— The British government is scheduled to begin a 12-week study Jan. 8 to determine whether its current space policy should be modified, especially with respect to a global exploration effort that ultimately will include an element traditionally of little interest to Britain: astronauts.
‘s new space minister, Malcolm Wicks, has expressed interest in a NASA-coordinated international exploration program, but has remained noncommittal about whether Britain’s participation would extend to astronaut-related efforts.
withdrew from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) astronaut-related programs in the 1980s and even declined initial involvement in the European Ariane 5 rocket because the vehicle was designed with manned spaceflight as an option.
The U.K. government subsequently entered the Ariane 5 program in the mid-1990s to ensure rocket-component work for British companies.
In what it calls “A Consultation on the UK Civil Space Strategy 2007-2010,” which was set for release Jan. 8, the British National Space Centre (BNSC) restates its current policy of steering clear of most work associated with rockets and astronauts.
“[T]he UK believes there is an adequate market capable of ensuring access to space for the UK and hence support for launchers is minimal,” the 40-page document says. “There are no current plans to become involved in the international space station or manned space activities, as no funding partner currently believes that the potential benefits justify the costs involved.”
Unlike most technologically advanced nations, Britain does not have a space agency with its own budget. Instead, it is a partnership of 11 disparate government agencies including the Ministry of Defence, the Particle Physics and Advanced Research Council, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs — the latter an agency concerned, among other things, with “the countryside, wildlife [and] animal welfare,” according to its Web site.
Lining up these 11 agencies behind any given space investment is never easy and is one reason why Britain contributes just 6.8 percent of ESA’s annual budget, well behind France, Germany and Italy and just ahead of Belgium and Spain.
‘s substantial role in ESA’s science missions is assured by the fact that the agency’s space-science budget is based on mandatory annual contributions from ESA governments, with amounts determined by each nation’s gross domestic product.
About two-thirds of Britain’s annual space budget is spent through ESA.
But recent homegrown developments in space — the Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. leadership position in small satellites; the Avanti Screenmedia public stock offering for a new broadband satellite, based on BNSC seed money; the Beagle 2 Mars rover, despite its failure; and British entrepreneur Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space-tourism project — have created a possible opening for new investment, British government and industry officials say.
David Sainsbury, who resigned Nov. 10 as space minister after eight years in the post, is credited with raising the profile of the British space industry.
In a statement prepared for the Jan. 8 consultation, Wicks said: “Space is a great way to excite children about the importance of British science. … Space is the great adventure of the coming millennium.”
The U.S. Vision for Space Exploration poses a dilemma for Britain. National expertise in robotics and small satellite systems would appear well-suited to an involvement in the program, and Britain has agreed to make a sizable investment in ESA’s ExoMars Mars lander, now in development.
But British support was secured only after ESA agreed to downplay the program’s ultimate goal, which is to establish a human colony on the Moon, or Mars, or both.
The consultation document echoes these concerns, asking: “In pursuing UK interests in exploration and exploitation, are there limits to robotic missions that the UK should consider?” The consultation also is seeking feedback on whether Britain’s hesitation in a pan-European military space effort could end up leaving its industry out of key roles in developing programs.
has been the most vociferous government in insisting that Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation program not permit military use of the timing and positioning signals by anyone.
But Britain has said it supports the use of European space assets for disaster response and emergency services. “The UK position supports European exploitation of space for civil security and counter-terrorism purposes,” the consultation document says. “However, the UK is opposed to the broadening of the [European Union] and ESA remits to fund and develop space systems specified for military use.”
As the document also says, “Satellite technology, for example in Earth observation, communication and navigation, is inherently capable of dual-use,” and accommodating the policy with the fact of dual use will be a challenge.