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Stephen Ashworth FBIS (sa--at--astronist.demon.co.uk)
Britain's Space Exploration Working Group (SEWG), chaired by Professor Frank Close, a physicist at Oxford University, released its Report on 13 September 2007.
The purpose of the SEWG is to assess the opportunities and benefits for Britain in space in the light of the emergence of the NASA-led Global Exploration Strategy. Its recommendations are to feed into the current review of UK space policy by the British National Space Centre (BNSC).
Without actually criticising the Global Exploration Strategy, the Report nevertheless takes a major step forward from the Strategy's focus on science and spinoff as the main drivers of space exploration.
The SEWG writes:
-- "We believe that space exploration is a strategic activity, with both tangible and intangible benefits across a range of areas. Until now, this has been driven by pure science, but the human exploration of space is a broader ambition." (p.6)
-- "It is incumbent on UK industry, government and academic partnerships in space exploration to have the 'long view' of commercial exploitation routes for new initiatives [...] a condition for funding is that an exploitation route is identified." (p.49)
-- "The UK is a global leader in project and Public/Private Partnership financing. [...] There is every possibility that the UK government could harness private resources to produce the most comprehensive and powerful space exploration capability in the world." (p.50) (Yes, it really says that!)
-- "it is important to identify the markets of the future now" (p.42)
What are those markets of the future? The SEWG identifies space-based solar power (p.47) and space tourism (p.48). It does not say why these are particularly important, but it must be clear that their importance lies in their growth potential.
Yet when it comes to develop four scenarios for Britain's future in space (chapter 9) and draw up a list of recommendations, the SEWG ignores everything it has said about commercial exploitation and taking the long view, and falls back into the science and spinoff paradigm which has dominated thinking at NASA and ESA for decades.
It recommends that the UK should enter manned spaceflight by funding two astronauts to do science on the ISS in the 2012-2015 period -- yet cannot name a single scientific problem whose resolution is urgent enough to require a multi-million pound expenditure.
It recommends that the UK should continue robotic exploration within the slow-moving Aurora programme -- yet is silent on the shameful writing-off of Beagle 2.
It proposes that we find ways of contributing bits and pieces to international manned lunar exploration in the 2020s -- yet pays no attention at all to the question of whether that exploration will actually take place after President Bush retires, or to how sustainable it might be -- remember Apollo?
It totally ignores Britain's innovative work in low-cost access to space being led by Bristol Spaceplanes and Reaction Engines.
It totally ignores the extreme political urgency attached to reducing carbon dioxide emissions and developing low-pollution sources of industrial energy.
Given the BNSC's renewed interest in supporting British spaceplane work (AE, issue 24, item 1), surely the BNSC will order the SEWG to think again, and come up with some of the scenarios it has hitherto missed? (Or suppressed?)
I have sent a detailed review of the SEWG Report to Dr David Williams at the BNSC. This review is now online as a PDF file.
"The United States insists it will pull out of the station at the end of 2015 while Russia wants its life prolonged, said European Space Agency (ESA) chief Jean-Jacques Dordain at an astronautics congress in Hyderabad, southern India. [...] 'ESA is not prepared to pay NASA's share when NASA has left the space station,' Dordain told reporters Tuesday night on the sidelines of the space summit."
Read the full report here. (Thanks to Jacqueline Myrrhe's fortnightly digest of exploration news for bringing this to my attention.)
So the ISS is to go up for auction on 1 January 2016? Would you buy a second-hand space station from Mike Griffin?
Or will it suffer the fate of Mir? -- fire and water, when some of its modules still have years of life left in them?
Either way, what this means is that NASA has effectively put the world on notice that any lunar or martian transport systems or surface bases created under American leadership will turn out to be equally disposable when political conditions cease to favour them.
When the Global Exploration Strategy claims: "Our goal is not a few quick visits, but rather a sustained and ultimately self-sufficient human presence beyond Earth" (p.2), and speaks again of establishing a "sustained human presence on the Moon and, eventually, in other parts of the solar system" (p.15), this must be regarded as window-dressing, not as an outcome which space agency activities alone are likely to produce.
But if manned spaceflight is to develop in a strategically coherent way, a foothold in low Earth orbit must be secured before venturing further away from Earth.
A "strategically coherent" pattern of development is one whose earlier stages are consolidated in the form of sustainable infrastructure, with a broad base of users, before more advanced stages are built upon them, as opposed to a pattern of individual projects whose legacy after their cancellation consists only of the knowledge gained during that project, as was the case with Apollo, and now looks like being the case with the ISS.
NASA's unseemly haste to abandon the ISS as an economy measure only five years after its completion and rush on to the Moon and Mars, and the likely acquiescence of ESA, Roskosmos and other partners in that decision, betrays a lack of strategic thinking and an irresponsible attitude to the use of public funds.
It betrays a total failure to understand that affordable and sustainable access to the Moon and Mars demands that affordable and sustainable access to low Earth orbit first be achieved. That demands in turn low-cost, high volume spaceplane access, based on the growth-capable markets of space tourism and conferencing and space-based solar power. That demands in turn a reusable orbital spaceplane along the lines of those which British engineers have been promoting for the past 20 years.
If their lunar plans are to be taken seriously, NASA, ESA and Roskosmos should first be made to explain how the current ISS will be sustained in orbit after 2015, and how it will be used to stimulate sustainable growth in habitable low Earth orbit infrastructure for various purposes and under diversified ownership. An unseemly rush to abandon it and dash for the Moon and Mars with no supporting infrastructure in low orbit may be good enough for NASA, with its history of abandoning projects rather than building on them (Apollo, Skylab, NERVA, X-33, X-34, now the Shuttle), but it is not good enough for a strategic approach which seeks the best value for public money.
American and European taxpayers should not put up with this abuse of their money.
The evening meeting on 24 October 2007 at the BIS featured three of this country's foremost astronautical thinkers -- Mark Hempsell of Bristol University, Bob Parkinson of Queen Mary College, and Alan Bond of Reaction Engines Ltd.
Each has been working independently on concepts for manned missions to Mars, and the meeting offered a chance to compare their different plans. For anyone who thought that Robert Zubrin had the last word on this subject, a number of criticisms of his Mars Direct programme were made.
I am preparing a summary of what was said, and with the speakers' permission plan to put it on the web soon for the benefit of those who were not there.
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