Issue 22 extra, 6 July 2007 -- 38th Apollo Anniversary Year

  1. Report: The Oxford debate on the UK in space, by Stephen Ashworth

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(1) Report: The Oxford debate on the UK in space

by Stephen Ashworth

On 4 July, Science Oxford hosted a public debate in the first of its "Out Of This World" special events. The debate featured --

Dr Maggie Aderin (astronomer, space scientist and science communicator)
Dr Mike Hapgood (Rutherford Appleton Laboratory)
Dr Chris Lintott (Oxford University Astrophysics Dept and TV presenter)
Professor Ken Pounds (Professor of Space Physics, University of Leicester)
Dr David Williams (Director-General, British National Space Centre)

Our host at Science Oxford posed the following hypothetical question: suppose that Britain's new prime minister were to offer an additional £250 million/year to spend on space science research. Suppose also that he wanted it all to be spent on one particular programme. Which area of space science or research should it be spent on?


DAVID WILLIAMS took a diplomatic course and steered clear of proposing any particular use for the money. Instead he gave a general introduction to the work of the BNSC, which covers three main areas:

But the BNSC does not involve itself with manned spaceflight, nor the ISS, and only spends the absolute minimum in connection with launch vehicles.

85 per cent of the funding under its purview comes from the new Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, and the rest from the Ministry of Defence.

CHRIS LINTOTT started his presentation with a film of an exploding rocket. Access to space is expensive, he told us, and risky. So -- although a supporter of manned spaceflight -- he thought that the best way to spend research money is on the ground.

His ideal project was the Very Large Telescope in Hawaii, with its four linked 8-metre scopes. Given money for a new project, he advocated the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) -- a design for a scope with a 42-metre mirror and an estimated cost of a billion euros. And of course, looking further into the future, there was always the Overwhelmingly Large Telescope (OWL) to plan for...

The ELT will revolutionise the study of extrasolar planets and the search for life beyond our Solar System, he told the meeting -- without the risk of being blown up on its launch vehicle.

MIKE HAPGOOD is a specialist in space weather. Space, he told us, is filled with plasma, controlled by solar and planetary magnetic fields. All the spacecraft -- comsats, satnav and weather sats -- on which we depend operate within Earth's magnetosphere, and thus space is part of our environment.

Space affects us in many ways:

His idea was therefore to increase the number of satellites to study space weather around Earth. His motto: "measure everything everywhere -- knowledge protects, ignorance harms". He advocated long-term monitoring to lead to a fuller understanding of our space environment.

KEN POUNDS, like Chris Lintott, has a background in astronomy. But, having been a member of the Royal Astronomical Society's commission to examine manned spaceflight, he is a convert to the cause of spaceflight. We are about to move into a new era, dominated by the Global Space Exploration Initiative, he told us, in which many countries will collaborate on manned exploration of the Moon and Mars. Staying out of this is "not a responsible option for the UK government".

The wider benefits of exploration he gave as education, national morale, industrial competitiveness and commercial potential (on which he did not elaborate). But he was most interested in reversing the decline in science, technology and maths at school and university levels. He held up the Leicester National Space Centre and the Scottish Space School as shining examples of encouraging young people.

Astronaut involvement is the key to children's interest, he thought. They are highly efficient ambassadors for the "STEM" subjects. And he terms of national morale, he emphasised: "The UK really really needs a big idea to challenge and inspire us."

MAGGIE ADERIN told the meeting how she was inspired in her early life by Yury Gararin and Neil Armstrong. She is a strong believer in manned spaceflight, and would like to fly in space herself. Yet on this occasion she advocated spending the extra money on robotic probes, specifically to examine exoplanets from space in all wavelengths, which cannot be done from the ground, as even the largest ground-based telescopes are limited by atmospheric absorbtion.

She mentioned space tourism, which in her view is taking off, but did not seem to appreciate the value of partnering public money with private to get private passengers into orbit, and thought that it would all be funded from commercial sources.

She has an idea for a manned flight to Mars which would raise a few eyebrows at NASA and ESA: send a crew of untrained passengers to Mars in a Big Brother spaceship, with full TV coverage. The cost would be met from the TV rights. Eviction of unwanted shipmates would be a problem -- perhaps those evicted would stay behind on Mars, and only the winner(s) return to Earth.


After the presentations, the discussion was thrown open to the floor, and the audience were invited to imagine themselves as a citizens' jury.

Two questioners (of which I was one) asked why British genius in launch vehicle technology was not being promoted as worthy of support with public money. The point was made that Britain has an incredible history of innovation, and so rather than duplicating what other countries are doing we should be investing in our national inventiveness.

The panel came up with various (totally inadequate) responses. A quibble was made over the expected demand for spaceplane launch services, and I had to patiently explain that you started off resupplying the space station, and gradually developed the system, made it cheaper and available to a progressively wider public over a period of years. Mike Hapgood thought that the US Space Shuttle had set a bad example: now everyone had the impression that spaceplane-type designs were too expensive and dangerous. Ken Pounds dismissed British launcher innovations as unrealistic: the world is going to the Moon, and we can't wait, we need to be involved, this is one of the great adventures and the UK needs to be there. David Williams incredibly managed to confuse sub-orbital and orbital space tourism, and gave the meeting the impression that the innovative British spaceplane companies which I had referred to by name were only proposing sub-orbital vehicles.

In response to other questions from the floor, Ken Pounds warned of another brain-drain if the UK did not get involved in the manned Moon programme, and told of the number of Brits he had found working for NASA as a result of Apollo.

Chris Lintott argued that large optical telescopes also inspire young people, and mentioned a Spanish telescope which was very popular among the Spanish public. But Ken Pounds countered that we've been a leading country in astronomy for 40 years, and we need to be doing something different.

Maggie Aderin said that space needs to be accessible to kids on the street, and having just one or two UK astronauts would not do the trick. But Ken Pounds responded with the zeal of the convert: the case for the UK to be involved in the Moon programme is that (1) there is good science to be done, (2) robots can't compete with people as explorers, and (3) it is inspiring to children. While Maggie Aderin agreed with him, she also said how frustrated she felt that so very few people actually get to fly in space, and surely kids would feel the same frustration.

David Williams thought that the logistics of keeping say 12 people on the Moon had not been thought out. They would need a flight from Earth every few days just to supply them. But Ken Pounds retorted that would be cheaper than keeping the troops in Iraq.


Finally, a vote was taken, and the results were as follows:

The UK should spend its (purely hypothetical) extra £250 million/year on ...

Clearly, the complexities of space exploration and development, the "out of this world" nature of spaceflight and the total lack of strategic thinking resulted in this citizens' jury, at least, being evenly divided among the different possible ways forward.


On Weds. 11 July, Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell will be talking at Science Oxford about how poets have reacted to recent developments in astronomy, with readings from a number of astronomical poems.

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