No giant leap for Britain, but more can be done to boost space tourism

Government must do more to ensure commercial exploitation of final frontier. Zoë Corbyn reports

July 16, 2009

The chances of the UK embracing a human space-exploration programme under either the current Labour Government or the Conservatives look remote, but far more could be done to support the country's commercial human space-flight industry, the Shadow Minister for Science and Innovation has said.

Speaking ahead of a forthcoming policy announcement on the space industry, Adam Afriyie, Conservative MP for Windsor, told Times Higher Education that the Tories were "very much open" to the prospect of funding human space exploration if it gave a "commercial and economic return to the UK".

However, commenting in the week before the 40th anniversary of the first Apollo landing on the Moon, he added that at the moment this "did not appear to be the case".

He suggested instead that more should be done to encourage Britain's commercial human space-flight industry to ensure that in the future firms such as Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic located their space-tourism business in the UK, rather than shifting operations to the US as Sir Richard has done.

"We are considering ways that we can ensure organisations looking at commercial sub-orbital space flight would be attracted to the UK," he said. "It is about making sure that Britain catches up and potentially can take the lead when it comes to commercial space activity."

Mr Afriyie also criticised the Government for failing to introduce new licensing procedures that would enable manned space flights to operate from the UK.

"It was advised four years ago to draw up a legal framework that might have kept companies such as Virgin Galactic in the UK," he said.

"Instead, the Government's neglect of the space industry is undermining the prospects for a high-tech recovery."

The British National Space Centre is currently undertaking a scoping study of the costs and benefits of human space flight, the results of which are expected to be released later this summer.

Opinion: Apollo and the summer of '69

Forty years ago, Neil Armstrong took humanity's first steps on the Moon. As the world prepares to celebrate the anniversary of the Eagle's landing on 20 July, Kevin Fong, co-director of the Centre for Altitude, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine and lecturer in physiology at University College London, reflects on the Apollo programme and its legacy.

Project Apollo is the Marmite of exploration programmes - you are either in love with the Moon landings or loathe the idea of all those "wasted billions".

But it is a mistake to think that the programme belonged to science. It did not: Apollo was an opera played out on the world stage for political purposes.

It served the purpose that President John F. Kennedy had in mind in 1961 when he announced the US' intention to send men to the Moon by the decade's end: sticking it to the Soviets by demonstrating not just America's technological but also its cultural and political superiority.

But Apollo's influence went beyond the politics of the Cold War. It crossed the boundaries between scientific disciplines and ran beyond the academy's remit.

It was a nodal event in history, an idea so bold, an expedition so audacious, that it inspired an entire generation.

The increase in Nasa's budget during the Apollo years was mirrored by a near-trebling of the number of PhDs in core science and engineering in the US.

The number of graduates in these disciplines retreated again only after the budget was cut.

And so, while the popular perception is of a public that got bored of space, the evidence suggests that the science community never lost interest: the US Government blinked first.

There is no point hand-wringing about whether it was the right thing to do or whether the money could have been better spent: the Apollo programme is a fact of history.

But the future of space exploration needs a new paradigm - one in which commercial access to space is properly exploited and in which the private sector facilitates rather than replaces national programmes of exploration.

In an ideal world, governments would not look solely to the science budget to fund these efforts, but would fully recognise science for what it is worth and the feats of exploration from which it cannot be divorced.

They would understand that these seemingly esoteric questions about the heavens above have lain at the heart of the scientific enterprise since its inception.

And in an ideal world, it is science that would be rewarded rather than the likes of Sir Fred "the Shred" Goodwin. But that would be an ideal world, possibly existing in a parallel universe.

All that is left on this 40th anniversary is to consider the value of the true legacy of Apollo: the scientists and engineers that it delivered and the generation it inspired.

In the spirit of that golden time, let us set aside cynicism, and wonder once more about the momentous events of the summer of '69.

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