Royal Society president's anti-astronaut comments sparks UK backlash

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UK space scientists have criticised Martin Rees, president of the UK's national academy of science, the Royal Society, and the University of Cambridge's professor of cosmology and astrophysics, for his comments that Europe should abandon human spaceflight "to be competitive".

While on a  trip in California Rees described human spaceflight as irrelevant, said that if he were American he would be against manned flights to the Moon and Mars but also said that astronautics was something that Europe should leave to the US and Russia. His comments, qouted in a BBC article, were confirmed to Flight by the Royal Society.

Many European space scientists disagree with Rees views and London based-Birkbeck College's school of Earth sciences' planetary science senior lecturer, and the Royal Astronomical Society's geophysical secretary, Ian Crawford, told Flight, "With regard to European space policy Rees's views are completely at odds with the recent European Science Foundation Report on European space policy, which identified a number of scientific and societal benefits of human space exploration and recommended continued European involvement."

Pro-human spaceflight scientists in the UK also point to Rees' reference to the NASA/European Space Agency Hubble Space Telescope as a great robotic achievement, when the telescope has been serviced three times by astronauts and the fourth and final servicing mission takes place later this year. 

Crawford added that Rees' views were coloured by his astronomy background and that as the Royal Society president "he really ought to be more familiar with the scientific benefits" of astronautics because of its value to "life sciences and planetary science and geology".  

ESA announced on 10 April it is to select candidate astronauts and UK citizens can apply but they are unlikely to reach the final selection stages because their government does not contribute to the agency's manned programmes. British citizens Nicholas Patrick, Michael Foale and Piers Sellers (see below) had to become US citizens and join NASA's astronaut corps to go into space.

piers sellers and thomas reiter onboard orbiter discovery during sts-121
 Above: UK born NASA astronaut (right) Piers Sellers with German ESA astronaut Thomas Reiter on the orbiter Discovery during mission STS-121 in July 2006
As one of 14 of the world's space agencies collaborating on a global exploration strategy ESA is planning to contribute to a manned lunar outpost to follow on from the International Space Station that may end its operational life in 2016 or 2020. ESA is also engaged in a study with Russia on a new crew transportation system.

The UK is the only G8 nation without a human spaceflight programme. China has had a crew transportation capability since 2003 and India plans to achieve this in the next decade.

Rees has also been in the news recently for his veiled attack on the UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) chief executive Keith Mason, on the BBC's Newsnight current affairs programme, over the reduction in UK government funding for astronomy and physics following the merger of the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council that created the STFC.

The UK has never been involved in human spaceflight because its scientific community's leaders only supported robotic exploration. However the UK government is expected to make a decision later this year on possible future involvement in manned missions and it is planning a new ESA facility that will specialise on robotics; while the creation of STFC has led to the physics and astronomy cuts.

Human spaceflight proponents highlight the considerable capability difference between robotic probes and people, citing the ability of a geologist astronaut to do as much science in three days as NASA's Mars rover's have done in three years.

Former BBC spaceflight correspondent Reg Turnill told Flight: "[Martin] Rees' attitude to human spaceflight is at least a century out of date, but does have the huge merit of getting the subject discussed. He can also be assured that future generations will remember him for all the wrong reasons."