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Microgravity Research

Volume 532: debated on Tuesday 13 September 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Miss Chloe Smith.)

This is a rather esoteric subject on the face of it, so I should like to explain why I have chosen it. I am vice-chairman of the parliamentary space committee, and as a consequence of that role I have come into contact with many people in the space industry who have spoken to me about microgravity, the research thereof and its potential value to the British economy. I do not have any direct constituency link, although I have a local company that provides equipment for satellites. In the past decade, the UK space industry has been growing, year on year, at a rate in excess of 10%. I genuinely think that it should be part of the Government’s growth strategy and that it would contribute to the diversification of this country’s economic base. I have had the particular pleasure of meeting Tim Peake, who is the only British astronaut on the European Space Agency manned programme, and who also happens to be a champion of microgravity. That is quite important, because it indicates how good we are in Britain at research in this area.

Why have microgravity research? First, as I said, the UK is very strong in that area. Microgravity crosses a large number of fields, and that may contribute to why it has not always received support from the research councils. Secondly, it has huge potential economic benefits, particularly in bio-medicine. Thirdly, I do not think I am alone in this House in thinking that we should have a manned space flight programme. We need to do that with partners—perhaps with Europe, Russia or the United States—but I genuinely believe that we are better off seeking out new knowledge, endeavour and aspiration. All those things are positives, and Britain was at its best when it was displaying those facets.

Let me explain the structure of my speech. First, I will explain microgravity. I am sure that all colleagues here understand it fully and do not need a definition, but I will provide it for the benefit of the many people who have tuned into BBC Parliament for this debate. I will then touch on the sectors that microgravity research can impact on; talk about the history of the involvement in microgravity research, or the lack thereof, of Governments, this one and previous; and put some questions to the Minister.

As life evolved on this earth, lots of physical and chemical change took place in the environment that caused adaptations to take place in life, be it plant or animal. The only thing that has been constant in 4.8 billion years is gravity. It is therefore thought that organisms now have little or no genetic memory of how they would respond to low gravity, and that the low-gravity environment could uncover some novel mechanisms and responses to adaptations that may benefit the economy through commercial applications. That is basically why researchers are so eager to get into space, so to speak, to test the impact of microgravity.

This definition is just one of many I have read:

“Microgravity research = the research into the impact of low or zero gravity on human health and on other materials, and the exploitation of the low gravity environment to conduct research into pure science and human applications.”

We can create such low gravity here on earth in drop towers—something like those found at Alton Towers—or through parabolic flights. However, the best place for it to happen is in space. It can be done by a sounding rocket; at the moment, it is done at the international space station. Why conduct the research? Put simply, gravity adds complexity to certain experiments by contributing to convection currents, shear stresses and buoyancy, and that can impact on processes that we would like to study. In order to try to remove those potentially confounding variables from the experiment, one needs to go into a microgravity environment, and the best place for that is in space.

Let me turn to the sectors that may be impacted on, both economically and in terms of human knowledge and pushing back these boundaries. First, I will mention bio-medicine; as a doctor, I would be expected to do so. The bio-medical applications are numerous. Essentially, it is thought that putting cells—any cells—into a microgravity environment affects the way in which they work. Understanding how cells work and how they communicate with one another will have broad applications in the study of cancer, coronary heart disease, AIDS and diabetes. We can all understand that that might lead to the development of new therapies and drugs that would benefit mankind. In economic terms, if British patents were attached to such developments, UK plc would benefit.

One can also grow pure protein crystals in microgravity, and by doing so aid the understanding of the immune system, which would again benefit health care. One of the most noted areas is musculoskeletal systems and the response of bone and muscle. I am sure that most hon. Members know that spacemen who have spent lots of time in space have been found to have reduced bone density and muscle wastage. Why that happens is not fully understood. By trying to understanding that and how tissue remodels, we may very well find new techniques to treat musculoskeletal disorders.

Another sector where microgravity can be used is fluid physics. The understanding of the forces that affect fluids has wide applications. If we can understand them better, it might contribute to the miniaturisation of electronic devices. The BlackBerrys and laptops that we use have all benefited from greater knowledge in this area. Using these developments will undeniably lead to a reduction in costs for the customer when they buy such electronic devices at John Lewis and elsewhere.

