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Reach for the stars: The UK’s £7 billion space industry

Maggie Aderin-Pocock

126152868 214x300 Reach for the stars: The UKs £7 billion space industryHaving clambered ungracefully into the back of the cab, I realise I’m being scrutinised by its driver. “So what do you do then, love?”

“I’m a Space Scientist”.

“You what?”

The cabbie does a double take in the rear-view mirror. I guess it’s not the answer he was expecting when he picked up the black woman smelling faintly of vinegar and holding empty bottles and balloons.

I explain that I’ve just been doing a talk at a school and there ensues a vigorous, though rather one-sided, discussion about life, the universe and everything, taking in the Moon landings (“a hoax”, he says), life on Mars (“probably living in caves under the surface”) and the value of investing taxpayers’ pounds in Space Science (“I mean, what bloody good does it do?”).

The last one is a particularly good question. The short answer is: lots. What my cabbie, and many others, don’t realise is that the UK’s space industry is worth around £7 billion to the economy and is growing at a fantastic rate. With an industry worth that much, it’s hugely important that we continue to attract the minds which keep the industry growing. That’s why, when I was asked to speak at the Unconference, I jumped at the opportunity.

I am looking to recruit the next generation of Space Scientists and engineers into my team: young people able to think expansively and eager to shape the future. This could mean making satellites to monitor climate change or creating self-guiding rovers to search for life in our solar system. An enticing prospect, or so you might think. So how come it’s so hard to find people to do it?

I think it’s because our society doesn’t encourage children to dream. We’re trying to change that, starting by asking students how the science world can get rid of the ‘stale, male and pale’ stereotype which can be a deterrent for so many.

I have spoken to about 25,000 children over the past four years, and most of them are convinced that you need a brain the size of a small planet to be a scientist. They generally think that we spring fully formed from white middle-class families, too. So I visit inner-city schools and take the students on my journey, telling them why I became a scientist.

My parents split up when I was four years old, and the ensuing custody battles meant that I attended 13 different schools from four to 18. Then I was diagnosed with dyslexia and shunted into a remedial class. A government statistician would have forecast a pretty bleak future for me.

But it was the Clangers who saved me. With this children’s programme the idea of “space” entered my young brain. A few years later, I was hooked by Star Trek and my ambition took shape: I was going to be an astronaut! When I mentioned this to my teacher she looked at me sadly and suggested that I should try nursing instead, “because that’s scientific, too”. My aunt was a nurse, and she did wonderful work, but even as a child I knew I was being fobbed off. I learned not to mention my deepest desires at school again.

Fortunately, I had a father who nurtured my hopes and fed my appetite for information, which, in the days before the internet, meant many long trips back and forth to the library. Thanks to his support it seemed entirely reasonable to me that with hard work, a black girl with learning difficulties would soon be travelling from inner London to outer space.

With my father’s help I found that my lessons were becoming easier, and school changed from being a real bore into something fun. My GCSE results were better than expected; and then I got four A-levels in physics, chemistry, biology and maths and spend 7 years at University studying for a PhD. I went on to work on landmine detection, then machines that probe the heart of stars by converting the starlight gathered by huge eight-meter telescopes into the component rainbow colours, and analysing them to find out what’s happening billions of miles away. I’m now a Space Scientist, working on Earth observation instruments that measure the variables of climate change.

Looking back, I don’t begrudge my teachers their advice: they were merely trying to protect me from disappointment. It is a well-intentioned notion but I think a misguided one, and it has helped create a crisis of aspiration.

We don’t encourage kids to aim high in case they fall over. I say “sod that” – go for it. Failing isn’t a problem – interesting things happen along the way, as any entrepreneur will tell you. In trying to protect children from failure, we are encouraging them to lower their sights just at the time when their imaginations should be fired.

The good news is that our imagination responds brilliantly to a little stimulation. Show kids some rockets powered by vinegar and balloon-propulsion buggies, as I do on school visits, and you’ll soon have a queue of potential young scientists and engineers eagerly asking “how?”, “what?” and “why?’. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to speak with such enthused young scientists at the Unconference. They were there to make a difference to future science policy in the UK and it was great to be able to share my experiences with them.

Maggie Aderin-Pocock is a Space Scientist and a key note speaker at the Royal Institution’s “Unconference” hosted by the L’Oréal Young Scientist Centre.

