Brits in Space

Aspiring British astronauts can start polishing up their résumés, but there won't be any job interviews until after 2010. That's the message from the U.K. Space Exploration Working Group (SEWG), a panel set up last January to assess whether the United Kingdom should review its long-time reluctance to participate in human space flight. In a report released today, the working group said that although there is no compelling reason for the United Kingdom to start training astronauts now, they will be needed after 2020 if a permanent lunar base becomes a reality.

The United Kingdom has for the past couple of decades concentrated its somewhat meagre space resources on areas such as Earth observation and robotic planetary exploration. The European Space Agency has an astronaut corps, but the United Kingdom does not contribute to it with people or funding. Last year, however, the United Kingdom joined 13 other countries in drawing up the Global Space Exploration Strategy, a plan for human exploration of the moon, Mars, and possibly asteroids. SEWG was set up to review the strategy and the United Kingdom's participation in it.

The report has two main conclusions. First, U.K. industry and academe have profited from robotic exploration, but there is much more to be gained from near-term investment in lunar exploration. Second, the United Kingdom should draw up a plan for involvement in human space flight so that a decision about whether to start funding can be made after 2010. "We should maintain and extend the U.K.'s significant role in planetary science and robotic exploration," says SEWG chair Frank Close, a particle physicist at the University of Oxford. "The U.K. has had a great tradition in exploration over the centuries, but it is now time for a new vision."

Ian Crawford, a planetary scientist at Birkbeck, University of London, who sat on the SEWG panel, supports the new direction. "This report sets out not only the very strong scientific case for participation but also the social, industrial, educational, and political benefits that participation in human space exploration will bring," he says.

But others fear that the extremely high cost of human space flight will starve other space efforts. "Robotic exploration of space is a much more cost-effective way of exploring than using humans--and is the only way to explore beyond Mars," says Andrew Coates, a planetary scientist at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College London. "Unmanned programs are highly important scientifically and must not be threatened."

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