All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2015:

Britain Takes the Wrong Approach to Manned Spaceflight (Dec.) (Comments)

“Drowning in Process” (Nov.)

Does Intergalactic SETI Make Any Sense? (Oct.)

SETI and Sanity (Oct.)

SpaceX, SpaceY, SpaceZ (Sept.)

A Letter to Britain’s New Space Minister (June)

Mars: 25 Years After Mars Direct – Discussion (May)

The Astronist Mars Strategy (May)

Mars: Still So Distant, 25 Years After Mars Direct (May)

The Mariner Anniversary Calendar for Mars (April)

Mars: An Awful or an Awesome Place? (April)

Should We Phone ET? (March)

More Pluto Controversy (Feb.)

The Pluto Controversy (Jan.)

New in 2015:

Short story The Marchioness

AE posts:

2017: Mars…

2016: Stragegic goal for manned spaceflight…

2015: The Pluto Controversy, Mars, SETI…

2014: Skylon, the Great Space Debate, exponential growth, the Fermi “paradox”…

2013: Manned spaceflight, sustainability, the Singularity, Voyager 1, philosophy, ET…

2012: Bulgakov vs. Clarke, starships, the Doomsday Argument…

2011: Manned spaceflight, evolution, worldships, battle for the future…

2010: Views on progress, the Great Sociology Dust-Up…

Chronological index

Subject index

General essays:

Index to essaysincluding:

Talk presented to students at the International Space University, May 2016

Basic concepts of Astronautical Evolution

Options for Growth and Sustainability

Mars on the Interstellar Roadmap (2015)

The Great Sociology Debate (2011)

Building Selenopolis (2008)


Issue 120, 10 December 2015 – 46th Apollo Anniversary Year

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Britain Takes the Wrong Approach to Manned Spaceflight

Tim Peake’s Principia mission

I’m sorry to rain on everyone else’s parade. But I cannot feel any enthusiasm for Tim Peake’s upcoming six-month mission to the International Space Station.

UK ESA astronaut Tim Peake

Government-led astronautics has got itself into a blind alley and slowly ground to a halt. The peak in terms of space travellers flying per year was reached fully thirty years ago. The annual man-days in space peaked in 2010, as six-person occupation of the ISS coincided with the last few Shuttle flights. A small increase in time spent in space would be possible with a seven-man crew on the ISS and more activity on the Chinese Tian Gong station. But that would be the absolute limit under present conditions.

Conspicuous by its absence is any plan for maintaining the ISS into the 2030s and beyond. Its owners regard the ISS as a temporary mission, not permanent infrastructure. There is no provision for the regular replacement of modules, let alone for a transfer to the private sector for economically sustainable growth.

But what about exploration? The new focus of space agencies on exploration beyond low Earth orbit will certainly reduce the number of opportunities for government astronauts to fly, and increase the cost per astronaut seat, making space travel even more exceptional than it is today.

Could a NASA-led mission put astronauts on Mars, like in the movie The Martian? Maybe. With a large enough infusion of money to support NASA’s inefficient practices, and a Congress which for some reason temporarily found it important to do so, one or two expeditions could be sent there. Everyone would cheer and talk about another giant leap for mankind. But such an Apollo-to-Mars programme would inevitably be cancelled as its novelty wore off and its costs remained astronomical. Ten years later, conspiracy theorists would be claiming that we never even went to Mars.

This is not progress. This is not how humanity can reap the transformative social and technological possibilities of manned spaceflight.

It must be clear that future progress depends upon a virtuous spiral of falling costs for getting into space, increasing traffic and increasing reliability, with all that follows on from that.

Unfortunately, Tim Peake’s mission does little to contribute. In fact the entire ISS programme is designed in such a way as to make as little genuine progress as possible towards making passenger space travel accessible to increasing numbers of people.

The socialist ideology that manned spaceflight must remain a government monopoly is slowly being broken! Progress now lies in the hands of the commercial companies in the USA tasked with taking over transport services to and from low Earth orbit. While their immediate goal remains the ISS for the present, only they can develop an independent, economically sustainable passenger spaceflight industry. This is the pattern that Britain needs to emulate!

