The European Space Agency is emulating the emphasis on collaboration with the private sector adopted by the U.K. Space Agency that was stood up last year.

Britain has long been a second-tier player to ESA relative to its economic strength in Europe. U.K. contributions to ESA programs lag far behind those of France, Germany and Italy. For a time it looked like Britain might fall behind Spain in funding European space.

But a few years ago the British view of the space sector changed. Instead of being seen as a playground for dilettante engineers, space is now viewed as an economic engine in a nation that badly needs one.

Following two years of strategic investment, including a national space technology program funded at £10 million ($15.5 billion) and the creation of the U.K. Space Agency in 2011, London is seeing results.

Since 2010, the U.K.’s space sector and its downstream markets have contributed £9.1 billion to the economy, while the creation of the U.K. Space Agency has allowed more flexibility for spending limited resources — civil space spending accounts for roughly £300 million per year, enabling British companies to better position themselves to win ESA contracts.

“I hope the track record has been established of this government’s commitment to space as one of the crucial high-tech sectors of the future,” says David Willetts, minister for universities and science.

Speaking during the Farnborough air show, Willetts brandished figures from Britain’s space sector, touting 15.6% real growth since 2008-09, with the average annual growth rate over the last two years reaching 7.5%.

Of the sector’s total $14 billion turnover since 2010, however, upstream markets accounted for just $1.4 billion, though downstream sectors reported an average annual growth rate of 8.5% between 2008-09 and 2010-11.

The U.K. government is expected to produce a more thorough accounting of the size and health of Britain’s space economy in September, but Willetts says the numbers show the dynamism of the sector at a time when Britain is struggling for economic growth, and that the nation’s commercial space sector is poised to seize 10% of the global market by 2030.

Citing the government’s policy for broadband delivery, Willetts says Britain’s investment in satellite technology is an example of the flexibility the country brings to public-private partnerships.

“With public investment of around £40 million leveraging more than £500 million of capital funds from the market to deliver British-owned and -operated services, it’s a good example of the flexibility of the space sector of Britain combining public and private finance,” he says.

Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) is another example of Britain’s creativity when it comes to public-private initiatives. The government is providing £21 million to assist in the development and launch of the first of four small radar satellites, an investment that could unblock more than £150 million of inward investment to Britain. SSTL will use the money to develop the first NovaSAR demonstration satellite with a payload provided by Astrium U.K.

Over the past two years, as the U.K. was adapting to its evolving relationship with ESA, the European agency was starting to adopt reforms that come straight out of the British playbook.

“ESA has never looked as British as it does today,” says ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain.

Dordain says his agency is working to develop new procedures with industry and is looking in new directions. For example, while ESA’s current acquisition rules favor geographic industrial return over competitive bidding, Dordain is putting growing emphasis on the near-term commercial potential of space.

“We are taking competitiveness and growth as the mantra of our next council meeting at the ministerial level,” Dordain says, referring to a November gathering in Caserta, Italy, where ESA ministers are expected to set the agency’s multiyear budget.

A key decision will be European access to space. Given the competition posed by U.S. start-up Space Exploration Technologies and its low-cost Falcon 9 medium-lift rocket, not to mention India’s development of a new commercial launcher, Europe’s current Ariane rocket system is not likely to be viable in the coming years.

Both Les Mureaux, France-based Astrium Space Transportation and OHB AG of Germany were recently awarded ESA study contracts to develop a next-generation launch vehicle architecture under the agency’s New European Launch Services (NELS) program.

But Dordain says U.K.-based Reaction Engines Ltd. (REL) made a surprise bid under the ESA tender issued earlier this year, which seeks ideas from European companies on how best to procure launch services.

The bid was based on REL’s single-stage-to-orbit Skylon rocket and its air-breathing Sabre motor, a radical new engine capable of switching to rocket mode in the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere.

Mark Hempsell, REL’s future projects director, says that Skylon “looks like something out of Star Wars.” But the technology is gaining traction with modest financial backing from the British government, and had drawn ESA’s interest even before the NELS tender was issued.

Although REL lost out on the NELS award, Dordain says the company may be onto something that might ultimately provide a new departure for future launch vehicles. He said the bid was intriguing enough to warrant a meeting between REL and ESA’s head of launchers, Antonio Fabrizi, before month’s end.

Hempsell says he thought his company’s bid was on target, but conceded it would require an investment of roughly $10 billion over a decade. This compares to preliminary French and German estimates of a next generation of Europe’s current Ariane 5 heavy-lift launcher of $5-8 billion.

In the meantime, REL is pushing ahead with public funding and continued technical support from ESA, which Hempsell says validated the credibility of recent tests of the Sabre engine’s air pre-cooler technology, which continuously cools the incoming airstream from more than 1,000C to below 150C, six times faster than the blink of an eye.

A final series of demos is set to begin in August.

“ESA has crawled all over Skylon,” says Hempsell. “On what we’re doing, you don’t always like somebody looking over your shoulder. But they’re doing a lot to help us.”