UK backs manned spaceflight at last

Britain is to fund its own Top Gun astronauts, reversing a 23-year Government ban. The policy switch, which comes on the 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing, will see Britons flying the Union Jack in space at last.

Helen Sharman, Paul Sutherland and Richard GarriottSpace officials will be talking to NASA and the European Space Agency. It means UK citizens will soon be riding to the International Space Station, then exploring the Moon and voyaging to Mars.

The UK is the fourth largest contributor to the European Space Agency, but the money has until now been given on condition it is only used for satellites and robotic probes.

Brits who wanted to fly in space have had to hitch a lift – as Helen Sharman did on a Russian Soyuz in 1991 – pay for it, like space tourist Richard Garriott, or take US nationality to join NASA, like Mike Foale, Piers Sellers and Nick Patrick.

Now the ban on spending on human spaceflight – introduced by former Premier Margaret Thatcher in 1986 – is to be scrapped.

The decision comes after the European Space Agency picked a Brit, Major Tim Peake, to join its astronaut training programme despite the UK’s position on space.

Now Science minister Lord Drayson, who firmly supports manned spaceflight, has reversed Government policy. He told Skymania News that the Government now supported space exploration including manned spaceflight and was talking to ESA and NASA about involving British astronauts.

Lord Drayson added: “That’s why I’m delighted that Britain now has its first official astronaut, Major Tim Peake, who will be flying as a member of the ESA mission.

“I think it is great now that ESA have recognised the contribution that the UK makes to the European space effort.

“We’re the fourth largest contributor to the space effort and its great now that we have our own astronaut.”

Lord Drayson added in The Sunday Times: “Britain should be playing a full role in space exploration. There was a special fund for training astronauts and we did not contribute, but that is now changed.

“There are important benefits that come from manned spaceflight and we have dropped our opposition. I hope Major Peake will be the first of many.”

Nick Spall, who has led the British Interplanetary Society’s three-year campaign for Brits in space, told Skymania News: “This is great news. We have been fighting for this for so long and are delighted that Government policy has changed.

“Clearly Lord Drayson recognises the strong benefits of manned spaceflight which the UK has been so slow to see.

“It is strongly inspirational for young people going into science plus it is good news for industry because it means UK firms will be able to compete to build the spaceflight hardware such as modules for space stations.

“Also a link up with NASA will mean that the UK can properly join in with the next big adventure of returning to the Moon. We also have some of the world’s top planetary experts in Britain and they will be delighted to be able to provide equipment for manned missions.”

British Interplanetary Society experts have calculated that involvement in human spaceflight will bring a return on investment of at least 7:1.

Lord Drayson is to open a new £160million ESA facility at Harwell, Oxfordshire, on Wednesday when he is expected to say more about the UK’s involvement in space exploration.

Picture: Skymania News’s Paul Sutherland with UK astronauts Helen Sharman and Richard Garriott earlier this month when they were presented with BIS pin awards in London. (Photo: Jerry Stone).

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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