18 March 1988 - 20 March 1988

Space Exploration: Scientific Luxury, Commercial Enterprise or Prudent Investment in the Technologies of the Future? Who Should Pay?

Chair: The Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Pattie MP

The conference was fortunately timed, following as it did the agreement between the European Space Agency and the US Administration on the Columbus project (the joint manned space station). With Britain's decision not to take part, unless last minute second thoughts prevailed, the spotlight inevitably tended to focus on British scepticism and to that extent the debate became an exercise in British soul-searching which the other participants endured with commendable patience, even sympathy. The subject was wide, but under firm chairmanship participants focussed on the essentials.

Various motives were identified for pursuing activity in space (the word exploration in the title was deplored), and an interesting distinction was drawn at the start between the aspirational and the utilitarian. In the opening sessions and in the groups, the underlying assumption was that space activity was self-evidently "a good thing” and that the only task was to convince the sceptics who controlled the purse. Some suggested that the case had to be argued on the basis of a multiplicity of benefits none of which alone, perhaps, would justify expenditure, but which taken together made an overwhelming argument: others that the case was weakened by relying on a variety of aims, which only made it easy for sceptical treasuries to knock down each argument piece-meal, and that it would be strengthened by concentrating on one principal purpose. There was some discussion whether it was necessary to fire the imagination of the public, notably the young at school and university, with a view to moving governments by popular demand; or whether it was necessary to convert governments so that the public could be given a lead. While the problem was most acute in Britain, none could feel themselves immune; in the US NASA was trying to carry out a $15 bn programme with a $9 bn budget; and even in France and Japan, where to outsiders the space programmes seemed most secure, those involved were very conscious of the need to fight for funds. The countries where programmes were most securely funded, it was noted, were those where the motivation was furthest towards the aspirational end of the spectrum; conversely where funding was most parsimonious, the accent was more on utility. Finally, although the terms of reference excluded defence (in order to avoid a debate on the SDI), it was recognized that the link between defence and civilian space programmes was important, even crucial in some fields.

These themes were further developed in three groups, one devoted to research, one to applications and one to international cooperation. No alternative to governmental funding was seen for basic research. Governments which opted out, would probably find themselves out of space activity altogether. It was suggested that at its level of funding of research, the UK might fall between two stools, too much to be economical and too little to exert influence. Apart from the importance of pure science in itself, the technological spin-off was essential if a country was to remain competitive. Space programmes pushed the bounds of technology and pulled nations and industry behind them. In that context, industry might be brought to see the importance of basic research in its own interests, though government funding would remain paramount.

There was some inconclusive discussion of institutional arrangements (direct government programme, independent agency (or agencies as in Japan), industrial management) and also of the need for space to be given a separate budget or to take its place in a general science budget. There was some preference, it seemed, for an agency or agencies, but for space to be considered in the context of scientific research as a whole.

The second group looked at applications under four heads: communications and navigation satellites; earth observation and remote sensing; micro-gravity (probably better considered as research); and transportation systems and ground services. Communications and navigational applications had matured (if any technology ever matured), the problem being to ensure that the researchers and developers received their share of the profits, one of the principal obstacles being the regimes established by governments within which both producers and users had to operate. Earth observation and remote sensing would begin to show a return on investment in the next 10-15 years. The problem would be to identify the users (mostly governments and governmental or international agencies) and to convince them that the costs were justified. Transportation and services were thought to be areas where commercial criteria could increasingly be applied. The demand for launchers would rise dramatically over the next decade, when the present sellers' market disappeared (the Soviet and Chinese quotations for launches were noted). The need was to reduce the overall cost of putting pay-loads into space, probably in the longer-run by horizontal re-usable launchers. The problem was that in all fields, government funding, whether direct or, through defence programmes, indirect, was essential in the early stages, given the high costs and the uncertainties (a matrix composed of technological risk, commercial risk and time-scale might be a useful tool of assessment); and there was not as yet a simple or established route to engage the private sector and funding at the appropriate time.

