A long-awaited government strategy on the UK's vision for space makes no commitment to human space flight, as had been hoped by many space scientists. But the strategy to 2012 does agree to a study of options for the controversial area, raising hopes that the Government could yet drop its long-standing opposition to sending people into space.
"In 1986, the UK chose not to participate in human space missions," says the UK Civil Space Strategy 2008-2012, a document released by the British National Space Centre (BNSC), the UK Government's space partnership, last week.
The report adds that the publication of the Global Exploration Strategy, a strategy of 14 space agencies published in May 2007, "provides a suitable point in time to review this decision".
The BNSC will undertake a study of programme options that will draw on the September 2007 findings of the UK Space Exploration Working Group, the strategy document says. The working group has recommended that the UK take forward human space exploration.
"We are going to begin a project of scoping to look at the costs and benefits of human space flight," a BNSC spokeswoman confirmed.
The strategy also details the establishment of a new international space facility at Harwell in Oxfordshire to focus on climate change and robotic space exploration and a new National Space Technology Programme to support the development of new technologies.
Separately, a second study by the BNSC says the UK could potentially co-operate with the US, working with Nasa on a UK-led robotic lunar mission and on scientific instruments and technology needed for future robotic and human exploration activities. This may raise the prospect of a UK astronaut being involved in the US lunar programme.
"Ministers are attracted to the idea of a new deal [on human space flight] with Nasa," said Ken Pounds, professor emeritus of space physics at the University of Leicester and an advocate of human space flight. "I don't think the pressure for a change in policy is going away."