British space officials reported January 22 at an international conference sponsored by the Royal Society that Britain will urge a more cautious approach than that being advocated by the European Space Agency. The 13-member agency this year expects to draw up final plans for Columbus, its contribution to the U.S.-financed space station scheduled to be assembled in the mid-1990s.
Columbus will consist of a pressurized module permanently attached to the core space station. It also will contain a free-flying polar platform, a man-tended free flyer with a small pressurized module and an unmanned platform.
A study commissioned by Britain's new space agency, the British National Centre, has enthusiastically backed Columbus. But the minister responsible for space policy, Geoffrey Pattie, warned that "we in Britain have succeeded in space through being hardheaded and by husbanding our resources skillfully."
Roy Gibson, director general of the British National Center, echoed the need for prudence. Gibson said that Europe may have bitten off more than it could chew by going flat out into Columbus. He said the project would cost more than $2 billion a year by 1990.
Britain's position is complicated by the government's delay in approving Gibson's own plans to increase spending in space. His closely guarded National Space Station was to have been approved before Christmas. It is now unlikely to get the go-ahead before the middle of this month.
The British study of the space station has concluded that "it is inconceivable that the United Kingdom and other member states of the European Space Agency should stand aside from this project." However, the report made clear that national prestige is not reason enough to participate in the joint project.
Reimar Lüst, the West German director general of the European Space Agency, said Britain's view was out of step with that of other countries, particularly France. You have to realize that there are certain member states that feel very strongly about autonomy in space and want to pay for it."