Time runs out for UK space lab scientists

December 17, 1999

Britain must put its money where its science is to be a part of the 2004 space station, writes John Bonner

British scientists have been offered a last chance to take part in the research programme on board the first permanent manned laboratory in space.

The first stages of the International Space Station were launched last year and when completed in 2004 it will be the size of a football stadium.

The project is an international collaboration between the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and the European Space Agency.

Although a member of ESA, Britain is no longer involved in the work, having withdrawn from manned space flight research in the mid-1980s.

Europe's main role in the project is to build the Columbus laboratory, where up to 500 experiments will be carried out per year in materials science, medicine, biology and technology. The module will not be launched until 2003 but ESA is already finalising plans for a ten-year research programme.

A conference at University College, London this month heard officials from ESA and US space agency Nasa discuss the potential contribution that United Kingdom scientists could make to the ISS biomedical research effort.

However, Didier Schmitt, head of life sciences and applications at ESA, warned:

"At the moment proposals from British scientists are being treated on an equal basis but unless Britain joins the project within the next few months those proposals will be dropped."

Dr Schmitt's colleague Marc Heppener said Britain would not be expected to match the contribution being made by the main supporters of the E100 million (Pounds 60 million) ESA programme, Germany, France and Italy. Initially the UK would be asked to pay E1million-E5 million - about the same as smaller states such as Denmark and the Netherlands - and the fee would then increase in line with national GDP.

Much of the effort is geared towards solving the medical problems created by long-term space missions. The biggest danger is the increased exposure to high- energy radiation in deep space. Unless suitable counter measures are developed, the proposed 1,000- day mission to Mars planned in 2014 is unlikely to go ahead.

However, researchers at the conference recognised that the UK government is unlikely to be persuaded back to the project if its sole aim is to develop methods for bringing astronauts safely home.

Meeting organiser Kevin Fong, a junior doctor at University College Hospital and a graduate in astrophysics, outlined plans for establishing the UK's first academic centre for space biomedicine research and education, based at UCL. The first phase, involving undergraduate training, could be set up within two years and would then lead to a programme of postgraduate research and eventually a multicentre research institute.

Mr Fong's plans have support from both UCL and the British National Space Centre but unless the UK government buys into the ESA programme, the ideas will never get off the ground.

However, Mike Harrison, technical director for the MoD Defence Evaluation and Research Agency's centre for human sciences, is optimistic that new Labour may be prepared to reverse the policy on blue-skies research made by its predecessor.

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