FOR a little over four months, Graham Turnock has been chief executive of the UK Space Agency, which is based at Polaris House, in North Star.

The 48-year-old has been fascinated by space exploration for as long as he can remember.

“As a kid it was my number one passion/obsession,” he said.

“I was a little boy towards the end of the Apollo missions. I remember some of the very final ones.

“I was very excited about the Space Shuttle when that happened. I remember watching the first launch at school. In fact, it took several times before they got the thing off.

“I remember the first attempted launch was mid-week. We were a bit disappointed when it didn’t go, and then finally it went on the Sunday, I remember, when I was staying with my grandfather.

“I was so excited that I actually wrote a book at the age of 10 called Mr Satellite, about an international space detective. It remains unpublished – I don’t think it will ever make the light of day, but such is my degree of passion.

“Then, as a teenager, I became a member of my local astronomical society in Leicester and attended many interesting lectures and events there. I never quite got into the practical astronomy side of things but I was always very interested in space science.”

Current projects backed by the agency range from the development of a rocket engine needing no heavy oxygen tanks to proving one of Einstein’s theories about the forces governing the universe.

Graham is from Leicester, where his father was a university geographer and his mother a teacher.

He is married to Cheryl, an archaeologist, and holds a first degree and doctorate in Particle Physics from Cambridge University, and has been a member of the Civil Service since the age of 24.

Heading the UK Space Agency is something of a dream job for him.

Relatively few people realise that the UK has a space programme, let alone that it has existed for decades.

“The UK was very much involved in early satellite communications. We put up a satellite called Ariel 1, which was one of the very first satellites to go into space, a little over 60 years ago,” said Graham.

“ It’s probably fair to say that during, perhaps, the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s space wasn’t something that the UK put a lot of resource behind.

“That was the era, obviously, of the Space Race between Russia and America, and a lot of space at that time was being done for geopolitical reasons.

“It wasn’t obvious that there were benefits outside those geopolitical drivers to do a lot of space work.

But then, with the development of the European Space Agency, which came into existence, I think, in 1975, the UK progressively became involved in a growing scientific and commercial effort in collaboration with other European partners.

“That in a sense was the beginning of the modern UK space Renaissance, but I suppose for quite a long time the UK’s efforts were subsumed into that wider endeavour.

“It wasn’t obvious that it was a UK space programme until we got to Tim Peake, when suddenly it became apparent that the UK had a really serious role in space.

“To my mind that has really got people’s interest and awoken them to the existence of the UK space programme.”

The public interest in all matters space-related is something Graham welcomes. He feels it waned for many years after the Apollo programme because, firstly, the Cold War Space Race objective had been achieved and, secondly, only so much could be done with the Moon itself.

“The Moon is fundamentally a dead object. It isn’t really that interesting and we didn’t really learn that much from it,” he said.

“There were spin-offs but the fundamental learning from those missions was more about how you went about space flight itself.

“I think that did lead to a lot of scepticism about the value of space missions, and I think it has taken a long time for people to believe it’s not simply a politicians’ vanity project, and that there is some benefit to us as a whole.”

Those benefits, apart from the UK being at the forefront of massive and growing commercial activity, include solving many problems afflicting the human race.

“In the last 20 years one of the big, big developments in space has been earth observation. On the face of it that sounds slightly dull, but there are probably about 50 key climate ecological variables which help us judge the state of the earth, which can only really be effectively gathered from space.

“There has been a huge development in the last 20 years of space sensors which can tell you fascinating things about the earth – the health of the oceans, the temperature of the oceans, the extent of forestation over the surface of the earth.

“They can be useful in disasters; where there’s major flooding they can help you judge where exactly the flooding is.

“The European Space Agency was behind a mission which is now being led by the European Union, called Copernicus, which has been putting up a series of satellites called the Sentinel Satellites, which are providing free data to anybody that wants to use it on the condition of the earth.

“So we’re looking at air pollution, optical photographs of the surface of the earth and something very exciting called SAR – Synthetic Aperture Radar – which effectively uses a source of radiation on the satellite, and almost like an X-ray in a hospital, fires down beams and then can pick up a three dimensional picture of the spot that it’s surveying on the earth.

“It’s very exciting and the UK is very much behind it.

“There is the old saying, ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.’ The earth is a very large basket but it is one basket, and if the human race wants to exist into the next million years it needs to think about whether it should be looking to colonising other parts of space.

“Eventually the sun will swallow up the earth. It’s a long way off, but there is something self-preservational which has been part of the human psyche right from our very origins, of looking for alternative homes.

“Space is no different from a caveman wanting to explore the next valley to see if there’s a better home, or at least an alternative home should he need it.”


GRAHAM heads a team of about 100 people at the agency, which was established in 2010 and has a budget of £350m.

“I suppose I see myself as having three components to my role,” he said.

“I’m here as the agency’s chief executive, to see that it is functioning effectively and make sure that the people who are doing the really critical jobs for the agency are well-supported, led and managed.

“That’s in a sense an organisational responsibility – a clear strategy, sensible plans, sensible budgets, etcetera.

“Then I’ve got a representational role as chief executive.

“We work a lot with other space agencies, in particular in the context of the European Space Agency, which is a collaborative effort.

“There’s a lot of important international work where the chief executives of the space agencies get together fairly regularly to do business.

“Thirdly, I’m in a sense the key policy person in the team, so one of the key responsibilities we have in the space agency is determining the UK’s future space policy, working with our minister, Jo Johnson.

“He will expect me to be involved in shaping key decisions such as our current proposals to enable satellite launch from the UK.”

The agency is involved with too many projects to list, but one is a European Space Agency experiment known as LISA.

Its aim is to use three carefully-positioned satellites, each at a vast distance from the others, to detect gravitational waves and – perhaps – fluctuations in the curvature of space-time which were predicted by Einstein.

The agency is also heavily involved with ExoMars.

“It’s a mission to land a probe on the surface of Mars and study the Martian surface to look for signs of life,” said Graham.

“That’s a mission we’ve got a very big interest in because the rover, the vehicle that will travel around, making investigations, is being built in Stevenage by Airbus.”

A British project to develop rocket engine which gulps air from the atmosphere instead of having to lug it in an enormous tank is also backed by the agency. The potential benefits in efficiency and payload capability are incalculable.

“This is British technology which we are supporting, and it has the potential to revolutionise space travel,” said Graham.

The agency will support British astronaut Tim Peake on his next mission and continue to lead a huge educational programme founded largely on the interest generated by his stay on the ISS.

Tim is a European Space Agency astronaut, and Graham stressed that he didn’t want to take away from that, but he said: “I think we did a great job of bringing Tim Peake to huge numbers of people in the UK and getting people enthused about science and technology.

“I think the agency did a great job working with schools around the country and doing experiments with Tim, and then, when Tim came down, he went out and spoke to school children.

“That was something the space agency was very much behind.”