An astronaut could be walking on Mars within the next 30 years, the minister for universities and science predicted yesterday, as he pledged Britain’s support for a new “collaborative space race”.
Announcing plans for an £80m “space co-operation fund”, David Willetts said he was increasingly optimistic that major powers were prepared to put aside their differences to develop a global mission to the Red Planet.
And he said that, for the first time, Britain would play its part funding and contributing the scientific expertise necessary for the space exploration of the future.
Mr Willetts was speaking after a trip to China, where he signed a deal that is likely to result in British robotic technology being placed in Chinese rockets within the next five years.
And he suggested that, despite political differences, the technical challenges of a successful Mars landing would stimulate global co-operation. “I think if you got the major powers – the Europeans, the Americans and the Chinese – working together, that is possible,” he said. “It would be very exciting.”
Mr Willetts suggested that the first move was to step up lunar exploration – first with robots, then with men again – before using it as a staging post for a trip to Mars. “In the old days it was Cape Canaveral but in the future it will be Stevenage – at the heart of the global space effort,” he said.
“Stevenage is where we do our work on robotic systems. A lot of the technology for the Mars rover vehicle which the European Space Agency will launch in a couple of years’ time was developed in Stevenage. We are in a very good position. We have got a very nimble and effective space industry,” he said.
Mr Willetts said that the new space co-operation fund was likely to be used in part to further Anglo-Chinese co-operation. “The Chinese respect the areas where we have strong technologies,” he said. “They know we are strong in robotics.
“We are now going to look at projects that we can work together on.”
Mr Willetts admitted that there was “no agreed plan” for getting to Mars but he believed that the work being carried out separately by the US, China, Russia and India could be put to collective use for a shared mission in the future.
“We will first of all build our experience by getting more and more unmanned spacecraft to Mars with robotic systems,” he said.
“[We] then need to try and bring stuff back from Mars without a human going there. But in the future I think there will be humans going to Mars. I think it is possible within 30 years.”