British space policy reorg

As the previous post noted, space exploration isn’t a high priority among the British public. Yet, they certainly like to talk about space policy. The BBC reported this week that the British government is planning a “major revamp” of its space policy, including reorganizing and relocating its space office. The British National Space Centre (BNSC) is being moved from London to Swindon, which is also home to the Science and Technology Facilities Council, which funds space sciences research in the UK. Some of the BNSC’s responsibilities will also be transferred to another office, the Technology Strategy Board, according to the BBC report. This comes after earlier complaints that the BNSC is, in general, not effective, and should be replaced with a full-fledged space agency like NASA.

One of those who called last year for a UK space agency was Lord Martin Rees, the president of the Royal Society. Lord Rees was in the news this week when he said that Europe should abandon human spaceflight and instead endeavor to get the “world lead” in robotic spaceflight. “We can be more effective in space if we focus all our budget on miniaturisation, robotics, and fabricators and avoid manned spaceflight,” he told the BBC. He added: “If I was an American, I would be opposed to a return to the Moon and going to Mars.” Rees’s arguments aren’t new: back in 2003, before President Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration, Rees was skeptical about the future of government-run human spaceflight, saying only the private sector was able to accept the risks inherent with such exploration. “I think the future of manned spaceflight will only brighten if it’s done by people prepared to cut costs and take risks in a fashion that’s seemingly unacceptable to the U.S. public in a NASA project,” he told SPACE.com in December 2003.

Update: Flightglobal.com reports that Rees’s comments have caused a “backlash” in the UK space science community, at least among those who have advocated that the UK participate in European human spaceflight activities. One Royal Astronomical Society official, Ian Crawford, said that Rees’s comments suggested that he “ought to be more familiar with the scientific benefits” of human spaceflight in areas such as planetary geology and life sciences. And retired BBC spaceflight commentator Reg Turnill had this to say: “Rees’ attitude to human spaceflight is at least a century out of date, but does have the huge merit of getting the subject discussed. He can also be assured that future generations will remember him for all the wrong reasons.”

11 comments to British space policy reorg

  • Entering space is a choice, not a normal business outcome. It is a prime example of a non-religious form of “faith.” No one can exactly describe the monetary value of human space exploration, yet many believe that it is an inevitable truth that it will have a strong ROI.

  • Lord Rees: I think the future of manned spaceflight will only brighten if it’s done by people prepared to cut costs and take risks in a fashion that’s seemingly unacceptable to the U.S. public in a NASA project

    I actually agree with this. One of the reasons costs are so high is that we insist on near-perfect safety, which is impractical on any frontier, and certainly on one as difficult as the solar System. If we are not prepared to lose a lot of people, we will get close to nowhere in exploring the Solar System.

    — Donald

  • I agree with it too. As Paul Dietz has pointed out on more than one occasion, if we really wanted to properly inure people to the fact that this is a frontier, we’d build a large national cemetery, and dedicate it to the people who are going to die on in opening it up. With NASA’s safety-at-(almost literally)-all-costs approach, it will never happen.

  • Habitat Hermit

    Hmm what exactly are you agreeing to?

    I don’t see any of the private actors aiming at a higher death rate than existing launchers, in fact they’re all aiming at lower ones while still cutting costs.

    As I see it opening space will have a high mortality rate even with much improved launch safety but that’s not what Rees seems to be saying and it’s not what you two seem to be agreeing with. Consider this a request for clarification.

  • Jess Lomas

    As a Brit/American (no, I’m not confused!…) I find it disappointing that beacuse of decisions made in the 60s Bitain continues to fumble and dither; be parsimonius on what it spends with regard space travel – whether robotic or manned.
    In truth the govt. pretends it wants to go forward and elements in the RAS are prepared to make comments which are not helpful to the RAS itself.

    Britain has been left behind, and will remain so – despite discussions within the UK govt. otherwise. A case of “Empty vessels make most noise”…

    What it will cost the UK, the UK cannot afford and will never do so.

