What’s it worth?

Time and again astronomers, space scientists and even people like me, who write about astronomy & space, get asked the perennial questions of “why go into space?” and “what benefit does it have?”. You can be almost guaranteed to get a question like this in an interview about anything which a) costs a lot and b) goes into space.

I can understand where these questions are coming from. However, I always try to come back and point out the many (and there are many) examples of how space exploration and astronomy has benefited humanity, both technologically and culturally; Stuart over on the Astronomy Blog has written extensively about this before in his excellent ‘What is the point of astronomy?’ posts here, here and here. At the end of the day though, what people are concerned about is the money that is invested in space, especially if it’s their own taxes.

On the one hand the UK is a member state of the European Space Agency and as such it’s involved in ESA’s operations. To be able to do this the UK has to subscribe to certain mandatory programmes; essentially it has to give ESA a certain amount of money which then gets put in to a collective ESA money pot (from all the member states) to do research with and generally keep the agency ticking over.

This subscription therefore enables UK scientists to participate in important ESA science programmes and exciting missions like Cassini-Huygens. The UK also gives extra money towards the optional ESA programmes and for that it can get involved in the things that it is especially good at. Things like satellite navigation, remote satellite observations of the Earth and more.

This page on the British National Space Centre (BNSC) website summarises the missions UK scientists are involved in. Most of them are through the UK’s involvement in ESA but there are others that UK researchers are also working on via other routes – like the brilliant Stardust mission. With the ESA involvement, UK scientists work at the forefront of research; literally exploring other worlds, working out new ways to make life safer, easier and better on Earth and studying our origins and those of the Solar System and Universe we live in. Scientists, technicians, engineers and many other people are employed in the process and the UK benefits greatly as a result.

On the flipside of the involvement and subscription to ESA (and therefore missions like Cassini-Huygens, Venus and Mars Express and many more) the UK is also home to a lot of private companies, who are also involved in space activities, and who bring money into the economy. And this is the reason why I’m posting this now. On Monday the BNSC published a report on the “size and health of the UK’s space industry” – and it seems pretty good. In 2006/07 the UK’s space industry turned over ₤5.8 billion and today employs around 19,000 people, up 1600 people on the previous year.

What’s great is the industry appears to be growing too, with a growth of about 8%, according to the link above. These figures look like a really positive sign for the growing UK space industry and will no doubt be mused over during the International Astronautical Congress 2008, being held in Glasgow this week. I’m off there tomorrow, so I’ll try and report back on what I see when I return, over the weekend. Meanwhile let me sign off this post by saying happy 50th anniversary NASA! Here’s to 50 more amazing years.

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