The UK could become involved in both human space flight and launching small rockets in the future, it was predicted this week amid signs that the Government is softening its opposition to investment in these controversial areas, writes Zoe Corbyn.
In its response to the July report from the House of Common's Science and Technology Select Committee on space policy the Government this week appeared to drop what the committee described as blocks in funding "on principle".
Since the 1960s the UK's policy has been not to support human space flight and instead to favour robotic missions, on the grounds of cost. There has also been no support to develop new launchers because of alternative commercial options.
But in its response to MPs the Government acknowledges that there is the potential for "substantial benefits" to human space explorations, as well as "significant cost implications". "[We remain] content with past decisions on manned space flight and will review future activity on merit," it said.
It adds that the Government will "explore opportunities" in the small- satellites launcher market and "keep under review" a suggestion by the committee that a prize be offered to develop a low-cost small-satellite launcher.
"There is a softening of the old attitude of ruling out human space exploration and low-level launchers," Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat chairman of the committee, told The Times Higher . He described the overall response to the report from the Government as "the most encouraging" he had seen during his tenure.
Michael Rowan-Robinson, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, said: "It does open the door for the case to be made on scientific grounds for UK involvement in human space flight. It is a slight change of emphasis. It is not clear that there is a change of policy, but the door is slightly ajar."
Ken Pounds, a professor of space physics at Leicester University and a human space flight advocate, said: "It represents a recognition dawning on people that this is something we need to look at again. It has almost been a knee-jerk 'no' in the past."
The Government's response follows a report in September from a working group set up by the British National Space Centre (BNSC) - a partnership of government departments with an interest in space that is the closest thing the UK has to a space agency - to look at the UK's involvement in space exploration.
The group recommended that the UK take forward human exploration and set out a range of options for doing so, from signing up to the European Space Agency (ESA) human space flight programme to a bilateral deal with Nasa for British astronauts to be involved in the US lunar programme.
It set the cost of a precursor human exploration programme at around £10 million-15 million per year over five years, starting in 2010.
"It would be seed-corn investment from the present comprehensive spending review to investigate deals with Nasa and ESA, some kind of funding for the international space station and capacity building in UK universities," said Professor Pounds, who was a member of the group. "It would be enough to get going ... It could be afforded in the present settlement."
Professor Rowan-Robinson said missions should be selected on scientific grounds rather than for reasons of prestige or national pride. He was also concerned that any go-ahead would be at the expense of robotic missions.
The BNSC is due to release a new UK space strategy, taking account of the working group's findings, later this year and is currently assessing whether there are any "preparatory activities" the UK should be involved in for the next stage of its space programme. "We will wait for the outcome of this assessment before making any further decisions (on human space exploration)," said a spokeswoman, adding that the BNSC expected to advise the minister next autumn.
The Government also accepted many of the MPs' recommendations to improve insufficient coordination and leadership within the BNSC and agreed the Department of Children, Schools and Families needed to join the partnership to ensure that space was used to promote interest in science among young people. "The current BNSC structure is not perfect, and we will review the options to see how the partnership can be strengthened in the coming months," said the response.
"I expect that the BNSC will be given more resources for science and technology as a result of this response," said Mr Willis.
"If in five to ten years' time the UK's space programme looks much as it does today then all involved will have failed spectacularly," said Kevin Fong, a space medicine expert at University College London and human space flight advocate who is also on the working group.