Boldly going 2,500ft up from a Norfolk field

Frustrated scientists tell Ian Burrell that the UK's space effort is pathetic

No one is looking more wistfully at the series of expeditions to Mars that began on Thursday than Britain's small but still optimistic band of would-be rocket scientists.

When the Mars Global Surveyor blasted off on a rocket from Cape Canaveral, it launched a new programme of space exploration that will last 10 years and see American, Russian and even Japanese space probes head for our planetary neighbour. Two more shots follow almost at once: next Saturday the Russians launch their Mars 96 probe, and three weeks tomorrow another Nasa craft, Mars Pathfinder, will blast off.

British scientists are involved in experiments carried on the latter craft, but a British mission to Mars is a fantasy. Yet it could have been different, say a group of young scientists who are still pursuing rocket technology and resent what they see as a waste of British expertise.

Banding together in a consortium called Aspire last month, they made their first successful rocket launch on British soil near Thetford, Norfolk. They sent their 7ft craft, ASRV, 2,500ft into the air in what they hope is a step towards their goal of putting a British rocket into space. This was achieved at a personal cost of pounds 4,000 plus a similar amount donated by sponsors, principally John Knopp, a businessman and inventor from Braintree.

Richard Osborne, a 29-year-old computer expert and one of the founding members of Aspire, is angry that the project, which is widely admired by senior space scientists, has been ignored by the British National Space Centre. The BNSC is the British equivalent of Nasa with a budget of pounds 200m a year, but for all most people know about it, it might as well be on Mars.

The Aspire members allege it has thrown away the unrivalled reputation for expertise in space transportation that Britain held as recently as the early 1980s. While France, Italy, Japan and Canada attempt to follow the US and Russia and put their nationals into space, Britain concentrates its efforts on gathering satellite imagery of fields and cities.

The situation is especially depressing to Roy Gibson, ex-director of the BNSC, which was set up in 1985 with the intention of expanding the British space programme. Mr Gibson, who left the BNSC in 1987, said last week that the organisation had allowed Britain to fall to the status of "non-player" in the space industry. "We had a tremendous capacity in launchers in the 1950s and 1960s. It is very low at the moment. The people involved are either dead or making washing-machines," he said.

Mr Gibson, who had been a senior official at the European Space Agency (ESA), was invited by the government to draw up a British space plan. It was rejected and never published. "When it became clear that ministers did not want to do that, I told them they did not need me," said Mr Gibson, now 72 and advising Canada on what he says is a "very active" space programme.

One of the BNSC's principal tasks is to generate work for the British space industry which employs about 6,000 people. The annual budget of the agency is pounds 195m, of which pounds 131m is channelled into the French-dominated ESA, which runs the Ariane launcher programme. Of the remaining pounds 64m, more than two-thirds goes on earth observation by satellite.

Alan Bond, Britain's leading rocket scientist, believes the BNSC is making a mistake. Twelve years ago he pioneered the development of a spaceplane powered by air-breathing rockets. The BNSC's lack of support for the project, Hotol, was a factor in Mr Gibson deciding his future lay overseas. Now Mr Bond is getting a similar lack of support for his latest venture, Skylon, a 240ft craft he claims could be launched into space for pounds 10m, compared withpounds 500m for a typical shuttle.

The Mars Missions, Review

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor