The astropolitics of higher education

Space may be the final frontier – but with a bit more coordinated investment, Bleddyn Bowen and Paul Angrave argue UK universities could be even further ahead

Bleddyn Bowen is Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Leicester

Paul Angrave is Associate Director of Public Affairs at the University of Leicester

Back in 2021 the UK launched its National Space Strategy. The plan included growth, defence, scientific discovery, and promoting the values of global Britain to the farthest reaches of the known universe or, as the government put it, “we will support an open and stable international order through our engagement on space.”

Conceptually, it is difficult to imagine how space exploration supports economic ambitions at home. There are the jobs in supply chains to make space technologies, there are the engineers that are making the satellites that orbit the earth, and the scientists engaged in research, among a myriad of other things, but the impacts are larger than are first apparent.

Space technologies underpin about £360bn of economic activity per year in the UK – this is about four times larger than the whole of the economy of Manchester – and space supports around 45,000 jobs (not including those on planets we are yet to discover).

To infinity and beyond

At any one time there are over 8,000 satellites belonging to over 80 states or companies orbiting the earth. They are essential for the military, economy, businesses, security, and tackling global challenges like climate change.

This space infrastructure underpins the planetary infrastructure we are familiar with. It is essential to our smartphones, predicting the weather, satellite navigation, and monitoring the earth’s atmosphere. To develop a strategic advantage in space – whether we’re talking about the USA, China, Russia, the EU, India, or Japan – is to develop economic and military advantages back on planet Earth.

UK universities as partners to companies, governments and international researchers, therefore, sit at the apex of an innovation economy which will transform the very nature of our world.

It is not talked about enough but the UK is exceptionally good at space industries and services. The UK cannot match the economic might of the likes of China or the US but its research strengths allow it to shape major research, security, and economic endeavours. For example, the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Space Strategy is explicitly reliant on the wider science and technology community for “providing specialist advice on space threats and hazards, to the design and development of inventive space concepts and technologies.”

The UK’s space ecosystem can only function through the work of a multitude of partners working toward the same goals.

Lost in space

Collaboration is necessary because space sits at the intersection of global geopolitics, security, economics, environmental sustainability, world-leading research, and regional R&D and innovation-led regeneration. All policy areas that will remain a priority for whoever forms the new government after 4 July.

Space Park Leicester, which houses our university and firms like Rolls Royce, CGI and the UK Space Agency, allows partners to work together, share expertise and resources, improve the mobility of students through PhD-ships and apprentices, and crucially it provides the environment through which R&D innovation can be accelerated. The clustering benefits of having a set of firms working in a single field are enormous.

For example, one of the tenants at Space Park Leicester is the National Centre for Earth Observation, which is leading efforts to identify the causes of climate change and reduce their impact. Another company, Earthsense, who monitors air quality, typifies how university research can be spun out to create economic, social and health benefits. Successive science ministers have called for more university spin-outs, and the growing space sector offers a wealth of opportunities.

Supporting the UK industrial and space research base means that the UK can continue to reap benefits from space services and attract inward investment into an industry that is far more productive than other parts of the UK economy.


British space policy should recognise that we are living in a global space age, where countries who invest in the global space economy and infrastructures stand to benefit across many areas of strategic importance. The UK can capitalise on our strengths in space, through investment in R&D and seeking cooperative opportunities to develop new projects, services, and capabilities with partners globally.

This extends beyond investment into the sciences and into arts, social sciences, law, politics and the humanities. As we explore uncharted territories, social and human dimensions become increasingly important. Space is a place shaped by humanity and the social world. It’s important we look at the “why” and “so what” questions of humanity’s space age which increasingly impacts our daily lives on Earth.

Any future government should commit to championing the UK’s genuine world-leading strengths in specific space industries and services, scientific and engineering projects, and military and intelligence space capabilities. In doing so this will help ensure the UK and its universities can remain economically and intellectually competitive and secure British interests through space diplomacy.

With a healthy and vibrant space economy and investment in space R&D, the UK will also be better equipped to tackle the key challenges that it faces in the coming decades: maintaining national security, remaining globally competitive, delivering economic growth and productivity, sharing that growth equally among the geographical parts of the UK, and tackling the key challenges of our time, including climate change.

One response to “The astropolitics of higher education

  1. Astropolitics tells us that whoever controls the Moon controls the Earth’s orbits, and whoever controls the Earth’s orbits controls the Earth.

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