UK space strategy enters the unknown

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This story is sourced from Flight International
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Soaring rhetoric and grand ambitions are the order of the day at the UK's British National Space Centre (BNSC). Indeed, its new "2008 to 2012 and beyond" civil strategy for space exploration and low Earth orbit infrastructure envisages nothing less than, by 2013, an increased UK share of the international space market, a clear definition of how the UK will participate in collaborative exploration, an increased "breadth" in UK technology capability, the establishment of an ESA facility in the UK and an increased public recognition of space's key role.

For a nation that has largely stayed on the sidelines as its European partners built space momentum over the past few decades, those are lofty aims. But will money bring the BNSC down to Earth?

The potential budgetary pressures of the changing European Galileo satellite navigation system, the next phase of the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) programme, leading an ESA Cosmic Vision mission and participation in the world's major space agencies' lunar exploration collaboration, means major elements of the strategy have yet to be set out despite its stated goals.

The UK space budget for the 2008 financial year, 1 April to 30 March 2009, is £220 million - less than the 2007 budget of £217 million if adjusted for inflation. The budget levels for the other four years of the strategy's term are not available because "we haven't got all the figures worked out", BNSC director general David Williams said at a 14 February strategy media briefing.

Those figures include BNSC negotiations with the UK government's department for environment, food and rural affairs (DEFRA). It is the lead department for GMES but, as the UK minister responsible for space Ian Pearson admitted at the same briefing: "DEFRA has budget difficulties."

To add detail to the strategy and come to conclusions on GMES and other issues BNSC is carrying out reviews and expects related studies from stakeholders on key topics during the next 12 months. Participation in the world's major space agencies' lunar exploration plan is one such topic already an announcement of a possible NASA/BNSC robotic lunar mission called MoonLITE has been made (Flight International, 19-25 February). The strategy also plans a six- to 12-month review of what the UK could do as part of the international effort.

Following on from the BNSC's Space Exploration Working Group (SEWG) report last year, the new review's terms of reference are being drawn up. "We will look [such issues as] the opportunity cost between manned spaceflight and other options," said Williams. These other options include the UK providing lunar telecommunications infrastructure.

The SEWG considered a UK astronaut proposal with a short mission to the International Space Station, paying Russia for astronaut training and transportation. In October 2007 Williams told Flight that he did not expect a study but he would look at all the information he had and provide an opinion to the minister on what should be done.

Although UK-born NASA astronaut Piers Sellers has been proposed as a review team member, at the briefing Pearson suggested that he was not inclined to support an astronaut programme: "I think the right decision [about human spaceflight] was taken [by the Conservative government in 1986 when it decided against it] and it's kept us in good stead...the UK's role in human spaceflight could be providing supporting robotics".

Work related to this review is the detailed study of the proposed joint NASA/BNSC MoonLITE mission that would test telecommunications technology in lunar orbit and fire penetrating geology instruments into the Moon's surface. This mission may also have Indian involvement as its space agency has been approached about using its rockets to launch MoonLITE.

Another element of the strategy that could be dependent upon this mission is the National Space Technology Programme (NSTP). This was originally envisaged to fund development to bridge the gaps between current UK capability and the mission's technical requirements. Williams said that the recommendations for NTSP work could also be put forward for ESA's general technology programme. Cost-sharing with the ESA programme may aid an NSTP that Williams says could have a five-year budget of "between" £4 million and £25 million.

As well as exploration BNSC is considering joint Earth observation missions - developing the technologies and institutions to support these missions would broaden the UK's breadth of capability. A national skills academy for space is being considered, again with no firm figures attached. A new ESA facility in the UK for climate change and robotics is another goal, though so far with no publicly proposed staffing levels or budget data.

Last year, the UK's scientific community called for an "agenda of ambition" for space that could be met by taking up all the opportunities that could be available this year. But Pearson's admission that his science and innovation department faces "a tight spending round" - and "a new comprehensive spending review negotiation next year" - do not bode well for the BNSC or an industry that, for perhaps too long, has lived with its feet firmly on the ground.