The third group concluded that given the cost of so many space projects, international cooperation was essential, as a form of cost and labour saving, if they were to be realised at all. In the purely scientific field such cooperation was relatively trouble-free (cf. the Inter-Agency Consultative Group for the Halley's Comet project); but at the point when research gave way to application, competition tended to obtrude (cf. the negotiations on the Columbus project). Cooperation between equal partners was best, but cooperation with those countries of the developing world with space programmes should not be ignored, if only for political reasons. The role of the United Nations itself, as opposed to such affiliated bodies as the ITU, was minimal and the group saw no need, as yet, for further international bodies, e.g. in the field of earth observation, although it might not be too soon to be thinking about the requirement: indeed some thought that Intelsat and Inmarsat required re-assessment, having become too inflexible. However work was needed soon on measures to prevent the pollution of space, especially by debris.

The concluding session concentrated on the unresolved question of how to convince the sceptics, several of whom voiced their doubts (from a position sympathetic to space aspirations) on grounds that in the competition for resources, space had overall done pretty well. Another theme was the need to involve private industry at an early stage, perhaps through devices similar to those employed in the defence field whereby development contracts were let initially on a cost-plus basis, but moved over, once feasibility had been established, to competitive tendering, i.e. at the point when at least the technological risk factor in the suggested matrix had been reduced. If then the commercial risk factor could also be reduced, by giving producers a chance to "capture the revenue streams", perhaps through operating agencies which could sell the product to the users, e.g. in the earth observation field, the transition from public to private funding could be made.

In conclusion it was suggested that the proponents needed to study further the psychology of those they sought to convince: they needed to produce soundly-based, factual arguments, not extravagant flights of fancy lacking credibility; and while they might do well to concentrate on one primary argument in each case, they could make the points that some early space activity was already paying off, that technological advance in space served to inspire other sectors, especially the young, that in 25 years time the technologically strong nations would probably be those which were active in space, and that competition in technology had to a large extent replaced competition for territory.

Further practical arguments could rest on the arms control need (was it right to leave verification to the US and the Soviet Union?) and on the possibilities of involving potential users (e.g. the PTT’s) - a point for any future conference at Ditchley on space.

In the end, though, it was my impression that the professionals of the space industry departed recognising that even in a sympathetic group the case for increased funding had not been deployed with sufficient persuasiveness. Some participants even went so far as to say that having started from a position of interest and mild enthusiasm they had been turned off by the arguments of the space community. It is clear that ways need to be found to marshal all the arguments in the most effective manner.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Conference Chairman: The Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Pattie MP
Member of Parliament (Conservative), Chertsey and Walton

List of Participants by country

Dr Jeremy Bray MP

Member of Parliament (Labour),Motherwell South; Opposition Spokesman on science and technology
The Rt Hon the Lord Chorley
Partner, Coopers & Lybrand, Chartered Accountants and Management Consultants, London; Member, House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology; President, Royal Geographical Society
Mr Roy Gibson
Special Adviser to the Director General, International Maritime Satellite Organization (INMARSAT)
Mr Anthony Gottlieb
Science and Technology Editor, The Economist
Mr Paul D G Hayter
Principal Clerk of Committees, House of Lords
Mr John Holt
Managing Director, Space and Communications, British Aerospace
Air Vice Marshal P Howard OBE
Senior Consultant, RAF Institute of Aviation Medicine
Dr Bhupendra Jasani
Research Fellow, leading programme on space and international security, Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies
Mr Jack Leeming
Retired as Director General (1988) (previously Director, Policy and Programmes), British National Space Centre
Mr Peter Marsh
Industry Reporter, The Financial Times
Mr Michael Marshall MP
Member of Parliament (Conservative), Arundel; Member, House of Commons Select Committee on Defence; Chairman, All-Party Parliamentary Information technology Committee; Parliamentary Adviser, British Aerospace and Cable and Wireless
Dr Geoffrey Pardoe, OBE
Chairman and Managing Director, General Technology Systems Ltd
Professor Timothy Scratcherd MD FRCP
Director, Institute for Space Biomedicine, Sheffield University
The Rt Hon Lord Shackleton OBE KG PC
Life Peer (Labour); Adviser to RTZ Corporation; a Governor of the Ditchley Foundation
Mr Duncan Slater CMG
Assistant Under Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Professor Roger Williams
Professor of Government and Science Policy, Manchester University
Professor A P Willmore
Professor of Space Research and Head of Department, Birmingham University
Mr Pearce Wright
Science Editor, The Times

