Brits in Space?

A Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) panel issued a report today recommending that the U.K. government re-evaluate its long-standing policy against funding manned space flight. The report says human involvement in such missions is important because the scientific exploration of the Moon and Mars cannot be accomplished by robotics alone.

The RAS formed the panel, which consists of three independent scientists, in December 2004 to investigate whether there was a scientific case for manned space exploration. "If you had asked us 10 months ago, we would have all probably said no," says physicist Frank Close of Exeter College, Oxford, who chaired the panel. But after consulting with various experts in robotics, aviation, medicine, and other disciplines, the panel came around to a position of support.

The report lays out three key scientific challenges for space exploration: analysis of the lunar surface and subsurface to reveal important aspects of our solar system's history, a definitive search for life on Mars, and a planet-wide examination of how the red planet has evolved. These studies could reveal whether life is unique in the universe and what its long-term prospects are on Earth. None of these questions, the panel concluded, could be adequately addressed by robotic means alone.

The timing of the report is meant to coincide with deliberations in the U.K. government over what its commitment will be to the European Space Agency's Aurora program, which has the long-term goal of exploring the solar system with human and robotic missions (ScienceNOW, 11 April). The U.K. has agreed to pay 5 million pounds ($8.7 million) per year to the preparatory phase of Aurora. However, the cost of U.K. involvement in future human exploration is estimated to be 150 million pounds ($260 million) per year for at least 20 years.

Although the report is only a recommendation for a policy change, ESA spokesperson Franco Bonacina says the news is "welcome." But Gerry Gilmore of the University of Cambridge believes the U.K. government will ignore the recommendations. "The overwhelming majority of British scientists are deeply hostile toward human space flight," he says. He's also not worried about U.K. isolation from a possible international effort to land a man or woman on Mars. "On occasion, it is better not to be part of a fashion," Gilmore says.

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The RAS report