Issue 10, 1 August 2006 -- 37th Apollo Anniversary Year

  1. Controversy: What shall we do with the Space Development Council?
  2. News: UK science funding to be reorganised
  3. Clarification: "HSE" a well established acronym

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(1) Controversy: What shall we do with the Space Development Council?

by Stephen Ashworth

If you live in Britain, you will no doubt know of the Space Development Council (SDC). This was set up by a number of voluntary space-interest societies(*) at a meeting in London on 8 April 2000.

The mission statement was: "To provide mutual support and co-ordination between organisations involved in the exploration and development of the Space environment."

The purpose was basically to ensure that if different space-interest groups were lobbying the public or politicians for the UK to do this or that in space, then other societies would be aware of this, would not advance a contradictory message, and might even add their support.

The original impetus for the SDC project was a letter from a pro-space MP complaining of too many space groups wanting too many different things in space. He said they should get together and co-ordinate their appeals if they wanted to get somewhere.

So the SDC was an attempt to get the disparate space-interest groups in the UK to speak with a single public voice. In addition, it was hoped that the SDC would itself become a focus of media interest, issuing press releases regarding what the UK was or was not doing in space.

This has not happened. Enthusiasm for the concept of an umbrella space-interest lobbying organisation has faded. More effort has been expended on drawing up and attempting to implement a complex bureaucratic constitution than on promoting space to the public -- the 2002 Constitution specifies five different membership categories, and all the paraphernalia of elected officers, annual accounts, an AGM, votes, minutes, and so on.

This was described by one frustrated society representative as "bureaucratic masturbation". Presumably he found it more pleasurable than I did...

The SDC website reflects the fall in interest, with a total of just 9 messages posted so far this year. Porno sites get more hits than the SDC does (so I'm told...).

In recent years, AGMs have not been held and officers not been elected. Were it not for the efforts of one of the founding members, Andy Nimmo, the SDC could have been forgotten by now. But Andy has tirelessly badgered the society representatives with calls for an AGM and fresh elections. The latest idea is to hold the AGM at the annual BROHP conference -- presumably in the hope that some of the glamour of that event will rub off onto the SDC.

Meanwhile, the Mars Society UK boss has recently offered a redrafted Constitution (a mere 12 pages), and the Spaceguard UK representative has countered with his own version, which, at about a quarter of the length, is at least moving in the right direction -- if not quite ready for an Arthur nomination.

Clearly, neither another Constitution nor another AGM is going to transform the situation.

Those who want to campaign for some aspect of the UK in space simply go ahead and do it -- as I did a couple of years ago when I attempted to raise support for a successor to Beagle 2 and for Starchaser's X-Prize entry, or Jerry Stone -- rather more successfully -- with his "UK for Aurora" campaign. In neither case did the Space Development Council have anything to do with it.

My rather plaintive enquiry to the SDC on 14 January 2004 as to what people were intending to do about the critical Beagle 2 situation failed to attract any reply at all. The next posting recorded on the website, dated 20 Feb., helpfully invited people to vote on the motion: "Hello from the Space Development Council". (I kid you not.)

On 10 March I tried again, with firm proposals for two space campaigns focusing on current events of enormous media interest (Beagle 2, and the X-Prize). This at last elicited a response. In the ensuing correspondence, it transpired that (a) the SDC already had two other campaigns in hand, so my proposals would not receive attention; (b) the SDC could not support one British X-Prize contender without even-handedly supporting the other one, regardless of the fact that only one of them was in any position to compete actively; (c) such support was best done by individuals -- "Let those who wish support those they wish to"; and (d) the SDC's own approved campaigns were actually also entirely in the hands of individuals, rather than the umbrella organisation.

In other words, "mutual support and co-ordination" were lost in space, and the initiative was where it had always been, with energetic and visionary individuals.

But the basic idea of some common forum for all UK parties interested in one way or another in progress in space would still appear to be a sound one, especially in an age when the optimistic concept of human progress is under attack from some religious and environmentalist viewpoints, and space exploration, particularly beyond low Earth orbit, is still widely regarded as a frivolous and irrelevant activity.

Surely the idea of a formal space umbrella organisation has had a fair trial by now? It has failed to perform a useful function. It should now be scrapped.

Instead, an e-mail newsletter similar to this one, or on the model of Benny Peiser's highly successful CCNet (though not nearly so long or so frequent), would serve as a perfectly adequate communications system.

This SpaceLobbyNet e-mail service (as I call it) would simply report on all known approaches to the public or politicians under consideration or being made by any space advocacy groups in the UK. It might go so far as to include some debate about priorities for the UK, but no further than that. [NB: SpaceLobbyNet is now here.]

I would aim to send it to at least one active member of each group, and in this way it would provide each of the various societies with information about what all the others were doing. It would not contain any information about meetings or lectures unless these were of a lobbying character, directed at persuading the public or politicians that the UK should take a certain course of action. But it would ask the various recipients to be ready to respond with regular reports on any lobbying activities which they were undertaking, for publication in SpaceLobbyNet.

AGMs there would be none. No elected chairs, minutes, or unrealistic plans for other people to implement one's own pet schemes. Just an editor and a computer.

Meanwhile, the BIS and RAeS are continuing the debate, launched by the RAS, about whether the UK should embark on a manned space programme. Others of us are debating whether Britain should help to preserve the high-cost, elitist model of spaceflight by rejoining the European Astronaut Corps, or support low-cost, popular space access and British engineering. A public consultation on the UK space strategy has been announced for this autumn, and the 2008 International Astronautical Congress is to be held in Glasgow.

Clearly, now would be a good time to have an e-mail space lobby information service, if at all.

Again, it is quite possible that Prof. Pillinger will want to organise or at least endorse some sort of systematic approach to the public in support of a successor to Beagle 2, which he has said he wants to see fill the long gap until ExoMars can reach Mars. And it is also possible that public sentiment might affect the development of low-cost commercial passenger space access, and that someone might want to lobby someone else about this.

The rest of us have a right to know what they're saying!

Do any readers have a view?

What is the experience of space advocacy societies in America, Continental Europe, or elsewhere around the world?

-- Stephen Ashworth

(*) Note: the revised (March 2002) Constitution of the SDC was signed by representatives of twelve societies:

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(2) News: UK science funding to be reorganised

The BBC reports: "The government will create a Large Facilities Council to focus efforts on major projects such as big telescopes and particle physics experiments. This will merge two existing bodies: the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils. The government wants the new council to take over by 1 April 2007. It will take responsibility for particle physics, astronomy, space science, [...] Its budget in 2007-08 will be about 530m."

This will clearly affect the UK's relationship with ESA's Aurora programme.

Full report here.

-- S.A.

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(3) Clarification: "HSE" a well established acronym

"HSE" sounds like some sort of disease. Yet it apparently dates from before the great BSE scandal. It originated (writes Nick Spall) in "NASA/ESA reports from many years ago", and was widely used in the recent (2004-05) Royal Astronomical Society studies of manned planetary exploration.

In Astronautical Evolution, issue 8, item (4), I wrote that Mr Spall "produced a new acronym: HSE, for Human Space Exploration". To avoid misunderstandings, I should explain that "produced a new acronym" meant in this context "presented to the meeting an acronym that I had not heard being used much, if at all, earlier in that meeting".

I am happy to record here that Nick Spall was not the inventor of the acronym.

-- S.A.

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Astronautical Evolution is an e-mail newsletter devoted to news and comment from an astronautical evolutionist perspective. To subscribe / unsubscribe / contribute / comment, please e-mail Stephen Ashworth, sa--at--astronist.demon.co.uk.


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