Should Britain continue funding the European Space Agency?

By Rhys L Griffiths

“The European Space Agency (ESA) is Europe’s gateway to space. Its mission is to shape the development of Europe’s space capability and ensure that investment in space continues to deliver benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world.” – www.esa.int

The ESA was formed in 1975, merging the European Launch Development Organisation (ELDO) and the European Space Research Organisation (ESRP). 10 nations were involved with its conception, including the United Kingdom. We have been funding the ESA for over 40 years so I wanted to know, is it worth it?

In 2015 the ESA cost €4,433 million to run. Britain is currently 1 of 22 countries that contributes to the organisation and as part of that contribution we gave them €322.3 million, which makes up for 9.9% of their costs. Even though we are 1 out of 22 countries contributing, the bill isn’t split equally. Estonia contributes just 0.1%where as Germany contributes 24.6%

What does the ESA do?

2016 financial plans for the ESA By Daggerbox - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

2016 financial plans for the ESA By Daggerbox – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you can see from the graph above, the majority of the ESA’s money goes towards Earth observation. This may sound like we are paying a lot of money for some people in space to look out of a window, but its actually very important. Satellites are able to see the Earth in ways we can’t. There are many satellites orbiting Earth as we speak and they all are collecting data. Data such as “the spread of air pollution across a continent, the precise damage done in a region struck by an earthquake or forest fires, or the entire span of a 500-km hurricane from the calmness of its eye to its outermost storm fronts.” (ESA Website)

Credits: ESA/NASA

Credits: ESA/NASA

Another thing the ESA spends it’s money on is sending people to space. In December 2015, Tim Peake became the first British man trained by the ESA to travel into space. Considering that Britain has contributed billions of pounds towards the ESA for over 40 years, the question that needs to be asked is, was it worth it? In 2001, the ESA sent their first astronaut to space. Umberto Guidoni, an Italian, became the first European on-board the International Space Station. Since then they have sent 17 more people to the ISS with the next person, Thomas Pesquet of France, to travel up at the end of the year.

So what do they do while they are up in space, besides take selfies? They are conducting scientific research. Last year the ESA received over 200 different proposals for experiments, submitted by individuals from around Europe. The ESA then choose which they think has the most benefit and look into conducting those. Some of the experiments are long-term, and would warrant further investigation, such as lung health. One of the selected experiments looks at the hippocampus, the part of our brain that processes information for navigation and strong memories. Scientists believe that this part of the brain could shrink while in space so brain scans are being performed on the astronauts, before, during and after to test this effect.

How is this beneficial to us?

As I’ve already stated, we get a lot out of the ESA observing the Earth. They record mountains of data which can show us things such as the effect climate change is having on our planet as a whole, or the effects it has on certain areas such as the great barrier reef. They monitor the structure of our atmosphere, telling us if its going to rain tomorrow, and the best thing is that all this data is available online for free. Scientists from all over the world can use the data provided by the ESA to help with their research and help them find out ways to prevent climate change or protect animals habitats. All you have to do is apply and its free to do so. You can visit the ESA – Earth Online page and find out what you need to know.

space made simple's Emma at Welton Primary school with their Tim Peake Rocket seeds

space made simple’s Emma at Welton Primary school with their Tim Peake Rocket seeds. All rights reserved – science made simple.

Tim Peake travelling to space was obviously great for Tim Peake’s C.V, but it was also great for Britain. We gave the children of the United Kingdom a role model to look at and say ‘this man grew up here and went on to become an astronaut, this is something you can achieve!’ ESERO-UK are leading the Tim Peake Primary Project which “will use space to increase the engagement of primary school children with science, numeracy and literacy, with a dedicated network of space ambassadors.”

Tim Peake is also giving 10,000 schools the opportunity to engage their pupils in a UK-wide live science experiment to contribute to our knowledge of growing plants in space.  Each school taking part received 100 Rocket (Eruca sativa) seeds, some of which were on the international space station for 6 months, and they are going to grow them along side a controlled sample. The schools don’t know which were in space and which weren’t, but it’s to see if 6 months of living in microgravity has affected how the seeds grow.

However, you may be wondering why is it so important to conduct experiments in space? Why do we need to know about whether the hippocampus shrinks in space or not? Well even though you may not be a frequent flyer when it comes to outer space, the hippocampus is the area of the brain that suffers first in Alzheimer’s patients. Any research the ESA conducts towards this is nothing but beneficial to the many doctors who are currently looking in to Alzheimer’s disease. Lots of experiments that are taking/have taken place on the ISS are looking at improving our health. Tim Peake took part in 23 physiology experiments during his time on the satellite.

What do the Political Parties think?

Should we continue to be apart of the European Space Agency isn’t a question you often hear in the news. It’s not debated it’s just accepted. So I decided to ask people from all the major parties on their views and their party’s views regarding the matter. Unfortunately I didn’t get much of a response. I like to think this is due to the busy nature of our country’s politicians rather then the fact that they aren’t interested in the topic. But having said that the first person to get back to me was Mark Reckless AM, who is the appointed economics spokesman for UKIP as well as a UKIP party member for the National Assembly of Wales, who said “It is not a major priority for me”. He did also state that the ESA “spends quite a lot of cash in UK where space related industry has grown quite quickly”.

Sara Bowry responded to me on behalf of Jo Johnson Conservative MP and Minister of State for Universities and Science, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, stating that “A 2015 study by London Economics on rates of return to public investment in space suggested the return on our investment with the ESA is on average £10 for every £1 we spend.” 

Steffan Lewis AM, Plaid Cymru’s spokesperson for external affairs and non-devolved matters gave me a quote on Plaid Cymru’s position stating:

“It is to our advantage that we contribute to the scientific discovery and civilian space exploration promoted by the European Space Agency. Working alongside our European neighbours enables us to play our role in exciting technological development as well as being able to provide skills and opportunity for people here.

“Plaid Cymru look forward to Wales contributing to the European Space Agency’s work in future, and benefitting from the knowledge and innovation it powers.”

The Labour Party, The Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National party did not respond to my emails.

Better in or out?

Each year we give the European Space Agency a lot of money and each year we get a lot back. But is financial gain the only reason to contribute to a European space program? In 2015 Tim Peake became the first British person trained by the ESA to be sent to the International Space Station and hopefully he won’t be the last. The ESA have given the children of Britain the realisation that they could one day be astronauts which is a wonderful thing. But as good as it is that we have sent British people to space, isn’t it better that we contributing in sending people to space every year?

As Plaid Cyrmu said ‘it is to our advantage that we contribute to the scientific discovery’ and this is true. The ISS have conducted numerous experiments that ranges from ‘how gravity affects tissue regeneration and the rebuilding of damaged organs and nerves’ to ‘muscle decline in space, and potential ways of counteracting this.’ There are lots of experiments being conducted that relate to improving our health down here on Earth as well as preparing us for long term space flight.

So whether you think its a good idea to carry on funding the ESA or not, you can’t ignore the massive amounts that have been accomplished by being part of this group of nations whose goal is to advance scientific research and space exploration. Britain would not be able to achieve this alone. I personally believe that being part of the European Space Agency is not just beneficial to us as a country, it’s beneficial to everyone worldwide. We help make a difference and that’s something to be proud of.


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