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

Life and Style
Small winemakers say the restriction makes it hard to sell overseas
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
News
Clare Balding
peopleClare Balding on how women's football is shaking up sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
News
i100
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Life and Style
fashionThe Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
Sport
Tony Bellew (left) and Nathan Cleverly clash at the Echo Arena in Liverpool
boxingLate surge sees Liverpudlian move into world title contention
Voices
Neil Findlay
voicesThe vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
food + drinkMeat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
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

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin