Finding a Unicorn or a British astronaut, which is easier?

Here we go again, the idea of a British astronaut is being touted but this time it’s not the usual suspects of high profile space enthusiasts but the UK government itself. Historically the UK has been against manned spaceflight in principle.

In the 1950s a debate in the UK was won by those that said that robotics would develop in such a way that space and planetary science could always be done more cheaply with robots.
However artificial intelligence has not progressed as quickly as people expected. An argument that has gained ground is that for the mass requirements of human spaceflight the spacecraft and landers would have a payload capacity sufficient to take substantial amounts of scientific equipment. <BR>
Combined with the in-situ intelligence of a human being and there is a growing acceptance that to advance our knowledge of the solar system substantially further manned missions are required. Incredibly even the Royal Astronomical Society agrees, producing a report saying just this last year. And it’s a society largely for astronomers who have normally hated manned flight for what they see as a redirection of funds away from the ‘real science’ possible with ground and space-based telescopes.

And so now Malcolm Wicks, the new UK minister of state for science and innovation appointed last November, has said that he would not be opposed to a UK astronaut. In his view if future opportunities came up, within the context of the global exploration strategy now being discussed by the world’s space agencies, then the UK could participate in manned spaceflight.
In other developed countries remarks by government ministers about the prospect of involvement in an astronaut programme would be viewed as a commitment that would be followed up by funding. Look at India, that country is showing all the signs of taking the manned plunge as it has apparently decided to enter into a race with China (whether China knows it or not) to become the pre-eminent billion people nation on Earth following China’s astronaut success.

Sadly I fear this UK Labour party government is engaging in the usual disingenuous rhetoric that we have had to suffer here in the UK since its election in 1997. For those of you reading this and not resident in the UK Tony Blair’s government has become as hated as the Conservative party was when it was in government up until 1997. However, where as the Tories, as the Conservatives are also known here, took 18 years to reach that level of unpopularity, the Labour party has managed it in nine. Although the Iraq war has contributed to this the government’s deeply cynical manipulation (beyond anything previously witnessed) of the political process and the media makes any announcement sound hollow. So how realistic is this prospect?

The UK is not going to start its own space programme with its own astronaut corp. Even the most ardent UK space fans won’t believe that. So the only other options are, the UK government funds one or more individuals to train with NASA or the Russian Federal Space Agency (FSA) or the UK joins the European space Agency’s (ESA) astronaut programme. But each of these has problems. NASA is to retire its Space Shuttle fleet by 2011 and each mission is now dedicated to completing the International Space Station (ISS). It’s unlikely that even the three British born astronauts who became US citizens and joined NASA will fly again on the Orbiter. The FSA is equally problematic as its astronauts only go to the space station. The Soyuz capsule they travel in is simply a transportation vehicle to the ISS, unlike the Shuttle that can be used for low Earth orbit based space science.

So what would a UK astronaut do? The only remaining option is to go to the ISS but this is also an idea strewn with obstacles. ISS was created through an international framework agreement and because of the perceived political kudos of having astronauts in space each participating nation gained astronaut ISS time in relation to its contribution to the station. This astronaut opportunity then has been well and truly sown up by the nations involved at the beginning. And for now there is no other human spaceflight game in town. Sitting in committee room eight in the UK’s parliamentary building, the Palace of Westminster, on 10 January I watched the director general of the British National Space Centre (BNSC), David Williams, row back from the science minister’s comments.

Under pressure from the UK members of parliament that sit on the science and technology committee that is reviewing UK space policy Williams spoke of time tables in decades. In his view if there is a global exploration effort being undertaken then the UK would “at some point…have to decide whether to join manned space in 20 or 40 years time”. No doubt he will have retired by then so its one difficult decision he can avoid. Sadly this 20 or 40 year timeframe, if adopted as policy, will doom UK astronaut hopes. What the global strategy being discussed will lead to, assuming all goes smoothly, is an International Lunar Outpost (ILO) that will probably come into being just as the ISS is finally de-orbited in the early 2020s – but that’s for another blog.

The key date here is the 2020s. To have an operational ILO up and running in 2025 the framework agreement that will have to be negotiated is going to be hammered out at least ten-years before because that is the latest date by which ILO hardware will have to be on the drawing boards. If the UK is going to participate in ILO as an ESA member state in the European astronaut corp it will have to join with its partners, probably Germany, Italy and France, to work out what it will do as part of the ESA share of ILO work. That will also take years of negotiation and very probably require an expansion in the UK space capability from today’s small satellites and robot sub-systems.

You can probably see where I am going with this, but if the UK is serious about having British nationals working as European astronauts then it has got to start the ball rolling now.
Later on 10 January at an ESA exploration strategy workshop press conference a BNSC official told me that the only way the UK could seriously expand its involvement in space was to create an agency with a significant budget. The UK’s civilian space budget is about $400 million, with the current fantastic exchange rate of almost $2 to the pound. So it can’t be stressed enough how substantial the funding increase will have to be for engagement in the global exploration strategy to lead to a British national presence on the Moon.

Yet this BNSC official’s boss, Williams, was telling the MPs that the voluntary, inter-department set up that is the BNSC was a good way of raising the profile of space as a key tool for those departments to achieve their goals. Neither the MPs nor the directors of the UK research councils involved in space science, who spoke after Williams, seemed convinced. One of those councils, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, has “set up an ad-hoc UK Exploration Strategy Working Group that will review global and European plans and establish UK interests and opportunities”. It is to report on the case for human spaceflight by August this year.

At the parliamentary committee meeting PPARC chief executive Professor Keith Mason spoke of a need for “an agenda of ambition”. Williams, although he deferred an astronaut decision almost to the middle of the century, also said that to do better BNSC required more funds to expand UK space activity. So it suggests that the PPARC working group will miraculously find that, on balance, the UK should engage in human spaceflight. No doubt in some language acceptable to the UK civil service mindset. So why are the UK’s scientists’ research organisations and societies suddenly embracing manned spaceflight?

The real reason is probably a perceived threat of fewer researchers and therefore less research and smaller budgets for the research councils, and dare I say it, rationalisation and, shock, horror, council mergers. The UK is simply not getting enough students involved in science and engineering. Science departments are closing down all over UK universities as our celebrity obsessed culture encourages children to opt only for the apparently glamorous arts.

The UK scientists and bureaucrats that once sneered at the US for what they saw as an indulgent exercise in national pride that was the Apollo programme are now realising that investments’ economic return and are feeling very sorry for themselves. Bizarrely the UK could have had an astronaut already. In 1997 the newly elected Labour government had an offer from NASA. The agency would provide a cut price astronaut deal to the UK if it wanted it. You would imagine for the media obsessed Labour government this would have been an open goal, cool Britannia, the popular cultural slogan at the time of the government’s election, could have chilled out in the depths of space. Yet nothing happened.

In May, just before this PPARC report is produced, Tony Blair is expected to step down as prime minister after ten-years in office. His chancellor, that’s secretary of state or minister for finances for those of you elsewhere in the world, Gordon Brown is the favourite to take over. So a UK astronaut is likely to be Primeminister Brown’s decision. In the cold harsh light of politics the decision to have a British national in the European astronaut corp could ultimately depend on whether Brown thinks it would be something positive that would set his premiership a part from his predecessor.

If any of you want to join a campaign to get the UK government moving on this issue you could start here;

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