Britain’s fight with Europe has far-reaching implications, stretching all the way into outer space.
In January, the UK announced that it would send its star astronaut, Tim Peake, to the International Space Station for a second time. But the trip is now in doubt, according to the Financial Times, which reports (paywall) that the UK has denied a request to increase its contributions to the European Space Agency (ESA).
Currently the UK puts in about €41 million ($46 million) toward the ESA’s €960 million annual budget for the space station. The ESA had demanded that the UK contribute more than 4% of the total pot.
Europe’s space agency operates independently of the EU, but the Brexit vote in 2016 raised doubts about the future of the UK space program, which works closely with European partners. Indeed, the ESA has long complained that the UK doesn’t pay a fair share of the agency’s €5.75 billion annual budget. It pays in 7.9% of the total, whereas France and Germany pay more than 20% apiece, and even Italy pays close to 15%.
Space is good business for the UK. The industry generated £13.7 billion ($17.6 billion) in 2015 and the government is looking to increase that to £40 billion by 2030. Part of the increase will come from building the country’s first spaceport by 2020, which will help it launch satellites for other countries and private companies. Another part would come from raising UK’s profile through contributions like Peake’s visits to the ISS.
Both those strategies are now in doubt. In April, the Parliamentary science and technology committee found legal problems in the government’s Spaceflight bill that lays out the development of the spaceport. And now, there seems to be no guarantee that Peake will be able to go back to the ISS.
The pound isn’t helping matters. British sterling has fallen about 12% against the euro since the Brexit vote on June 23, and some 13% versus the dollar in that span, making it more expensive for the UK to meet its obligations in those currencies. And it has other expenses that could add up—the UK could owe the EU between €25.4 billion and €65.1 billion for its divorce, according to estimates by Bruegel, a think tank.
This is not the first time that the ESA has demanded more money from the UK. Peake only secured his berth on the ISS after the British science minister in 2012 made a payment of €20 million toward development of the Ariane rocket.