I am not an expert in microgravity research—far from it—but I had a wee look at it before the debate. I understand that some microgravity research has looked at earthquakes and the pre-warning of earthquakes. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would comment on that, because obviously if people can be warned of earthquakes and tremors, it might save life.

I have absolutely no idea about the prediction of earthquakes and I am struggling to think why an understanding of microgravity would help to determine when there might be an earthquake. The hon. Gentleman has given me something to look up when I leave the Chamber.

The final area is material science. Understanding how materials or composite materials behave in a microgravity environment might help to develop new alloys and ceramics. That has broad applications. We are at the cutting edge in Formula 1 and in the use of composite materials and alloys. That knowledge originally came from the space sector. By doing this research we will enhance our standing in that area.

This list is not exhaustive. A variety of different sectors are involved. In the area of plant biology, I have seen the suggestion that plant stem cells could be grown on an industrial scale in space, thereby assisting us in our need to develop biomass for energy. I could go on.

Moving on to the history of Government involvement in microgravity, the Pippard report of 1989 was the first mention that I could find. It made some interesting observations that have since proven to be true. The Wakeham review of 2003 found a lack of interest among the research councils, which goes back to the point I made at the start of my remarks that microgravity does not have a single voice. That is why it has not received funding in the past. As a result of the Wakeham review, Britain did not contribute to the European Programme for Life and Physical Sciences—ELIPS—with the European Space Agency, which was started in 2001 and is ongoing. The ELIPS 4 funding round is due at the next ministerial ESA meeting in 2012. I would push for us to participate in that, not least because doing so would allow us to work with NASA, which will not work with us outside ESA as I understand it.

Finally, I have some questions for the Minister. First, will he confirm that the Government are not against manned space flight? For some time in this country, it was Government policy to be against manned space flight. I think that manned space flight is inspirational. Anybody who goes into a school on a science, technology, engineering and mathematics day will find children building rockets and looking at pictures of planets. The reality is that space inspires children and that we will need more scientists and engineers in the future. I spoke about the inspirational quality of space in my maiden speech—I do not know how many hon. Members who are present were here for that. I strongly believe that there has to be a man on top of the rocket for it to be inspiring.

Secondly, will the Minister outline the Government’s position on the ELIPS programme and the ESA manned space flight programme in anticipation of the 2012 ministerial meeting? I ask that because for about £200 million a year we could participate in that programme. Over a 20 to 25-year period, we could perhaps participate in the exploration of the moon and, further, of Mars. That may seem an extravagance to some, but it is not. For every $1 spent on the Apollo space programme, it was estimated that the US economy got $14 in return.

We can make money out of space—it is as simple as that. Britain is outstanding at space, and we do it on a shoestring in comparison with some of our competitors. I think that in future, we should be a greater player in space. I know that the Minister shares my feelings on that. I forget the figures, but we are projected to increase our space industry over the next 10 years, and I am wholly supportive of that.

What is the Minister’s opinion on a microgravity forum? I have had e-mails from around the world since I tweeted that I would introduce this debate, and I have met people, and it is interesting that there is not one, single voice for microgravity. Microgravity perhaps needs that one voice, but does the Minister have any views on that?

Finally, more generally, as a new boy in town, I get the distinct impression that Whitehall is risk averse. If there is one thing that we cannot be when it comes to space, it is that. We have to go for it. I am encouraged that the Government have in the last year announced changes to legislation with regard to aiding the space industry—it relates to space insurance—but ultimately, Whitehall remains risk averse. I would be interested to know the Minister’s view on that.

The best way to conclude is by quoting an e-mail that somebody sent. He ended one paragraphs as follows:

“In addition to providing benefits to society”


“research will also help the UK to maintain some degree of scientific relevance - scientific capability in a nation is a recognised necessity for economic development.”

I could not have put it better myself, and that is why I called for this debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) on securing this important debate, which is particularly timely given that we are gearing up for the ESA conference in 2012, in which the funding priorities for the industry will be set for the future. As a result, the UK’s involvement in the ESA will also be forged.

