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Tim Peake will be the first U.K. astronaut to visit the International Space Station.

Tim Peake will be the first U.K. astronaut to visit the International Space Station.

NASA (Bill Stafford)

U.K. may send more people into space

A few months ahead of the first visit by a U.K. astronaut to the International Space Station (ISS), the U.K. Space Agency has published its first strategy on human spaceflight, promising greater involvement in crewed missions and perhaps even participation in a mission out into the solar system.

The United Kingdom for decades has declined to send people into space; it preferred to focus on the commercial and scientific aspects of spaceflight through its satellite-building industry and its membership of the European Space Agency (ESA). The U.K. Space Agency was only established in 2010. But in 2012, the country made its first contribution to ESA’s involvement in the ISS and the agency’s life and physical sciences research program; today, the United Kingdom's contribution totals £49.2 million. The government’s enthusiasm for human spaceflight was no doubt boosted by the selection of Tim Peake, a British Army helicopter pilot, as an ESA astronaut. Peake will fly to the ISS for his first mission, lasting 6 months, in November.

Following a public consultation and lengthy discussions across government, the new strategy, published today, concludes that continued involvement in the ISS and other programs via ESA membership is the best way to involve U.K. scientists and industry in human spaceflight. The document says the government will consider bilateral projects with other space agencies but fears always being the junior partner since the United Kingdom has no launchers or space stations. It does not think that the commercial launch industry is sufficiently mature for the United Kingdom to buy services commercially. The report also states: “The Agency will also consider its role in human exploration missions beyond Earth orbit, especially where this complements science and technology goals for robotic exploration.”

“Our new national strategy is all about making the most of space: exploiting the unique opportunities for growth which human spaceflight and associated research programmes can offer. I’m immensely proud of British scientists, who really are among the world’s best, as demonstrated by the strong showing in the recent international space life sciences competition,” U.K. Space Agency CEO David Parker said in a statement.