As the world marked half a century of spaceflight in early October, the UK stood on the verge of making a historic decision to fully join the space age. Sputnik fever and pressure from the scientific community led the government to announce that it would review a long-standing policy stance against human spaceflight that makes it the only G8 nation without an astronaut corps. Change - and a substantial increase in the UK's £200 million ($407 million) civil space budget - could see the UK put a Briton into orbit in the next decade.
On 4 October, science minister Ian Pearson announced that the UK government's civil space activities co-ordinator, the British National Space Centre (BNSC), would assess the "benefits of participating in future manned activity in the mid-term". A decision to change the policy could be reached by October 2008.
Pressure for change from the scientific community has resulted in three reports recommending a reassessment of UK policy on astronauts: the October 2005 Royal Astronomical Society's Scientific Case for Human Space Flight, the parliamentary select committee on science and technology's space policy review and the BNSC's own UK Space Exploration Working Group (SEWG).
University of Leicester department of physics and astronomy professor Ken Pounds was a member of the SEWG, which examined the global exploration strategy being drawn up by the world's space agencies. He says: "We are about to see the start of a new era of exploration." In his view this worldwide co-operation is an opportunity that the UK can not afford to miss, citing recent agreements such as the US-Russian deal on scientific instruments for Moon and Mars missions.
For UK astronauts Pounds thinks there are two options: NASA-trained Britons organised through the agreement signed in April or government-supported candidates applying for the European Space Agency's astronaut corps. A new intake of astronaut candidates for ESA's corps is planned for 2008, with up to eight places being available. Applications will be accepted from late December and the agency expects up to 40,000 applicants for a pool of around 40 individuals, from whom the eight finalists - four astronauts and four back-ups - will be selected.
Daniel Sacotte, the ESA's human spaceflight, microgravity and exploration director, says any member state citizen can apply and that the UK government has enough time to join a long-term exploration programme that could enable UK candidates to be selected for future missions.
BNSC director-general David Williams told Flight International that he wants to discuss the issue of UK astronauts with NASA and said: "We will be giving the minister advice. We have plenty of material with the space agencies' global exploration strategy and the [SEWG] report. But [the advice] will be a further analysis. I think we know broadly what the costs are. We have to compare the additional costs with the additional benefits."
He adds that his centre will ask the UK government's department for children, schools and families if the costs of sending an astronaut to the ISS, which he estimates to be at least £25 million, is likely to be repaid in the value of encouraging more pupils to take science subjects.
Williams cites studies conducted in Scotland and Leicester that indicate an increased interest in science and engineering where spaceflight is incorporated into the primary school curriculum.
The BNSC is finalising its new space strategy, to be published by the end of the year. This will detail what is to be done over the next three to four years and then look up to 20 years into the future.
Williams expected that if there was a positive decision on human spaceflight, the UK government would incorporate the costs of an astronaut programme into its 2011-14 three-year spending plan. The three-year plan for 2008-10 was announced on 9 October.
One Briton, who should know what he is talking about, is convinced that the UK has to change its policy towards spaceflight. British-born NASA astronaut Michael Foale has dual citizenship, was selected as an astronaut candidate by the US agency in 1987 and went on to spend more time in space than any other NASA astronaut ever. He says: "Any participation by the UK, in human spaceflight, is better than no participation. The benefits will be most pronounced for students now entering universities and technology development in the UK."