Issue 56, 5 April 2010 – 41st Apollo Anniversary Year

  1. Welcome to the UK Space Agency, by Stephen Ashworth
  2. The ISS Symposium in Berlin, by Stephen Ashworth

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(1) Welcome to the UK Space Agency

Stephen Ashworth

So we in Britain now have our very own official Space Agency. Announcing the name, logo and remit of the UKSA, Lord Drayson said: “The action we’re taking today shows that we’re really serious about space. The UK Space Agency will give the sector the muscle it needs to fulfil its ambition.”

What should a space agency be for? I would suggest that its prime function should be to put into the hands of industry the tools it needs to open up the space frontier. Just as the Department of Transport builds public roads, so the Space Agency should build public roads into space that a wide variety of people can use – in other words, its first priority must be ensuring affordable and sustainable access to space.

NASA once attempted to do this, with the Shuttle. It failed, and instead of analysing the problems and pressing forward again, it retreated back to dreams of the glory days of the 1960s. Now it has been rewarded by having those dreams taken away from it. Will the UKSA fare any better? Over to you, Lord Drayson!

Another important role is clearly that of government-funded space and planetary science. Britain once had an innovative, scientifically valuable and low-cost programme for Mars exploration: Beagle 2. When the first attempt at landing on Mars failed, the government disgracefully washed its hands of the whole thing. ESA nobly declared: “We shall stand by our fallen comrades”, implying that help was at hand, when what they actually meant was that they had no intention of doing anything other than just standing around and doing nothing.

So now, over six years and three launch opportunities to Mars later, we are still waiting for ExoMars to launch in January 2016. This probe was originally supposed to launch in 2009 – that’s a seven-year delay!

Colin Pillinger on Beagle 2 and the ExoMars delay, writing in 2007:

It seems rather an affront that an organisation that criticised Beagle 2 for poor management (Beagle 2 adhered to the Mars Express schedule – five years to deliver from the time the mission was approved – and delivered on time) can accept a slip of four to six years less [than] three years into the programme.

Colin Pillinger again:

Even more frustrating, by 2015 an opportunity to inspire the younger generation into science and technology – the reason Beagle 2 got the money it did – will have been forfeited. We have been told there were plenty of children, who got up before 6.00 am Christmas morning 2003, to ask not “Where are my presents?” but “What happened to Beagle 2?”. Everyone, five years old and above, will have passed through school and left without the chance of being exposed to the imagination-capturing subject of Britain in the forefront of looking for life on Mars. There will, of course, be other space missions, but nothing has quite the same appeal as the red planet.

What Britain needs is a Mars mission to bridge the gap between Beagle 2 and ExoMars, which is a generation away. I do not accept we cannot afford it. We are the sixth richest nation in the world but only the seventeenth in terms of space expenditure. If we want children doing science subjects we cannot afford not to give them goals to aspire to. We invest annually something like 180 million of Government money, yielding a contribution to our GDP of several billions. Surely, that is a good return. Why not then put in 500 million, affording more jobs and greater profits and all the spin-off that goes with it. Never forget the cost of the hardware that goes into space is negligible, all the expertise stays on the ground; it is never at risk, unless it goes abroad because there are no incentives in the UK. But to recover the value of what has been achieved, even from a mission condemned as a failure, you have to use it somewhere else, not jettison it.

We must have our own space programme and the option of collaborating with more than one agency: for example NASA, Russia, the emerging space-faring nations of the Far East. And to really make a difference, why not fund a pioneering programme involving smaller, faster, cheaper, better missions – we might lose a couple early on but success would soon bring huge rewards and make us the envy of the world because we would be exploring and discovering before them.

Will the UKSA fare any better than the Beagle 2 fiasco? Can it make Britain’s space programme “the envy of the world”? Over to you, Lord Drayson!

(Lord Drayson quote from BBC News. ExoMars current launch date from Spaceflight, Aug. 2009, p.287; April 2009, p.146. Colin Pillinger quotes from House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, 2007: A Space Policy, vol.II, pages Ev 225-226.)

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(2) The ISS Symposium in Berlin

Stephen Ashworth

The European Space Agency has organised an International Space Station Symposium in Berlin on 19-21 April. Unfortunately due to pressure of work I will be unable to attend on this occasion.

In the announcement, Mrs Simonetta Di Pippo, Director of Human Spaceflight at ESA, describes the ISS as an “engineering marvel”. I have written to her to let her know that I must respectfully disagree.

The ISS is not an engineering marvel because it illustrates a fundamental design error, namely that one part of a system is mismatched with another part.

Any space station is critically dependent upon affordable and frequent transport from Earth. As you know, the Space Shuttle was originally intended to be capable of weekly flights at a cost ten times less than that of the Apollo-Saturn system which it replaced. This should be regarded as the minimum performance acceptable for a sustainable space station programme.

But appropriate transport has not yet materialised, and NASA and its partner agencies in the ISS programme have proved incapable of making significant progress in this direction. The result is that the costs of maintaining the ISS are too high, and its long-term future remains uncertain.

The ISS suffers from a second major design flaw, which is that its layout frustrates the regular replacement of its individual modules. The Zarya and Unity modules were launched in 1998; assuming a 20-year lifetime, they will therefore come due for replacement around 2018, when modules such as Columbus and Kibo are only halfway through their service life. But a Zarya 2 and Unity 2 module are not planned. The ISS is even inferior to the Russian Mir station in this respect, and cannot therefore qualify as a “permanent” foothold in space, as some have claimed.

The ISS has been designed very much as a temporary mission, with no thought given to its continuity or expansion over the coming decades. Any progress made in developing applications in microgravity biotech, manufacturing and tourism on the ISS is likely to be lost unless a new station can be built, together with a properly affordable and frequent transport system.

Learning from the mistakes of Shuttle/ISS and moving forward from them must surely be the main theme of the ISS Symposium in Berlin. I would like to hope that Europe will lead the way towards the first truly permanent foothold in space, served by a fully reusable and economic transport system such as those currently under development in the UK. Enabling private companies and individuals to visit orbital stations in increasing numbers must be a central focus, given the size of the potential market.

The current level of one private visitor to the ISS per year is a good start, but the strategy must now be to encourage this broader use of the ISS and achieve falling costs and sustainable growth over the coming years and decades.

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