Why Stevenage is the final frontier in space technology

It’s so tantalisingly close, this strange octagonal aluminium box with its shimmery array of circuitry. I see wires coated in silver, connectors of gold, and parts so delicate that even in this temperature-and humidity-controlled, dust-free environment they have to be protected with pink translucent plastic bags.

In two years’ time, this box – the inside of a satellite – will be blasted four times further out into space than any human has ever been.

That’s why I’m so desperate to touch it. Imagine: to have the tiniest trace of your presence on an object a million miles from earth. It’s an urge almost too powerful to resist. It’s the buzz of the rare, the exotic and the strictly forbidden. Which aren’t qualities you’d most immediately associate with an anonymous industrial estate in Stevenage.

The rocket and fuel tanks of the Lisa Pathfinder satellite

The rocket and fuel tanks of the Lisa Pathfinder satellite, which will be launched in 2011 and pave the way for new scientific experiments on gravitational wave detection and black holes

EADS Astrium is the third biggest space company in the world (after Boeing and Lockheed Martin), and space technology is not something Britain is merely good at; there are some areas where we’re the best. We’re at the forefront of robotics, which is why our autonomous rover, due to take off for Mars in 2016, is going to enable us to explore the planet more thoroughly than any mission so far.

And in the field of satellite manufacture, we are peerless. Not only are the models we build more sophisticated than anyone else’s – three are being constructed to measure for the first time the ‘gravitational waves’ predicted by Einstein and we’re even planning to send one to the Sun – but they’re also more reliable, which is why they’re so in demand by the telecommunications industry.

This reliability is something in which Astrium’s highly committed, multinational work force take enormous pride. I discover this after confessing my terrible tactile urge to my guide.

‘I’m really glad you didn’t because they would have torn you to pieces,’ he says. ‘If one tiny bit of grease or dust or hair were to get into some vital part, it could be catastrophic. You can’t repair a satellite up in space. Once it’s broken, that’s it. Millions of pounds down the pan.’

Pathfinder under construction

The pathfinder under construction

There are six main types of satellite, classified according to their mission: scientific research, weather, communications, navigation, Earth observation and military. Many of these are made in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, by EADS Astrium. The construction of these satellites is part of a growing space industry, currently worth at least £7 billion a year and supporting 70,000 jobs worldwide, 1,200 at Astrium itself.

‘We live in a world of instancy, and it’s satellites that provide it,’ says Bob Graham, Astrium’s head of engineering. ‘They’re what large City banks use to transfer money quickly and securely; they’ve improved our weather-gathering data in the past decade by 25 per cent; they supply the information for our sat-navs; they’re the reason soldiers in deep valleys in Afghanistan can call for air supplies and air strikes; they’re what give us instant news gathering; they’re used for disaster monitoring; they give us our satellite TV and mobile-phone communication; they’ll soon be providing broadband from space to all those places like India and Africa where there are insufficient fibre-optic cables.’

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