A small step for Britain in space

In the week the world is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landings, the UK government has announced a small step to raise the profile of the country’s space programme – one of the smallest among industrialised nations as a proportion of public spending.

Lord Drayson, science minister, launched a public consultation on setting up a British Space Agency. This would give UK space activities more focus than the existing British National Space Centre, a relatively powerless “partnership” of government departments and research councils.

Despite the low profile of the BNSC and a government investment of just £250m a year – channelled mainly through the European Space Agency – the UK has built up a commercially successful space industry that contributes £6.5bn a year to the national economy.

“Space is so important to our future,” says Lord Drayson. “The UK space industry has thrived under the BNSC but the Apollo 11 anniversary demonstrates the need for ambition, purpose and a clear sense of commitment.”

Of course the whole point of Apollo is that it was a manned programme – and the human factor was mainly responsible for its inspiring a generation of young people to pursue careers in science and engineering.

Under a money-saving policy started more than 20 years ago by the Thatcher government, and endorsed by its successors, the UK has avoided funding any human spaceflight activities, whether independently or through ESA. Other European countries have collaborated with the US and Russia to send their citizens to the International Space Station on the Shuttle and Soyuz craft.

This leaves Drayson, an enthusiast for human space flight, in a slightly difficult position, given that his government is unlikely to be able to afford the increased spending required to play a very active role in future manned programmes.

Lord Drayson

Lord Drayson

“I have said from the beginning of this job [as science minister] that manned spaceflight is very important, at a deep philosophical level. Going out and exploring the universe is not just about sending unmanned probes,” he told me. “It is very important to carry on manned space exploration and the UK needs to be part of that.”

Drayson and colleagues have persuaded ESA to decouple participation in the European astronaut corps from national contribution to specific manned projects – and earlier this summer, when ESA announced six new recruits to its astronaut corps, one of them was the British test pilot Tim Peake.

In the long run, however, it is hard to see how the UK can remain a significant player in international space exploration, manned or unmanned, without spending more public money.

As Phil Willis, chairman of the Commons science committee, put it, “we welcome Lord Drayson’s initiative but unless significant resources are put into a UK space agency, it will be a space agency in name only.”

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Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.

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