That would amount to growth in the UK’s share of the expanding global market from 6.5 per cent to 10 per cent. Progress has already been made, with the 2015 figures showing that the industry is worth almost £12bn a year, directly supports 37,000 jobs and has grown at an average of nearly 9 per cent since 2000.

That’s largely down to established companies such as Astrium, the space-faring subsidiary of the aerospace and defence giant EADS, telecommunications satellite company Inmarsat and Airbus Defence and Space. But other contenders are cropping up too. Founded in 2005, Clyde Space launched the UK’s first “cube sat” in 2014 when UKube-1, a satellite the size of a shoebox, was put into orbit. Spin-off products from the cube sat, such as off-the-shelf components that can be made more cheaply, have been used by clients including the US Army.

“What’s fairly unusual about the UK market compared to the rest of Europe is that our space companies are all commercial companies,” says Courtney. “They’re privately owned or publicly traded. That gives the UK a uniquely innovative environment. Those companies have to develop new products and services in order to generate the revenue streams that keep them alive. And I think that’s actually one of the strengths of the UK space sector, whether that’s established or new start-ups. We have a lot of innovation in the UK, and many advantages in terms of a business-friendly regulatory environment and tax offers that make it very attractive to invest – those are things that government quite deliberately fosters and will continue to foster.”

Funding revolution

Courtney says it’s not the UKSA’s job to “pick winners” but the organisation does make funding decisions. One of which saw the agreement of a £50m grant in December 2015 towards the development of SABRE. The potentially revolutionary piece of technology could make it possible for the same re-usable engine to propel a craft through the Earth’s atmosphere and then beyond. Early calculations suggest that it could also be used to cut the flight time between London and Sydney to three hours. Its inventor, Alan Bond of Reaction Engines, has been described by former science minister David Willets as “a modern-day Frank Whittle", in reference to the inventor of the original jet engine.

“We have the competence in the Space Agency to be able to assess what the potential is of new developments,” says Courtney. “To be able to take a judgement call about where funding is required to foster innovation and also to do that horizon scanning and long-range strategic thinking about what’s the next great leap forward. The SABRE project is a great example of that.”

Another crucial part of Courtney’s role, which she has held since April, is to encourage the international cooperation that is required for the European Space Agency (ESA) to function. And, she adds, the organisation has been crucial to the UK space industry’s recent success. “Being able to do those big collaborative missions, which we would not be able to afford on our own, not only gives us the opportunity to do amazing space science and push out the boundaries by participating in projects such as one to record trace gasses in the atmosphere of Mars. It also means that UK-based space companies can participate in those missions and can win contracts through participation in the ESA.”

Other significant ESA projects include the ongoing LISA Pathfinder mission to test technology needed for a future gravitational wave observatory, and the ExoMars probe launched earlier this year, which will search for evidence of life on the Red Planet. Both of which have relied on significant input from British-based companies.

Courtney admits that the ESA does a lot of work with the European Union and European Commission, but is quick to point out that “our membership in the European Space Agency is in no way affected by the referendum outcome. The UK has had a longstanding leading role in the ESA, we’re one of the key funding members of the ESA and we will continue to have a leading role.” And, Courtney adds, she expects to have some “very interesting announcements to make because of that” in the near future.

A disruptive dimension

Before a string of government roles – Courtney’s first public sector job was on the ill-fated National Identity Scheme in 2003 – she studied for an MBA at the London Business School and began working at Cable & Wireless in 1992 before continuing in the communications sector with a number of different start-ups. She judges her “core competency” to be the ability to act as “a translation engine” between technical specialists and those who don’t have the same expertise. “I have a very simple rule of thumb,” she says. “Don’t let anybody blind you with science. If you don’t understand what they’re saying, don’t pretend you understand. Try to get them to say it in a different way, in plain English until you do understand.”

But the experience accrued throughout her career has also given her a particular perspective on the development of the industry that she works in now.

“The global space market feels to me like it’s going through the sort of disruptive change that the computing market went through when there was the move from mainframe computing to desktop computing,” says Courtney. She doesn’t mention Elon Musk or his company SpaceX by name, but alludes to “internet billionaires who have decided to self-fund” and a shift away from state-funded space missions.

“We’re on the cusp of a disruptive change that is going to cause a step-change in growth, but it is going to come from new business models, new funding models and is going to be a lot more commercially driven than ever before.

“The interesting question for the UK Space Agency is what is the role of government of opening the UK market – of making the UK the place for new space?”

Part of the answer, announced in the Queen’s Speech in May, will be to re-establish the UK’s status as a nation with space launch capability with the planned creation of a UK “spaceport”, potentially before 2020. Larger spacecraft ideally need to be launched from somewhere close to the equator, so the UK’s geographical position means that its spaceport is unlikely to be used for manned missions - but it could dramatically reduce the cost of launching satellites for UK companies. And even if that means it’s a small step, rather than a giant leap, then at least it’s in the right direction.