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Ministers urged to boldly go after space race dreams

Published 14/01/2016

SNP MP Philippa Whitford does a Vulcan salute in the House of Commons
SNP MP Philippa Whitford does a Vulcan salute in the House of Commons

Star Trek technology is not impossible to create in real life, ministers were told as the UK was urged to join the space race's "big boys".

Democratic Unionist Jim Shannon insisted there are no barriers to what can be achieved in the space industry, adding he hopes one day trips between Belfast and London will take a matter of seconds.

A message from William Shatner, who played James T Kirk in Star Trek, was read out to MPs after he was contacted by the SNP while George Takei - Mr Sulu from the same sci-fi series - tweeted his support ahead of the debate.

The SNP's Philippa Whitford also gave a Vulcan salute as she concluded her speech and urged ministers to be imaginative to enable the UK's multibillion-pound space industry to " live long and prosper".

Speaking during a backbench business debate, Mr Shannon (Strangford) c alled for the space industry to benefit Northern Ireland and help halt the "brain drain".

He also told MPs: "I think there's no barriers to what we can do when it comes to this and some of the things that are in Star Trek I think, no matter what, they're not impossible are they?

"So let's look forward to that development.

"I look forward to the development of whenever we're able to travel from A to Z, from Belfast City (Airport) to Heathrow in a matter of seconds.

"If that's ever possible then that means we could be here and back a couple of times and do business at home and do business here all in the same hour.

"Is that possible? I don't know but we do hope that may happen."

Mr Shannon hailed the impact of British astronaut Tim Peake, noting his visit to space will inspire children to emulate him.

Earlier, Dr Whitford (Central Ayrshire) said: "Some people who follow the media will be aware that our former first minister (Alex Salmond) has used as a travelling pseudonym the name of that famous captain of the SS Enterprise.

"But for a debate as important as this I felt that we should actually contact the real McCoy and I therefore have a message to the House of Commons from William Shatner: 'Space is one of the last known frontiers, mostly untouched by mankind and his politics.

"'In opening a debate on this subject it is my hope that you take the tenets of Star Trek's prime directive to universally and peacefully share in the exploration of it.

"'I wish you all a wonderful debate, my best, Bill'."

Addressing the case for Prestwick in her constituency to host the UK's spaceport, Dr Whitford said: " I remember during the election whenever I talked to anyone about this they would always just laugh because to us in this country we think space is for other people, it's for the big boys - North America, Russia, maybe even China - but not us.

"That is something we have to change. We need to believe what we can do.

"I think Major Tim Peake's mission will achieve that."

She added: "This is a real industry, not the beam me up Scotty or fretting about the dilithium crystals that we see on the telly, b ut a multibillion-pound industry.

"So I'd call on the minister to be imaginative and to be brave and to be boldly going where no minister has gone before."

Dr Whitford gave the Vulcan salute as she added: " I call on the minister to please be imaginative, enable this industry across the entire UK so it can live long and prosper."

Business Select Committee chairman Iain Wright took on those who oppose space travel as a "luxurious folly", arguing that the industry grows the economy through innovation and employing people on high wages.

In addition, experiments such as those being carried out by Major Peake have applications on Earth, he added.

Mr Wright said: "It's often said in these times that interest in space and investment in space is somehow a luxurious folly.

"At a time of austerity and crisis in public services we simply can't afford a space industry any more.

"Why are we sending a man into space when patients are lying in hospital corridors?

"I think this is a false argument - to a vast extent the UK space industry is driven by private sector investment with something like government investment averaging over the past 15 years a ratio of 0.015%.

"The value created by this industry grows the economy, it employs people on good wages and increases tax revenues, thereby helping to fund public services.

"Research carried out in space or in the space industry has positive applications back here on Earth - whether it's things like satellite technology, addressing food crops, whether it's experiments into materials and how they can react.

"Major Peake himself, whilst on the International Space Station is carrying out experiments to measure pressure in the brain which could have important future applications in serious trauma care."

Mr Wright said Britain's space industry's productivity and export levels are three times the national average and called for a push towards the Government's goal of getting a 10% share of the £400 billion global market.

"UK space is the very model of what a modern, successful sector Britain should be focused on - innovative, high value, providing well-paid and highly rewarding in every sense careers," the Labour MP said.

"It taps into Britain's strengths based on the very best of science, engineering and world- class British research, n ut actually with a very clear nod to British excellence in professional services, such as legal, financial, and regulatory work as well.

"But it's a rapidly growing sector throughout the world, or perhaps it's best to say above the world - meaning that British comparative advantage should be used to capture even more wealth and value for this country in the future."

Carol Monaghan, SNP MP for Glasgow North West, called on the Government to commit to the space industry "not just financially but also in terms of advertising, also in terms of ambition".

The former physics teacher also quoted one of Star Trek's most famous lines for good measure.

"We have to have the ambition," she said.

"We have to say to young people: This is for you, this is available to everybody.

"On the back of Tim Peake's mission which has been so inspirational to watch we really need to get the message out there that space is open for business.

"So I would call upon the minister to make it so."

Shadow science minister Yvonne Fovargue told MPs that "continued support for the UK space industry is vital".

"It is important to all our lives and therefore it is important to have a long term strategic goal for the sector," she said.

"It is disappointing to see that the Space Innovation and Growth Strategy reports that the ad-hoc nature of Government funding for space programmes has hindered the strategic planning.

"Whilst the Government's direct investment in the space industry is welcome this has to be accompanied by a wider strategy for skilling up future generations and ensuring that the UK is leading the way when it comes to research and development."

She urged the Government to "capitalise" on the current enthusiasm for space.

Meanwhile, Life Sciences Minister George Freeman spoke of the timely nature of the debate given the current mission of Major Peake and the death of David Bowie.

He set out plans for a bright future for the British space industry.

"We believe commercial space flight is a market which when combined with the emerging trend to use large constellations of larger satellites could provide a cumulative economic benefit to the UK of £20 billion by 2030," he said.

"This would provide, we believe, new and long term manufacturing and service jobs and will stimulate high-tech growth."

Mr Freeman said he wants the UK to become "the European hub for commercial space flight and related space sector technologies".

This will include the Government selecting a preferred location for a space port "capable of operating horizontal commercial space planes".

An SNP motion calling on the Government to support the UK space industry was approved by the House unopposed.

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