May I thank Tom Gunner and Sarah Chilman from the parliamentary space committee for the work that they do all year round in promoting space? Unlike many other industries, space does not have lots of lobbyists with huge budgets, but the small team at the PSC is none the less effective. I must also thank Astrium for allowing Tom and Sarah to undertake their important work.

The space industry has grown 10% year on year. It is one of this country’s major success stories, but it has not been sung out loudly. For most people, the space industry seems distant—both literally and figuratively—but we need the public to understand just how big an impact that high-tech industry has on our lives.

Like my hon. Friend, I am a vice-chair of the PSC, and many of my constituents ask why an MP from a northern Lancashire constituency would take an interest in space. I point out to them that there are important benefits from the space industry, including high-tech jobs in places such as Bracknell and the M4 corridor. Perhaps more importantly, however, space technologies impact on areas such as Morecambe and Lunesdale and people’s day-to-day lives.

Owing to the space industry, people can get around easily by sat-nav and explore areas of the country that they would not ordinarily be able to go to and find their way around; we can roll out fast satellite broadband to rural areas; and we can watch satellite television, which has brought a wider entertainment choice to everyone. Those industries are direct spin-offs of the space industry. Even though the space industry does not have major funding, it is a success story year in, year out.

Space delivers a host of everyday benefits—some might even say that they are mundane—but we are not always very good at pointing out those successes. We can all agree that although we have led the way on space in general, we have lagged behind badly in microgravity research.

I add my name to the list of those who believe that we should be involved in ELIPS and, by extension, the international space station. It cannot be right that Germany funds 50% of it. The widely accepted tradition of the UK being negative about putting scientists into space should end, not least because space tourism and exploration are going to become boom industries in the future, in the same way as transatlantic shipping and air travel became hugely popular in a short space of time. We do not want to be on the list of countries left behind by this exciting new development in human history.

I have asked the Secretary of State about our preparedness for the next European Space Agency ministerial council, and I am glad that things are progressing well, but we need the Government to set, as a central aim for that conference, greater UK involvement in microgravity research. It is important that we ride on the back of this industry. Future generations are looking to science as a cool subject to be involved in. A report by the Science and Technology Committee, of which I am a member, has shown that young people are engaging particularly well in anything to do with space exploration. Amazingly, when I was a small boy, I made an Apollo rocket, like many Members here, from an Airfix kit. I am sure that we can all remember sitting at the kitchen table gluing our hands to our faces and everywhere but the model itself. Funnily enough, my little boy, Robert, found my Saturn 5 rocket that I made—I had forgotten that I still had it. I grudgingly put it back together. It brought back happy memories, but I looked at my eight-year-old son, and he turned around and asked, “Dad, why are we not going to the moon again?” I think that that was very poignant.

This has been a rather special Adjournment debate in which the passion of colleagues for space travel and the space sector has been exposed to wider debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) on securing the debate and leading it so well. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) for his speech, because he also spoke with the authority that comes from being a member of the parliamentary space committee. It is also great to see in his place my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), who does an excellent job as the chair of that committee. We have people here who rightly care about space.

I would like to make it clear that the Government realise the significance of the space sector, which is why we have tried to support the space industry even during the tough fiscal decisions that we have had to take. Through my role as co-chair of the space leadership council, I have a good and constructive dialogue with the industry, and we were able to get a section of the growth review devoted specifically to the space industry. The space sector matters in lots of different ways. It is crucial to scientific and technological advance. We undoubtedly conduct high-grade scientific research through the space programme, and the technological challenges posed by the programme drive technology forward.

As we have heard, with 10% growth a year, the space sector is a rapidly growing part of the British economy. There are not many parts of the British economy growing as fast as China, but the space sector is. I absolutely agree with the final point from my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale that the excitement of space can get younger people involved in science. As someone who wants more and more young people excited by space, I believe that, by and large, it is space and dinosaurs that interest young people in science. In America, they still talk of the generation of scientists and technicians that came through as a result of the Apollo effect getting them interested and involved. The space sector has a lot to contribute, and within the inevitable constraints on public spending, we are doing our best to back it.

I was asked some specific questions that I will try briefly to answer. The first was about manned space flight. I should make it clear that the UK has historically focused its space investments on areas such as telecommunications, earth science and robotic exploration of the universe; and, as we are not directly involved with the international space station, we have not developed human space flight technology, although we have the relevant technology for the future exploration of the moon and Mars, including advanced robotics—of which the ExoMars rover programme is a classic example—communications systems and small satellites. So that is the view that we have taken, historically.

