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UK urged to back human spaceflight

Royal Astronomical Society report says there are solid scientific reasons to send men and women into space

By | October 19, 2005

Britain should rethink its long-held opposition to involvement in human space exploration and take part in future manned missions to the moon and beyond, an expert committee from the Royal Astronomical Society said this week.

After 9 months of gathering expert opinions and data, a group of scientists asked by the RAS to examine the scientific case for human space flight concluded that "profound scientific questions relating to the history of the solar system and the existence of life beyond Earth can best--perhaps only--be achieved by human exploration on the Moon or Mars, supported by appropriate automated systems."

The expert committee included Frank Close from Oxford University, John Dudeney from the British Antarctic Survey, and Ken Pounds from the University of Leicester.

Specifically, their report notes that human involvement is needed to map the evolution of our Sun by studying the lunar surface, search for life on Mars, and perform detailed, planet-wide exploration of that planet. Autonomous robots, an alternative means of conducting such studies, wouldn't be up to the job, they said.

There are also issues of national pride at stake. "It is hard to conceive that the UK, one of the world's leading economies, would stand aside from such a global scientific and technological endeavour," the three experts said. "We, therefore, regard it as timely for Her Majesty's Government to re-evaluate its long-standing opposition to British involvement in human space exploration."

Britain's government has long argued that unmanned missions are a more cost effective means of space exploration. The commissioners acknowledge that taking part in manned missions would not be cheap. The cost to Britain of getting fully involved in manned trips to the Moon and Mars could be in the order £150 million per year, sustained over 20-25 years, they write in their report. Clearly it isn't realistic for the bulk of this to come from the existing science budget, they note, which means that a decision to take part should be made on the basis of "broader strategic reasoning that would include commercial, educational, social, and political arguments as well as the scientific returns that would follow."

If Britain were to change its stance on spaceflight, there could also be benefits for the wider scientific community who might like to conduct experiments in space, said Marc Heppener, head of space station utilization at the European Space Agency (ESA).

Since the UK dropped out completely of participation in the human spaceflight program four or five years ago, British researchers have been specifically disqualified from participating in the 40-50 scientific experiments ESA conducts each year on the International Space Station or on other craft, Heppener explained. "Still, we regularly get proposals from UK scientists," he said. "I sincerely hope this report convinces the British government to change its stance."

The RAS had asked the three commissioners to conduct their review so that the British government could consider their findings before the European Space Agency's Ministerial Meeting in December, which will decide the next stage of the agency's "Aurora" program of future space exploration.

Despite the conclusions, the committee members began the assignment with a healthy dose of skepticism, Close told The Scientist. "Like most scientists, we felt that in the past human space exploration had been driven by politics and the science had been extremely thin."

The ultimate decision about whether the UK will change its view and begin taking part in human spaceflight will ultimately come down to science minister David Sainsbury, via policy developed at the British National Space Centre (BNSC) and other agencies, a spokesman for the Office of Science and Technology told The Scientist.

The BNSC only received a copy of the document on Tuesday, spokeswoman Fiona Hatton told The Scientist. "At the moment we're considering it," she said. Given that the ESA ministerial meeting is less than two months away, she added, it's unlikely that any decision will be made by then.

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