The RiUnconference is the first ever national event where 150 14-18 year olds from across the UK will be invited to debate the future of the science sector and have the opportunity to shape the future of science policy and decision making.

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  • Midwinter1947

    You obviously have no understanding of history and the role that unions have played in raising living and working conditions for everyone in society. That globalised businesses play one set of employees off against another trying to minimise costs and maximise their profits is no surprise – it is one of the consequences of open markets and (indeed) one example of they way that market forces do not always work in the interests of the individual.

  • Anthony Formosa

    That is true, but driving down costs of products through an open market and free movement of individuals has been the bigger factor in increasing living standards over the last 30 years than unions.

  • R_Hartland

    I remember watching the launch of Blue Streak from Lake Hart near Woomera in the late 60’s when the UK was well into space exploration. We were then part of ELDO, European Launcher Development Organisation. Blue Streak launched successfully but the French second stage failed and the whole project was cancelled.

  • Forlornehope

    Actually in a market economy unions can only raise the conditions of insiders at the expense of “outsiders”. You can see this in operation in India and Brazil. In a planned economy by contrast “free-collective bargaining” is a complete nonsense which is why unions in the Comecon countries could only operate as arms of the state. The contradiction of the UK from the 40s through the 70s destroyed UK industry and many jobs with it. You should not just look at history through red tinted spectacles!

  • Guest

    Never stop asking WHY ? Even if it’s “But why’s the rum gone”.

    I’m saving up to study a “Eath & Space Exploration” Batchelors, when I can afford to. For the best reason in the world – because I want to. It may take some time. But next time I’m uneployed I might just have enough for a part of it.

    As I get older, I realise more & more, there’s some really freaky stuff out there. And since I’m not wasting my money on a SO, learning sounds a great use of my money :)

  • Midwinter1947

    You seem to follow Thatcherite thinking and attitudes about the unions. However, there are two sides to the argument. Unions did indeed give companies and even the government a hard time during the period you mention, however, that same period was also a time of chronic under-investment and poor management practice. The ‘them and us’ polarisation was not achieved by one side alone – both sides of industry were engaged in a power struggle against a background of rapidly changing conditions. Neither adapted well to the changes required.

    Looking back a little further you will see that the unions were essential to the growth of democratic freedoms in this country and the protection of workers from exploitative employers. It’s not that long ago that it was quite normal for an employer to own the house that you lived in and the shop where you spent your wages. Workers were in a position of extreme weakness with the odds stacked in favour of the already powerful.

    The position today is one where the power of the unions has been reduced by legislation and by the trend towards individual contracts of employment. This is one of the factors which has allowed the differential between the highest earners and those on ordinary wages to increase exponentially. Unfortunately, with those extra earnings comes the heinous combination of greater influence and an increased ability to avoid tax. In this sense, those that cannot avoid tax have relatively little influence or power over their lives (for them it could even be termed as ‘taxation without representation’). It is arguable, therefore, that the balance has now shifted too far and union power and influence needs to be increased.

  • Forlornehope

    Not Thatcherite at all, just realistic. The only possible effect of Trades Unions is to raise the real cost of labour. In a market economy this will shift the balance of labour to capital. The result is that fewer, higher paid, workers operate more sophisticated machinery. France with strong unions and the highest per hour productivity in the world is the leading exemplar. Even where there is a closed economy with no possibility of moving work off-shore to lower labour cost countries, this will still be the case. Some years ago I was working in a motor scooter factory in India. The technology of the plant was at the same level as UK car factories. The improvement in living standards of working people over the last thousand years or so has been pretty continuous and it is very difficult to see a significant correlation with trades union activity. It does however correlate well to improvements in science and technology driving economic growth. You will only be able to improve the lives of working people if you forget about your dearly held myths and face up to reality. Of course you will not accept this argument, false consciousness or cognitive dissonance (to be more scientific) is pretty much impregnable!

  • xxxbinky

    The UK was part of the space race just after the second world war. I worked on the Black Prince project in the 50’s. I can remember that the country withdrew from this ‘race’ for obvious reasons, we were on the verge of being bankrupt and the overall reason was that it was unfordable for Britain. America was emerging as the leading Imperialist and history shows this was the case.

    The money that it takes to put one rocket up there and explore the stars is lotta of dosh and , until Capitalism is overthrown and wars will be the thing of the past, it is not going to happen.


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