Space-related career opportunities in the UK are on the increase, but many people employed in the new jobs won't even realise that they're working in the space sector, according to Colin Hicks, director-general of the British National Space Centre  (BNSC). Britain's 'space agency', a partnership of the 10 research councils and government departments that have an interest in the civil uses of space, takes as its motto 'putting space to work'. "Job opportunities are increasing because space is being put increasingly to work in a wider range of sectors," explains Hicks. People with good physics and engineering degrees will continue to be in demand, he says. But he also expects that scientists with less obviously applicable scientific backgrounds will find employment, as new ways are found to use the information that satellites can provide. A key growth area is earth observation data, which require geographers and biologists to help interpret them. "If you're interpreting crop photographs then you need people who understand crops!" he explains.
It may come as a surprise that the UK has a space agency at all--we don't tend to think of ourselves as a great space power. But "the British space sector is very strong," asserts Hicks. In academic research we are a "significant player in the European Space Agency science programme," with a key role in a large number of areas, including earth observation, planetary exploration, and studies of the sun.
The UK's space industry employs about 4000 people, and as well as companies which actually build satellites, such as Astrium and Surrey Satellites, there are a large number of supporting firms, active in areas like software and systems, for example Logica and ESYS. One area in which the UK is particularly strong is communications, says Hicks, "and we have a number of companies that have based themselves here, like Inmarsat, as satellite operating companies."
So why does Britain have such a low profile in space? Partly, says Hicks, this is because "manned space grabs the headlines," and the UK has taken the decision that unmanned space exploration is more cost-effective. It could also be because in space, Britain works very much in partnership with other European countries. Most of the UK's £180 million civil space budget is spent through the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites. But Hicks suggests that this budgetary figure is deceptively low. Within Europe the French, German, and Italian governments all have bigger space budgets than the UK's, but in those countries space industry derives most of its income directly or indirectly from government. In the UK, by contrast, our space industries have been much more proactive in "going out and securing overseas business."
In the immediate future, Hicks expects to see "more money coming into the uses of space science, and that we will see nontraditional funders beginning to spend more money on space science or exploiting the results of space." Already the EC is starting to put money into space for the first time, he says, with the Galileo project which will be Europe's answer to the US's Global Positioning System. The EC is "also discussing global monitoring for environmental security" and with the Commission recognising its importance for policy work, "what we're seeing is that earth observation is beginning to move from being an experimental science to being an operational one." There will be commercial opportunities too, based on "clever ways of exploiting the signals that come from satellites that tell you where you are and also, incidentally, what the precise time is," offering possibilities such as, for example, "the dynamic rescheduling of salesmen or bus routes."
It seems that future space sector employees are more likely to find themselves working for British Telecom or the emergency services, than for ESA or Astrium. That being the case, "the skills it brings in will be very different from the traditional ones," says Hicks, so lateral thinking may be your greatest asset.
Learn more about international space careers in our July feature .