    The world has been lucky so far (yes it has, could have lost more…) – 17 astronauts and 3 or so cosmonauts – and the mortality rate will climb despite efforts to make exploration/travel as safe as possible. Those who sailed the high seas during the formative years of exploration and those who crossed the world’s plains in search of new lands found that out.

    Do we ‘stagnate’ here on Earth, or do we move forward? I believe THAT is what we have to be asking ourselves… We have a lot to learn – whether in Earth orbit; on the lunar surface, or extended journeys to the planets and asteroids.

  • Habitat Hermit: I (and I suspect Rand, as well) was agreeing with this specific statement in isolation. Obviously, I disagree with the rest of Lord Rees’ comments.

    Jess Lomas: You may want to chick out the British Interplanetary Society’s campaign to change the government’s tune on this issue.


    — Donald

    — Donald

  • Habitat Hermit

    This one?

    ““I think the future of manned spaceflight will only brighten if it’s done by people prepared to cut costs and take risks in a fashion that’s seemingly unacceptable to the U.S. public in a NASA project,””

    But if I look at current NASA human spaceflight there’s the Shuttles and the ISS, and if I compare them to the alternatives as they will likely be within the next decade NASAs approach seems both costlier and higher risk.

    I think Rees is offering a false choice.

  • Jess Lomas


    I once belonged to the BIS and they do some good work.

    Trouble is that successive govts. since the 60s have not been willing to pay and have relied on “the shirt tails of others”. SST has been an exception and has been a real good business but govt. insistence on wanting to sell its share has led to the company going to Astrium.

    The current batch of MPs in the UK are finally beginning to wake up and the realisation that the UK HAS been left behind by govts. of all parties who decided to pay the Europeans (ESA) a paltry sum every year. I can remember the whining before Helen Sharman went to orbit all those years ago, in the end the Russians decided to ‘bale us out’. The UK should have never been in that position in the first place…

    The BIS has an enormous job of shifting institutionalised inertia (or lack thereof) as it will be claimed that the money would be better spent elsewhere…

    Bristol University’s plans for a ISS HEM(s) will end up, in all probability, the same way… NASA is/was willing to launch these, Russia is willing to do it commercially as will ESA/Arianespace.


  • Kevin Parkin

    For whatever reason, Britain fosters some of the most inventive and creative people anywhere. In the first half of the 20th century, these people were empowered and had a great impact on world science and technology, in the second half, not so much.

    It’s good to hear that Britain will have a space program again – there is an enormous amount of inventiveness and talent that can be brought to bear on launchers, spacesuits, on-orbit assembly and other areas that are fundamental to space exploration.

  • Jess Lomas

    I think the point is being missed, so I quote from the Flight Intl. article

    “ESA announced on 10 April it is to select candidate astronauts and UK citizens can apply but they are unlikely to reach the final selection stages because their government does not contribute to the agency’s manned programmes. British citizens Nicholas Patrick, Michael Foale and Piers Sellers (see below) had to become US citizens and join NASA’s astronaut corps to go into space”…

    Again, its down to the parsimonius British govt. to decide as to whether they will do anything. If they follow through and agree to fund an astronaut corps I will be very much in a state of shock. Somehow I don’t think I’m going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen…

  • Kevin Parkin

    …which was a harsh reality that I became aware of as a student in the UK 10 years ago when the issue last came up. It was clear that ESA wouldn’t fly a British astronaut for 10-20 years even if the UK did subscribe, and so the option on the table was to join the ISS effort directly with a UK module, thereby bypassing Fra, er, ESA.

    The PM sent out a request for feedback from the space community, and we sent our response, which did not reach the PM but was opened by BNSC (presumably along with the rest) and reinterpreted into the framework of their existing policy. The rest is history.

    And here we are 10 years later – I am thankful I didn’t hold my breath! But this is a rare opportunity to match the space program with the wishes of the public, not just the astronomical elite. There are military, industrial, scientific and foreign relations components that make a more wholistic, better balanced and better integrated space program, and it’s refreshing to see the civil service make the necessary reforms.

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