Britain should have its own astronauts, Government told

Britain should abandon its long-standing antipathy towards manned space exploration and needs to prepare to launch its first astronaut as early as 2012 as part of an ambitious plan to send Britons to a permanent base on the Moon, a group of experts has recommended.

The UK gave up on the idea of human space exploration in 1986 after former prime minister Margaret Thatcher pulled out of the manned missions planned by the European Space Agency, but officially-appointed specialists now believe it is time to make a U-turn. A group of scientists, technologists and industrialists has recommended that the Government needs to re-evaluate its space policy to take into account the commercial, scientific and educational benefits of British astronauts in space.

"We recommend that the UK engages in preparatory human space flight activities," said Professor Frank Close of Oxford University, the chairman of the UK Space Exploration Working Group established by the government's British National Space Centre.

"Simultaneously, we should maintain and extend the UK's significant role in planetary science and robotic exploration. The UK has had a great tradition in exploration over the centuries, but it is now time for a new vision," he said.

Over the past few decades Britain has concentrated on building satellites, scientific instruments and robots for space missions rather than getting involved in the huge expense of training and flying astronauts. As a result, we spend just over £200million a year on civil space activities – about a third of the national space budget of France, which has a manned programme.

Professor Close said that every country in the G8 club of rich nations – except Britain – now has a manned space programme and that it is no longer good enough for the UK to rely on robotic explorers to send to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

"The UK needs to take early steps for a future role in a human exploration programme. It can stimulate education and excite the young to get involved in science and technology."

Professor Close said that the manned Apollo space missions to the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s led to a surge in interest in science and technology among American youngsters which resulted in the training of a generation of highly-skilled people. The same can be done in Britain with children here being inspired by manned space missions involving British astronauts, he said. "There is a real crisis because of the downturn in the number of children applying to study science," he said. "In 50 years we won't have any engineers or scientists left. You only have to turn round one child in 50 to make in impact."

The report of the working group estimates that it would cost between £50 million and £75million over five years to prepare the groundwork for sending the first British astronauts into space. It could initially involve sending Britons to the International Space Station, but it might result in British astronauts taking part in future missions to the Moon, where America is planning to build a permanent base from 2020.

Britain has yet to work out how it will get involved in the international efforts to collaborate on future space missions as part of the Global Exploration Strategy but the working group led by Professor Close clearly believes the involvement should incorporate a manned element.

"For the first time in history the world's space agencies are planning to work together on the human exploration of the Moon, Mars and perhaps asteroids, with accompanying robotic missions to prepare the way," Professor Close said.

"This is not science fiction, it is the real thing. A high-profile UK-branded presence in human space exploration would engage British society in the full excitement of space exploration and help to inspire a new generation of scientists and engineers," he told the British Association's Science Festival at York University.

The working group's recommendations are being assessed by the British National Space Centre which will soon formulate its official advice to Government ministers on future space policy, according to David Williams, director general of the space centre.

Professor Keith Mason, chairman of the UK Space Board, which advises the British National Space Centre, said the decision about future space policy was about the UK's position in the world economy and whether Britain was to be competitive or not.

"Can we afford it? The more pertinent question is can we afford not to?" Professor Mason said.

How Thatcher spurned the space race

Britain took a back seat in the exploration of space when the former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decided in 1986 to pull out of the European Space Agency's manned programme. Since then the UK has concentrated on building instruments and machines to go on satellites and unmanned space probes.

British scientists have had some notable successes in various missions to explore the Moon, Mars and the rest of the Solar System as part of European projects, or joint collaborations with either Nasa or the Russian space agency. America and Russia have long-standing interests in manned space missions. France, Germany and Italy have meanwhile established their own manned programmes as part of the European Astronaut Corps. China, Japan and India have also set up training programmes.

This means that Britain stands alone as the only member of the G8 club of rich nations that does not have a manned space programme. The only way that British-born people have got into space is by either winning a competition, which is how Helen Sharman was launched on a Russian rocket in 1991, or by getting an American passport, like Nasa astronauts Michael Foale and Piers Sellers.

Successive British governments have taken the view that manned exploration is too expensive. However, supporters of manned missions believe they result in far greater returns, especially in terms of inspiring the study of science.

The latest report, by a working group appointed by the Government's own British National Space Centre, has now reinforced the stance that Britain needs to review its position.