Dr Jocelyn Ghent-Mallett

Senior Adviser, Space Programme, Ministry of State for Science and Technology
Mr Christopher G Trump
Vice President for Corporate Affairs, Spar Aerospace Ltd

Herr Herbert Allgeier

Head, Directorate H, Stimulation of scientific and technical development, and design and evaluation of programmes, Commission of the European Communities, Brussels

Dr Reimar Lust

Director General, European Space Agency, Paris

M Philippe Cayla
M Thierry Garcin

Journalist, Foreign Affairs and Defence, Radio-France; author
M René Pellat
Scientific Counsellor, Centre Nationale d’Etudes Spatiales, Paris
M Gérard Petitalot
Ariane Espace, Centre Nationale d’Etudes Spatiales, Paris

Dr Wolfgang Hoffmann

First Counsellor (Scientific Affairs), Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, London
Dr Wigand Pabsch
Deputy Director General, International Economic Affairs Division (Head of Subdivision for Technological and Environmental Affairs), Foreign Office, Bonn

Professor Minoru Oda

Professor Emeritus, Tokyo University; Director-General, Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) (until 1988); Special Assistant, Space Activities Commission (SAC); Member, Science Council, Ministry of Education, Tokyo; Special Advisor to the Director General of ISAS; President, Commission Astronomy from Space, International Astronomical Union

Mr Crawford F Brubaker Jr

Member, Brubaker & Associates, International Aerospace Consultants
Professor Thomas M Donahue
Distinguished University Professor of Planetary Science, University of Michigan; Member, US National Academy of Sciences, Chairman, Space Science Board, US National Academy of Sciences
Mr William H Good
Staff Manager for Space Transportation Market Analysis, McDonnell Douglas Astronautics Company, California; Consultant, Earth Space Transport Systems Corporation; Systems Engineer, TRW; Staff Engineer, Rockwell International
Dr William R Graham
Science Advisor to the President
Mr Jerry Grey
Director, Science and Technology Policy, The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics; Member, US Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, Office of Technology Assessment’s Advisory Panel on Advanced Space Transportation Technology; Trustee, Scientists Institute for Public Information; Director, Applied Solar Energy Corporation;
Dr Peter F Krogh
Associate Professor of International Affairs and Dean, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, Washington DC; writer and broadcaster
Commander David Leestma
NASA Astronaut; US Navy; Mission Specialist, 6th flight of the Orbiter Challenger, 13th flight of the Space Shuttle system; Mission Specialist, Space Shuttle Missions
Mr Michael A G Michaud
Director, Office, Advanced Technology, Department of State; writer
Mr John Pike
Associate Director for Space Policy, Federation of American Scientists; Member, Board of Advisors, Space Weapons and Verification Projects, Council on Economic Priorities, and Verification Technology Information Center of London; writer
Mr Leo J Schefer
Vice President, British Aerospace Inc; Member, Boards of the Washington Airports Task Force and the Aero Club of Washington; President, Air and Space Heritage Council
Dr Josephine Anne Stein
Science Adviser to Congressman George E Brown Jr
Dr Ray A Williamson
Senior Analyst, Office of Technology Assessment of the US Congress