British still pro space voyage

September 5, 2003

UK space scientists remain firmly behind manned space missions despite the safety concerns raised by the investigation into the Columbia shuttle disaster.

A straw poll of leading British figures in the field, carried out by The THES, revealed overwhelming support for future expeditions.

Although the UK confines itself to unmanned missions, such as the Smart-1 lunar orbiter set to launch in October, 21 of the 24 scientists wanted the US to continue sending astronauts into space.

Many felt it was culturally and politically important, while ten felt that axeing the manned programme would be catastrophic for the unmanned programme.

Debate has been sparked by the Columbia accident investigation board, whose report was published last week.

The report concludes that budget cuts and complacency at US space agency Nasa were largely to blame for the events that led to the break-up of the space shuttle and the death of seven astronauts in February. The investigation panel observes that for three decades Nasa has lacked "a compelling mission requiring human presence in space".

While US president George W. Bush insisted manned exploration would not stop, some critics are asking whether it is a task better left to robots.

Andrew Coates, reader in space physics at University College London's Mullard Space Science Laboratory, said: "The financial cost and the human cost are far too high for manned spaceflight. Robots are humankind's real space explorers."

Joanna Haigh, professor of atmospheric physics at Imperial College London, said: "Unmanned craft have demonstrated their huge potential for scientific exploration at a fraction of the cost and the risk."

But most scientists disagreed with their views. Sandra Chapman, professor of astrophysics at Warwick University, said: "Manned spaceflight is justifiable in cultural not scientific terms."

Martin Barstow, professor of astrophysics and space science at the University of Leicester, said: "The urge to explore and reach out into the unknown is part of human nature. If we have nowhere 'to go', it may well lead to the long-term decline of ourI civilisation."

A number of respondents said that the costs were dwarfed in comparison to the tolls exacted by wars and other humanitarian tragedies. Some pointed to the disaster in Brazil, in which more than 20 technicians and engineers died when a rocket carrying an unmanned satellite exploded on its launchpad.

Ian Wright, senior research fellow at the Open University's Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute, noted: "Space exploration/exploitation is an inherently risky business."

Ten respondents felt the balance of funding between manned and unmanned missions was about right. Another ten felt unmanned deserved a larger slice of the cake.

But just five felt the curtailing or reduction of manned exploration was likely to release more funds for science. Professor Barstow said: "If (manned space flight) were to disappear, the general interest in space would diminish and that would hurt and reduce unmanned activities."

George Simnett, head of the astrophysics and space research group at Birmingham University, said: "Unfortunately, the public really only get turned on by the thought of having men cavorting around on Mars."

Support for the $100 billion (£640 million) International Space Station, the principal focus of manned space flight, was lukewarm. Just four felt the mission was scientifically justifiable.

Nevertheless, only five believed the mission should be cancelled as it would provide a stepping stone to the manned exploration of the solar system.

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