I was asked whether we had any objection in principle to a manned space flight, and the answer is no, although there will always be pertinent questions about cost effectiveness. The Government are delighted that Major Tim Peake has been selected on merit to join the ESA astronaut corps. That will be a great opportunity for him to inspire young people in the UK; indeed, I know that he is already doing so. So that is our attitude to manned space flight.

I was also asked specifically about microgravity. It would be correct to disentangle microgravity research from the manned space flight issue. It is possible to research microgravity without getting involved in manned space flight, and we do understand the value of microgravity research. There are difficult obstacles to overcome, however. First, the range of topics is so wide that there is no coherent voice to articulate the needs of the researchers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell said. I understand that point. Secondly, materials researchers do not normally work with biomedics or astrobiologists, but they would all find microgravity important in pursuing their research. The researchers who would benefit from microgravity research therefore comprise a rather fragmented and diverse group, but my hon. Friend eloquently argued that it would be helpful if they could come together to provide a more coherent voice.

Historically, the UK has had little involvement in microgravity research, so the researchers are largely unaware of the possibilities involved. Let me make it clear that I would welcome new collaborations, including the ones that are now developing, and new ways of serving the interests of UK researchers and those of our international partners.

I was interested to hear about the Government’s support for a forum. Would my right hon. Friend support ministerial attendance at such a forum, if one were to be established?

As I hope those in the space sector know, I am personally committed to working closely with the sector. The idea of a microgravity forum is very worth while, and it would be great if people who could benefit from microgravity research came together. If it would make sense to do so, I would be willing to meet such a group, but I must stress that I am working within a fixed science budget. We have the protection of the ring fence around the £4.6 billion, and we are all very proud of that illustration of our commitment to science, but I have to work within that budget. So, provided that ministerial attendance did not give rise to the assumption that the Minister would come to the meeting armed with a cheque book, I would be happy to attend. We could then purse the matter from there.

The research council model for funding research has worked incredibly well over the decades since it was established in the 1980s by Lady Thatcher when she was Prime Minister. I wonder whether the Minister might write a letter urging the research councils to consider such a forum or meeting to facilitate an interest in it.

It would be best if there were ways in which the research community could come together, but I am always wary of anything that could be taken as a breach of the Haldane principle, which hovers over all these debates. We have to be very clear in regard to giving instructions or directions on areas of research activity. One of the reasons that we have an excellent science research base in this country is that, by and large, Ministers have kept their grubby hands off these issues.

As I said, I have tried to indicate that I recognise that microgravity research could play an important role. It has suffered from the structural problem of having such a diverse and different range of disciplines that could benefit from it. I can see the argument for them coming together in a more coherent way and I would be happy to look at that. Of course, many of the decisions would ultimately be for the research councils.

Let me briefly say in the few minutes remaining that a lot of this stuff will come up as we plan for the European Space Agency ministerial council in 2012. No doubt we will be invited by the ESA to join its microgravity research programme, ELIPS. I am told that the UK Space Agency has already held a workshop with researchers and providers of facilities to explore their mutual interests, and it will be holding a further workshop in November to examine the opportunities presented through the ESA’s programmes. As we prepare for the next ESA ministerial, we are of course considering this alongside many other options.

Let me conclude by saying that we recognise the significance not just of microgravity, but of the presence of people like Major Tim Peake who are aiming to become astronauts. I am delighted that Tim Peake has said that he will act as an ambassador for microgravity research in the UK. Because of our ambition that he should be able to engage in space flight, it is great that he is willing to take on that role. I am confident that, as part of that role and of the UK Space Agency’s work, we will consider the proposed strategy for space biomedicine that the UK space biomedical consortium is developing with Tim’s help. It will continue to facilitate negotiations between UK research groups and prospective international partners.

I should like to assure the several Members in their places today who all share this interest in space research—my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell has done an excellent job in bringing this crucial subject to our attention—that I will undertake, given my ministerial responsibilities, to follow the debate on microgravity research very closely as we prepare for the ESA ministerial next year.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.