A British space policy advisory group is recommending that Britain end its long-standing opposition to all programs involving astronauts and become a full participant in the emerging global space exploration strategy that plans colonies on the
Moon and Mars.
The proposals submitted Sept. 13 to the British National Space Centre (BNSC) by the UK Space Exploration Working Group represent the latest cracks to appear in Britain’s decades-long refusal to spend taxpayer money on astronaut-related missions.
That opposition is one reason why Britain, a member of the 17-nation European Space Agency (ESA), declined to invest in Europe’s heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket, whose design was driven in part by a plan to have it carry astronauts.
Britain also has stayed out of ESA’s microgravity program, which involves sending only plants and small animals into space for brief periods but is seen as an integral part of the manned-space effort.
The working group’s 90-page report does not propose an immediate about-face in British policy. It specifically does not recommend that Britain invest in ESA’s current manned-space program, which is devoted mainly to the international space station.
But instead of critiquing the international space station as a dubious expenditure of taxpayer money –
as British government authorities have done for years –
the report says it is
now too late for Britain to reap technological benefit from joining ESA’s manned-space program. Because the ESA program’s principal backers –
France, Germany and Italy among them –
already have astronauts waiting for a mission to the space station it is
unlikely a British astronaut would be granted a seat on the available U.S. or Russian vehicles visiting the orbital outpost, the report concluded
However, as a global exploration strategy takes shape among 14 of the world’s principal space agencies and plans are laid for the coming decades, Britain should assure itself of a seat at the table early on, the report
“Aiming to participate in the human exploration of the moon (and later of Mars) is a valid and important objective for the UK,” the report concludes.
Perhaps anticipating the coming debate in Britain, the report says an assessment of an exploration program including astronauts cannot be limited to strict value-for-money equations.
“Human exploration of space promises to impact society, medicine and commerce and when the economic assessment is made, these wider issues will have to be taken into account,” the report says. “There are scientific questions of profound importance to space science … that can best be addressed through human presence. Future UK exploration strategy should acknowledge this.”
The report does not
address directly the question of who will pay for a substantial investment in astronaut-related programs. If the government accepts the strategic turnaround, it says it “will require new funding mechanisms to which the science budget should only contribute where appropriate and justifiable.”
SC said Sept. 13 that it will incorporate the report’s conclusions into the reassessment of Britain’s civil space strategy expected to be announced late this year.