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UK space strategy draws fire

solarsystemNASA.jpgThe UK today launched its new space strategy (press release). Already it’s being criticised by people who want more commitment to manned exploration and others who want less. The latter want space exploration money spent on propping up the UK’s threatened physics and astronomy research communities instead.

Instead of going to the Moon, the strategy outlines plans to set up an international facility focusing on satellites for monitoring climate change and commercial applications as well as working on robotic space exploration. Not that the government has ruled out putting humans into space. Instead they have produced a report on their strategy which announces a review of human spaceflight.

You can listen to science minister Ian Pearson discuss manned spaceflight on Radio 4’s Today Programme. “What we’ve said is we will have a review that will look at all the options,” he says.

You might think that you’d want to review the possibility of getting involved in human spaceflight before you produce a space strategy, but nevermind.


In an opinion piece in the Times Martin Rees, the UK’s Astronomer Royal and president of the Royal Society, knows what he thinks of manned missions:

The burgeoning scientific, environmental, commercial and military applications of space have not needed manned spaceflight, but have benefited from the technical advances – unimagined in the 1970s – that have given us mobile phones and the internet.

He also thinks that getting involved in NASA and the International Space Station was a bit of a mistake:

It is claimed by Nasa that tens of billions more dollars must be spent to finish the space station, in order to keep faith with the foreign partners who have built parts of it. However, whatever their public rhetoric, most European scientists regret having got involved; they could all have been contentedly paid off far more cheaply than it will cost the Americans to finish the space station.

It seems you really can’t please people when it comes to space. The Guardian’s coverage of the new strategy is headlined “UK carves out its place in space, but hopes for Britons on moon dashed”. Its coverage continues by quoting people who want Britons in space.

Some are linking this story to the recent cutbacks in UK physics and astronomy research (see Nature here and here; subscription required). They have got something of a point: having well funded space exploration and no astronomers seems rather like buying a very expensive car and being too cheap to buy a map so you can drive it somewhere interesting.

Ever-flippant news source The Register notes:

Blighty’s physics and astronomy boffins are facing severe job losses as a result, and are already up in arms. If even more of them were sacrificed to pay for a small number of space aces – some of whom at least would presumably not be scientists at all – there would be even more trouble.

Over in the comments section of the BBC’s coverage one reader takes raises the fact that the UK recently slashed the amount of research it will fund in physics. “I note that this is about investing in sending up celebrities in rockets, it explains why Science and Physics research has been cut – in order to fund some more Nu labour spin. Pathetic,” says Jeremy Slawson.

In the comments of the Time’s coverage ‘caffeineman’ opines:

What will happen, indeed is already happening, is that other areas of research will be cut to bolster the funding of the manned space program. Areas of particle physics in which UK leads the world are being cut at the time of writing, by the Science and Technology Facilities Council. Money from exceptionally good science programmes will be diverted into an incredibly expensive and scientifically pointless white elephant. What a waste of the taxpayers’ money !

Image color image of the sun, Earth and Venus was taken by the Voyager 1 (details) / NASA Visible Earth

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