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Snap elections in space, uncertainty on Earth

Zulfikar Abbany in Manchester
May 31, 2017

So nobody's holding an election in space. But one week out, the UK's general election has thrown a cloak of uncertainty over the country's space industry. At the UK Space Conference they're saying "We just don't know."

England 2017 UK Space Conference in Manchester
Image: Z. Abbany

What a world it would be if we had advanced so far that we'd taken to holding elections in space. Alas, that's the last thing most people want. Democratic decisions in space? Nah. Just look at all the trouble democracy causes on Earth. Take the UK's snap election on June 8, for example. It's on everyone's mind at the UK Space Conference in Manchester. Even with the constant reminders that civil servants here are forbidden to speak about it. But you know it's what they're thinking.

"I was happy when Theresa May called the snap election," said Graham Turnock, the UK Space Agency's freshly-minted CEO during his opening keynote speech. It gave him a "head start," he said, and presumably more time to ease himself into the job.

But the feeling is the UK is yet again heading into "uncharted waters," as Richard Peckham of Airbus Defence and Space put it.

"Even without a general election, we still have Brexit ahead of us," Peckham said during his keynote.

Oh, yes, how could I have forgotten Brexit? Isn't Brexit what this election is all about? It's certainly not about UK space activities. Which is ironic, because in the months after the 2016 referendum the government seemed ultra keen to use and abuse space as it struggled to assure the world "we're still open for business" … and innovative to boot.

Check its draft Spaceflight Bill and the call for spaceport proposals. It's also flagged satellite technology as a key pillar of a new industrial strategy that's under consultation.

New government - new priorities?

But what will become of that now? What if there's a change of government - in less than a week? Will space still be a priority for a new UK government? Even the "old" government, boosted by a clean mandate, could change its tune.

England 2017 UK Space Conference in Manchester
Graham Turnock, the UK Space Agency's new head, at the UK Space Conference in ManchesterImage: Z. Abbany

"Initially there was a sense the election wouldn't change much, but now with the gap in the polls closing, there's an element of uncertainty," Malcolm Mcdonald, who held a "Space 101" session for beginners, told DW.

It's not about the individual parties, though, whether you're Conservative, Labour, Greens, UKIP, Liberal Democrat, or with the Marxist-Leninists.

"It's just that we don't know what it will be like," McDonald said. He's the director of the Scottish Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications.

Jamie Bell, an engineer, keen to work for one of the exciting, young companies on the market, shared that same sense of uncertainty. He says neither of the two main parties' have said much about space during the election campaign, and he only hopes Brexit doesn't hamper the industry's chances internationally.

"We are heavily dependent on other countries for upstream services in space," said Bell. "Hopefully Brexit won't effect that. Hopefully we can retain our expertise as well. The data from space is colossal, in terms of big data. There's masses of money in space."


Yes, there's loads of money to be made, and jobs to be had among startups, in construction and on policy matters. But you have to have money to make money.

"We're not exactly clear about the UK space budget," says Richard Jenner, a spaceport director with Glasgow Prestwick Spaceport.

The Labour Party's priorities may be different from the Conservatives - they may prioritize social issues, not that there's anything wrong with that. But where would it leave the space industry?

England 2017 UK Space Conference in Manchester
There's loads of money to be made by UK space companies if they can tap the global marketImage: Z. Abbany

"I can't imagine the development of new technologies would stop," says Jenner, "but it's the order of priority."

And Brits have already seen civil servants being moved around to help deal with all the complexities of Brexit.

No matter which party you prefer, it's stands to reason that a Labour government would have less qualms about killing a Conservative goal than the Conservatives would if they failed to meet one of their own. New priorities will rule. It all depends on how the public votes. And a significant number of people in the space industries acknowledge that the general public has no real understanding of just how integral space technologies are to their daily lives. Through no fault of their - or our - own, I might add. We like the technology we like, it's a part of our lives, and what more is there to know?

The other issue that's unsettling the UK space industry is the very timing of the election.

It was just a few months ago that the Conservative government committed, or re-committed, to a goal of launching satellites from a UK spaceport by the year 2020. That's the year after the UK plans to leave the European Union. Good timing, hey?

"Yes, it's the timing. If the government wants an operational spaceport by 2020, that isn't a lot of time. So if there's any delay on work on the detailed regulations for spaceports, for instance, the earliest we'll be able to apply for a license will be 2019. That's tight," says Jenner.

That's "an element of uncertainty" alright. Uncertainty in the UK.

DW Zulfikar Abbany
Zulfikar Abbany Senior editor fascinated by space, AI and the mind, and how science touches people