|ESA's Jan Worner at the opening of UKSC in Manchester this week|
But scratch a little deeper amongst delegates and exhibitors and there was one over-riding business concern just under the surface - the potential impact of 'Brexit' on the future of the industry.
Last June's referendum result seems to have been universally unpopular across both the rapidly growing UK space industry itself and in academic circles more generally.
So it was no surprise that speakers not constrained by pre-election 'purdah' rules took the opportunity during the opening plenary to have their say.
Speaking to more than 1200 British and European space experts at UKSC, Richard Peckham, head of trade organisation Ukspace and director of strategy for Airbus Defence & Space, raised the prospect of Brexit damaging the buoyant and expanding sector.
His general tone was that a 'hard’ or ‘no deal’ Brexit delivered by a future [Tory] government could seriously affect the UK’s £14 billion a year space industry, which is estimated to contribute around £250 billion a year across the British economy.
“Research-based academia and industry here and in Europe are completely entwined with goods, services, data and people crossing borders and I don’t think I’ve met anybody in the space industry or academia who wanted Brexit. Uncharted waters lie ahead,” he said.
“The space industry sees many challenges ahead as we navigate ourselves as a nation out of the European Union with the potential for major disruption to our businesses if things go badly.”
Mr Peckham described the most immediate threat as continued participation in the EU’s Galileo navigation and Copernicus Earth observation programmes, as well as Govsatcom (communications), IRIS (air traffic management) and SSA/SST (space debris).
“Our industry is already feeling the pain, especially as customers and suppliers in other nations are making contingency plans for the worst case in which British companies become ineligible for future contracts, and are planning to exclude British companies now just to be on the safe side,” he added.
“To be realistic there are some other countries out there who will see this as an opportunity to take work from the UK and I would urge government not to approach these negotiations in such an adversarial manner.”
Earlier Graham Tunnock, appointed chief executive of the UK Space Agency (UKSA) on 1 April, said election rules allowed him to attend the conference but restricted his comments on future government space policy.
Jan Worner, European Space Agency (ESA) director general, reminded delegates that at last year’s ministerial meeting the UK had committed €1.4 billion to ESA’s budget until 2020 and he urged the UK to remain a strong member of the ESA community.
“Brexit is happening and you have made a decision which I do not like,” he said. “UK membership of ESA is not at all in question but of course a future exchange rate might have an effect in the future.”
He also said it would be vital to find a solution for the ESA family members living and working in the UK from other countries.
“I understand the politicians will be discussing a divorce between London and Brussels but in any divorce there are the children and in that respect we are the children,” he added.
The UK space trade association presented a ‘facts and figures’ document and urged British delegates to lobby their MPs on behalf of the space industry.
“The decision to leave the EU has created significant uncertainty and could impact the efficiency of the integrated supply chain, R&D collaboration and joint programmes with other countries,” it stated.
Five key requests for the Brexit negotiations are listed:
- Retain full access to vital EU space programmes
- Avoid UK industry being marginalised during Brexit process
- Retain access to and influence in the collaborative R&D programmes run by the EU
- Maintain access to the EU pool of skilled labour which is required to maintain UK competitiveness
- Keep frictionless access to the EU single market without burdensome customs and administration.