Once SpaceX and its collaborators and competitors have begun to open up space for commercial researchers and private space passengers (space tourists), then fully reusable vehicles such as Britain’s Skylon spaceplane can develop it further.

My presentation to the Royal Aeronautical Society

Accordingly, at the Royal Aeronautical Society’s one-day conference on Britain’s manned spaceflight policy on 1 December, I contributed the following five-minute talk.

Response to the 2015 UK Strategy for Human Spaceflight
A Personal View

Stephen Ashworth

I am a Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society. This, however, is my own personal view.

The UK Space Agency’s civil space strategy for 2012 to 2016 was focused on growth: “We will ensure that our central goal of growth becomes a reality and the potential of space to the twenty-first century economy will be both recognised and realised” (p.20). Thanks to its “horizon-scanning activities”, space tourism is recognised as a new opportunity, as also are the innovative launch systems necessary to make that industry a reality (p.8).

But growth in human spaceflight has stopped. After more than half a century, the number of space travellers per year is down to 12, or 15 when the Chinese bother to launch. This is less than a quarter of its peak of 63 space travellers in 1985. In thirty years, space travel has not yet recovered from the Challenger disaster.

Manned spaceflight is at a critical crossroads: will it continue to remain a high-cost, low-frequency government monopoly? Or will it find a broader commercial market and embark on a virtuous spiral of massive exponential growth?

Enter the UK Space Agency’s national strategy for human spaceflight in July 2015: the UK will be “a recognised and valued participant in human spaceflight” (p.4), while Tim Peake’s flight will be “a very visible demonstration of UK ambition for human spaceflight” (§1.3, p.5). But space tourism is casually dismissed (§3.5, p.8), while British work on reusable spaceplane access to orbit is only “under consideration” (§3.8, p.10).

It is depressing to see the space agency backpedalling from its existing strategy for growth. Its “horizon-scanning activities” have become horizon-shunning activities. The importance of reducing the cost to orbit and increasing traffic levels is nowhere recognised in this document. As a result, the UK is powerless to resist the prevailing paradigm of high-cost, science-driven, zero-growth astronautics. Its strategy is an agreement not to have a strategy, but rather to let other countries decide what to do, and then make a small contribution for appearances’ sake.

Britain is the country which during the ages of sail and of steam travel did more than any other to open up the terrestrial globe to mass passenger transport and trade. The long-term sustainable growth of industrial civilisation itself now depends upon similarly opening up the space frontier. So I need hardly point out that this new “strategy” is a policy of despair.

The space agencies dream of sending astronauts to Mars, a dramatic repeat of the glory years of Apollo. But there is no political will for such a mission. They are therefore chasing a fantasy and wasting public money.

In the USA a new focus is emerging on reusable vehicles and attracting a broad market for affordable passenger spaceflight. If Britain has any interest in the economically efficient use of public funds, then it should use them to help British companies to compete.

It happens that Britain is in possession of credible new disruptive technology and airline-style business models for sustainable, growth-capable passenger access to space. Promoting public-private partnerships to exploit this unique national advantage must form the centrepiece of any rational UK strategy for human spaceflight.


UK Space Agency Civil Space Strategy 2012 to 2016 (Department for Business Innovation and Skills, 2012).

National strategy: Space environments and human spaceflight (UK Space Agency, July 2015).

In 140 characters:

This is a strategy not to have a strategy. The key to human spaceflight is affordable transport. Britain has that key, must prioritise it.

In 140 words:

The 2012-2016 civil space strategy prioritises growth. But in human spaceflight there has been no growth in time spent in space since 2010, and the annual number of space travellers has fallen to less than a quarter of its peak in 1985.

In order for manned spaceflight to become sustainable, a massive increase in activity, improvement in reliability and fall in unit costs must occur. This depends upon disruptive new technology and business models based on air travel.

The 2015 strategy for human spaceflight rejects growth and condemns the UK to merely follow what others are doing. This makes it powerless to resist the prevailing high-cost paradigm.

On the contrary, the centrepiece of a worthwhile UK manned spaceflight strategy must be to exploit its global leadership in fully reusable spaceplane design in a public-private partnership.

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