With recent announcements it does, incredibly, seem that by October 2008 the UK government could have decided to fund UK astronauts, a reversal of a policy that has existed since the start of the space age.
With a yes decision in 2008 the next decade could see a Briton or Britons training with NASA or the European Space Agency for missions to the International Space Station, before 2016, or to the Moon, after 2020.However that is the best case scenario and UK space watchers are aware of the real workings of the UK government. The UK’s politicians, like any democracy, are always looking at the short term return of any policy decision.
But worse still the government bureaucrats, known in the UK as the civil service, have a culture that regards established policy as truths that must be guarded and defended. The civil service is so renowned for this it even became the subject of a situation comedy in the 1980s called “Yes Minister” and its sequel “Yes Prime minister” – for a clip go here.
If that did not make life hard enough then there is the scientific community, much of which is against Human Spaceflight (HSF).
It may seem odd for many countries including the G8 but in the UK, where the robotic versus human debate in the 1950s saw robotic win through (because of an expected explosion in artificial intelligence that never came), there has been established a government funding structure and ultimately a research and technology community culture that is predisposed to stop any moves towards manned missons.
No one wanted to lose chunks of their budget to pay for it and so the UK is the only G8 nation without astronauts.
But what is particular perverse about this anti-HSF element within the scientific commuity is that if you ask scientists individually what inspired them they virtually always say human spaceflight.
Beyond the brief opportunities that came in the 1980s, when the then Conservative party government considered whether to join what became the International Space Station and there was an aborted effort to have a payload specialist aboard a NASA Space Shuttle for a UK military satellite launch, pro-space enthusiasts have been shouting from the sidelines.
So with this triumvirate of politicians, civil servants and scientists ganged up against astronauts it is quite extraordinary that the HSF enthusiasts, to be found from London to Cardiff and Southampton to Aberdeen, find themselves where they are; a UK government apparently months away from giving the go-ahead to put Brits in space!
But here is the catch. What UK space watchers, and the country’s aerospace industry that could benefit from this sudden change of heart, are worried about is the following;
1. No increase in the on-average $400 million a year civil space budget despite a government claim of support for UK astronauts;
2. HSF involvement being interpreted as providing only hardware, however small, for the ISS and a lunar outpost in return for the UK scientists’ experiments being carried out by other nations’ astronauts;
3. Review after review kicking the astronaut initiative into touch for years to come;
4. A small single mission effort with limited funding, only approved in the short term leading to future science ministers ending the HSF project with a death from a thousand tiny budget cuts.
So not wanting to leave you with those not so happy thoughts, watch British born NASA astronaut Piers Sellers talk about spacewalks here: