The Brit stuff

The BNSC calls for UK investment in manned space exploration as the Government announces the centre’s replacement. Zoë Corbyn reports

December 12, 2009

British astronauts should be sent to the Moon if the UK’s space programme is to deliver the greatest benefits to the country, the long-awaited Space Exploration Review says.

The review by the British National Space Centre (BNSC) partnership explores four options for the future of the space programme, concluding that increasing investment in both robotic and human activities, including securing places for UK astronauts on lunar missions, is the most expensive option, but also the most beneficial.

The report’s publication coincided with the news that the centre is to be replaced by a new executive agency for the space and satellite industry.

The quango will replace the BNSC partnership of six government departments, two research councils, the Technology Strategy Board and the Met Office, which has co-ordinated UK space policy and programmes since 1985. Scientists have long complained that the partnership lacks vision and does not have its own budget.

Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, said the new space agency was “about making sure that the UK fully exploits its competitive advantage in satellites, robotics and related technologies”.

It will also be responsible for strengthening the UK’s relationship with the European Space Agency (ESA) and “working with the scientific community to provide a clear voice on decisions that affect the sector”.

The Space Exploration Review, published on 10 December, examines the costs and benefits of four options available to ministers.

They are: limiting UK involvement purely to the ESA’s science programme, which would reduce the UK’s space spending to £80 million a year; maintaining the status quo by restricting the UK’s involvement to the ESA science and the robotic Mars exploration programmes, which would cost £100 million a year; boosting investment in robotic-only exploration, at a cost of £138 million a year by 2015; or increasing investment in both robotic and manned activities.

The review notes that a number of other countries have developed plans for sending both robots and humans into space, and says the last approach could be pursued either by “joining the nascent ESA exploration programme” or “through bilateral collaboration with Nasa”.

It says that £157 million a year by 2015 would fund a “light” version of this policy, with only a minimum of manned involvement, but a full-blown version integrating human and robotic exploration would cost £229 million a year.

Increasing robotic activity alone would build on the UK’s scientific strengths and increase the return on investment, it says, but boosting funding for both robotic and human exploration would “bring the greatest benefit”.

Returns for both science and innovation would increase while new commercial opportunities would be generated, it says.

The review adds that British astronauts would create “maximum interest” in the study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects.


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