The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Sharman and Garriott
Helen Sharman and Richard Garriott after receiving their UK astronaut pins at the British Interplanetary Society on July 3. (credit: J. Foust)

The past and future of British human spaceflight

For centuries the British developed a reputation as a people of explorers. From Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe to Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Mount Everest, British explorers crossed oceans and continents and ventured where few, if any, Europeans—or others—had gone before.

That legacy of exploration has not, however, extended to space. Most other major spacefaring nations have shown at least some level of interest in human spaceflight, either developing their own capability of sending humans into orbit—the US, Russia, and now China—or piggybacking on those programs—Canada, Japan, and other major European nations. The British government, however, has had a long-standing opposition to such efforts, declining to contribute to ESA’s human spaceflight efforts or fund its own.

“Public interest in human spaceflight is huge, and there is an increasing awareness of the possibilities it does and could provide,” Sharman said.

There are signs, though, that this policy could be changing. White papers in recent years have argued for government funding of human spaceflight efforts. Lord Paul Drayson, who became science minister in Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s government last October, said shortly after taking the post that he supported human spaceflight, calling it “an iconic science project that inspires people.”

One organization that has been at the forefront of efforts to win government support for human spaceflight has been the British Interplanetary Society (BIS), the legendary space advocacy organization. The BIS has recently been promoting the “UK Human Space Flight Campaign”, an effort to win government support for a modest human space program initially featuring a small corps of British astronauts who would fly on Soyuz taxi missions to the ISS.

The latest milestone in the BIS campaign took place at the society’s London headquarters on July 3. The BIS hosted a ceremony to honor the few British—or at least British-born—people who have flown in space. On hand was the first UK astronaut, Helen Sharman, as well as recent private space traveler Richard Garriott, who was born in the UK but grew up and lives today in the US. Each received a silver pin shaped like the rocket in the BIS logo with a Union Jack stamped on the side.

While the pins were designed to honor past accomplishments by the two, both Garriott and Sharman focused more on the importance of human spaceflight and why the UK should participate. “Britain has always been proud of its explorers, and how they have conquered the Earth,” Sharman said. “Now we have this opportunity to push the boundary away from the Earth and into space… Britons don’t want to wither away while other nations are fed by the long-term economic benefits, shorter-term technical and scientific expertise, and that immediate pride of being involved in human spaceflight.”

Even though it’s been 18 years since her trip to the then-Soviet space station Mir, Sharman said that she still receives “countless requests” from organizations to talk about her trip, as well as fan mail and autograph requests—all proof, she believes, that there is a strong interest in human spaceflight. “Public interest in human spaceflight is huge, and there is an increasing awareness of the possibilities it does and could provide,” she said.

For Garriott, his trip to the International Space Station last October offered him an opportunity to reconnect with his British heritage. “These last few years, associated with my space flight, I spent a lot more time in the UK than I have in any other period of my life,” he said, adding it was a “great joy” to work with the BIS and the British National Space Centre (BNSC) on educational outreach work for his flight.

Garriott added that, despite a long neglect of human spaceflight, the UK is not necessarily in a bad position vis-à-vis other nations. “While I believe that the UK has missed out on an era, I still believe that you’re not in a very bad position today to step back in,” he said, noting the relative lack of progress in human spaceflight in recent decades. “There’s a moment in history that’s coming right now that includes both government space as well as private space where I think the science and technology leadership that the UK has had… still leaves the UK in quite a strong position if there is the political will to decide to double-down, so to speak, on a human spaceflight program.”

Later, when asked whether the UK should pursue a human spaceflight effort with ESA or, like Canada and Japan, work more closely with NASA, Garriott offered a third option. “My honest advice might be, go build your own,” he said. “Private industry can move faster, move more safely, and most importantly, move more cost effectively.”

“Where we’re at today, I believe the rules have really changed,” he continued. Advances in computers, materials, and other technology have made it possible for private ventures to develop space systems for a fraction of the cost of government programs. “I am very bullish that the next 10 or 20 years are going to demonstrate that the cost of human access to space is going radically drop.”

Garriott advocated the UK take a more commercial approach to human spaceflight. “Private industry can move faster, move more safely, and most importantly, move more cost effectively.”

Such a “renaissance”, as Garriott put it, would make it easier for the UK to justify a human spaceflight program, but in the meantime supporters have had to look for other rationales for arguing that the British government should commit even a modest amount of money to it. “As a country we’ve missed out greatly on the benefits of human spaceflight,” said Nick Spall, a BIS fellow and coordinator of the society’s UK Human Space Flight Campaign. These benefits, he said, range from jobs in the aerospace industry to microgravity science to inspiration.

Exactly what path the UK government will take is an open question. While the potential benefits of a UK human spaceflight effort have been extensively studied, the future of Britain’s space efforts remains undecided. A week before the BIS ceremony, the BNSC announced the formation of yet another study group, the Innovation Growth Team (IGT) for Space. The IGT has been charged with developing “a 20 year strategy for British leadership in space.” Initial findings are due at the end of this year with a full report published next year. There is also a separate review by the BNSC on space exploration that was scheduled to be completed early this year, although the results have not yet been released.

Among some of the few dozen people who attended the ceremony, there was a sense of frustration about the ongoing series of studies without government action. One person even suggested the attendees form a “flash mob” and descend on government offices to lobby them and “shame them into supporting manned spaceflight.”

There are, though, a few signs of optimism for proponents of a UK government human space effort. One of those signs came back in May, when ESA selected a new class of six astronauts, including, for the first time, a British representative: Timothy Peake. Some hope that this decision will help prod the UK into contributing to ESA’s human spaceflight program financially. And just this past weekend Lord Drayson told The Scotsman that British space policy needed a “much higher profile”, which could lead to the formation of a national space agency with more clout than the current BNSC.

For the time being, though, Britain’s future in human spaceflight remains uncertain. Spall said at the ceremony that the BIS commissioned an initial set of ten astronaut pins, financed by Garriott. Besides Sharman and Garriott, pins will go to the three British-born members of NASA’s astronaut corps: Michael Foale, Nicholas Patrick, and Piers Sellers. That leaves five pins: Spall said that they will go to Britons who go into orbit, rather than on suborbital flights, although the BIS may offer similar recognition to future suborbital spaceflight participants. Decisions made by the UK government in the coming months and years—perhaps spurred on by advocacy efforts by the BIS and others—may determine how long it will take the society to award those remaining pins.