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28 July 2023

The Rt Hon Lord Willetts on space, sustainability and what the UK can do next

The Rt Hon Lord Willetts FRS joined the Freeman Air and Space Institute for their summer lecture where he reflected on how the space domain has evolved since 2015 and how it will continue to change.

Lord Willetts
Lord Willetts speaking at the FASI summer lecture in June 2023.

The Rt Hon Lord Willetts hosted the lecture 'Space and Sustainability: what does it mean and what can the UK do?' with the Freeman Air and Space Institute (FASI) to discuss ways in which a safe and secure space environment can be sustained. The lecture was an update on his 2015 Briscoe Lecture on space, science, and security.

Referring to the Integrated Review, the Rt Hon Lord Willetts expressed the importance of space as a security domain and the influence space policy now has on wider policies. He also highlighted the UK Space Agency's current priority objectives, such as space discovery and exploration and connecting civil and security space programmes. Other priorities included the need to extend and fund new opportunities beyond the South East of England and the use of space as a tool to harness interest in STEM.

We start off with a picture of space as big and infinite and pristine and pure [but] when you start thinking about orbits and space debris... and the speed at which every object moves... suddenly low Earth orbits don't look so big and spacey after all.

Rt Hon Lord Willetts

He added that some parts of these orbits may, in the very near future, become unusable due to the number of satellites being sent up from Earth, "[there] could be thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit over the next decade or so and then everything we have previously assumed about easy access to space ceases to apply". If the number of satellites in Earth's low orbit continues to rise, there will be significant risks of collisions occurring.

Lord Willetts told the audience that since Brexit, the UK is well-placed to consider new alliances and partnerships, "space is an area where we can forge bilateral partnerships... There is undoubtedly an effort going into Commonwealth scientific collaboration and [there] is a revitalisation of the network of Commonwealth universities."

Emphasising the need for a "shared moral framework" regarding the treatment of space and the moon, Lord Willetts noted the Astra Carta, a new framework by the Sustainable Markets Initiative to align the global private sector's space-related activities with sustainability goals and standards. He expressed his excitement at the "technological advances and growth of the UK space sector" and reiterated the UK's important responsibility when it comes to the space domain.

We can't preach sustainability on earth and not practice it in space. That is a challenge we need to address.

Rt Hon Lord Willetts

The Freeman Air and Space Institute (FASI) provides independent and original research and analysis of air and space power issues. FASI was established in 2020 thanks to funding from the Royal Air Force (RAF) through the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL). Based in the School of Security Studies, King's College London, the Institute is an interdisciplinary initiative dedicated to generating an understanding of air and space power affairs in defence and security.

In this story

David Willetts

Visiting Professor

David Jordan

Co-Director of the Freeman Air and Space Institute

Wyn Bowen

Professor of Non-Proliferation and International Security