When the British government formally declared last December its intention to replace the British National Space Centre with a bona fide space agency, the person front and center of the decision process was Britain’s science minister, Lord Drayson.

The 50-year-old grand prix race-car driver and former pharmaceutical executive pushed for the creation of the U.K. Space Agency to better centralize British civil space investment, coordinate national policy and boost the United Kingdom’s standing in the international space arena.

Britain’s annual civil space spending tops out around 270 million British pounds ($416 million), some 85 percent of which is sent to the 18-nation European Space Agency (ESA). British industry has long backed the creation of a national space agency, arguing that not having one puts Britain at a disadvantage when it comes to negotiating work for its companies on ESA-led programs.

Drayson, who left government in May when Gordon Brown’s Labour Party was swept from office, first called for a national space agency last July during the inauguration of ESA’s first U.K. facility. “This is the right time … to ask ourselves whether we’re managing the full range of U.K. space activities in the most effective way … and whether, in view of the broad space community, a single body overseeing those activities makes sense,” he said.

The U.K. Space Agency was formally established in March and is on track to begin operating as a full-fledged executive agency in April 2011.

During Drayson’s tenure, the British government also continued to soften its views on human spaceflight, which it has long dismissed as a waste of time and money. While Britain still refuses to help pay for ESA’s manned spaceflight program, ESA proactively selected Britain’s Timothy Peake in May to join its astronaut corps. ESA, for its part, hopes a British astronaut will generate more enthusiasm in the U.K. for manned spaceflight and ultimately coax its fourth-largest member into the game.

It remains to be seen whether that will happen, but British rhetoric has changed, and the creation of the U.K. Space Agency is a concrete step toward more active engagement with an ESA increasingly concerned with human spaceflight.