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.
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