The UK is the only G8 country (the eight richest countries in the world) without a manned space program. 20 years ago, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher put pay to any hope for a British astronaut by opting out of plans citing it as “too expensive” for the island nation. However, the UK government signalled last month they were considering a review of this space exploration policy, receiving a mixed reaction. A prominent satellite manufacturer has come forward with a suggestion that the UK may after all be better suited to constructing a space exploration “infrastructure” and leaving manned exploration to the ESA and NASA…
In 1986, the UK was effectively ruled out of manned expeditions into space. Plans outlined by the European Space Agency (ESA) at the time were considered too expensive for the nation to pursue, so the UK concentrated on its civil and defence space capabilities through robotic explorers rather than participating in any national or international collaboration.
As of 2007, after two decades of research and development, Britain spends over Â£200 million ($400 million) a year on space initiatives, putting some of the world’s most advanced technology into space. UK companies such as SSTL, Qinetiq, Logica and Astrium are leading the world in certain space technology areas as a result. Many in the industry (especially the satellite manufacturing sector) would agree that the lack on participation in a manned space program has provided growth in robotic exploration sectors.
This may be the case, but there is pressure for the UK to catch up with the other seven nations of the G8 and begin sending British astronauts into space rather than depending on NASA and the ESA. British-born astronauts have been into space, such as Piers Sellers (pictured above), Michael Foale (dual nationality – Britain and USA) and Nicholas Patrick; Helen Sharman was the first Briton in space in 1991. All British astronauts were either naturalized American or involved with other space programs,Â little investment was made by the UK government in any manned mission.
Many academics would disagree with the UK’s past unwillingness to “get involved” in a manned program. As the worlds nations become more and more space-worthy, many believe the UK is being left behind and the dependence on NASA and ESA will become problematic as time goes on. There would be economic and educational value in starting a UK manned space program too. Looking back on the stimulation that the Apollo program had on the US in the 1960’s, the nation saw a surge of interest in the sciences and engineering subjects. This educated an entire generation of college and university students who have formed the foundations of the hugely influential space program that exists today.
“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 Frank Close, Oxford University and Chairman of the UK Space Exploration Working Group (in an interview with The Independent Online).
But the idea of a UK manned space program may push the nation beyond its means according to David Williams, head of Avanti, a satellite communications company. Williams believes that the UK, after many years of space innovation and robotic exploration of space and the planets, is ideally placed to dominate the world’s communication ability with deep space missions.
“If mankind is going to exploit the resources of the solar system, you are going to have to travel over very long distances and you are going to have to communicate over very long distances and you will need a network of data-relay satellites. The UK has a big advantage. We have the opportunity to control the space internet, which is going to be this network of data-relay satellites.” – David Williams.
Following this logic, as space exploration is an international effort, letting big space agencies such as ones controlled by the USA, Russia and Europe pursue manned exploration, the UK has an important role to play to insure advanced communication technology keep the international manned space efforts in touch with Earth.
Either way, this is an exciting time for UK space efforts. Although recently buffeted by funding shortages, there appears to be some positive movement toward greater involvement in international collaboration and investment in satellite technologies.