Think of a space agency and what comes to mind is probably the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Moon landing achievements. The UK government's decision to have its own NASA may thus look like a step towards a bold national future in the cosmos, but reality is likely to be much closer to the ground.
The UK government's 10 Decemberannouncement that it would form an executive agency for space comes after years of reviews about what more the country could do for spaceflight, and the government has an enthusiastic space champion in its minister of state for science and innovation, Lord Paul Drayson of Kensington. Drayson is an engineer turned entrepreneur and as a government minister has regularly spoken in support of UK astronauts and reusable launch vehicles. In announcing the new agency he even suggested a name: Her Majesty's Space Agency.
Before Drayson's appointment, the Labour government decided to drop an unstated opposition in principle to human spaceflight and launchers that is thought to have existed within all administrations since the 1960s. This was viewed by industry as a turning point and, with the subsequent reviews of space policy, the prospect of a new space age for Britain - a nation with a rich history of world exploration - seemed closer.
In May, the European Space Agency even selected a UK national, Timothy Peake, for its new intake of astronauts without any promise of funds from the UK government. The human spaceflight programme at ESA is an optional one that member states buy into, but the UK has paid nothing. Yet ESA director general Jean-Jacques Dordain insists that Peake will fly.
What would a UK space agency do?
The UK government created the executive agency concept in the 1980s as an alternative to what was seen as the monolithic bureaucracy of the civil service.
Government functions now carried out by executive agencies include corporate registration, defence support, roads and transport, prisons, passports, justice and animal welfare. A 2002 government study identified four types of agency - regulatory, research and internal and external service delivery - and concluded they had worked to improve public services, but needed stronger links to their respective departments.
While agencies have chief executives, published annual accounts and agreed targets there is no one model for an agency. Activities covered by the British National Space Centre activities include regulation, licensing of launches, research for space science and the delivery of internal services such as meteorological and Earth observation data for various government departments.
It is the BNSC that will become the space agency and the civil space spend it co-ordinates, more than £200 million ($324 million) a year, would make it one of the government's larger agencies.
The BNSC's review sets out options for what the UK would have to spend to engage with that multinational exploration effort, through robotics or even by going as far as having astronauts.
According to the review, by 2018 the UK would have to spend £40 million ($65 million) a year to play its full part in robotic exploration and a further £160 million by the same date to support UK astronauts - a figure that would grow to over £200 million just for the astronauts by 2020. But there is no mention of UK involvement in launchers in the review's options despite ESA's expected 2011 decision for a replacement for its Ariane 5 rocket.
The robot and astronaut proposals alone would be a dramatic rise for the UK, which today spends about £20 million a year on exploration, specifically for the Martian rover ExoMars mission. The UK's entire civil space spending for the financial year 2008-9 was £267 million and that includes European Union research funding won by UK scientists.
After the agency announcement, Drayson said there will be no extra money and under the Labour government's own plans there can be no change to space spending until 2011 at the earliest. Even the executive agency announcement does not initiate the immediate creation of such an organisation. Instead, according to BNSC director general David Williams, a process to decide "the exact nature of the funding and structure" will start.
It will begin at about the same time that the UK government-industry space innovation and growth team will report. This report will set out a 20-year vision for industry and is expected to recommend a national space policy and demonstrator technology programmes, which require extra funding.
The nation's space industry trade body, UKspace, welcomed the agency announcement, but other industry sources say they are concerned at what decision-making powers the agency can have with no budget increase. The other dark cloud for the unborn agency is a UK general election that has to take place by June 2010. Opinion polls suggest it will see the Labour party ousted in favour of a Conservative administration, which has spoken of an "age of austerity".
A new UK government burdened with a national debt crisis will most likely ensure that advanced robots and astronauts exploring the Moon and asteroids remain science fiction.