The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Beagle 2 illustration
The public interest in the UK in Beagle 2, despite its failure, demonstrated that the biggest problem facing British space advocates is not public apathy by a lack of coherent policy. (credit: Beagle 2)

A real ministry of space

Warren Ellis’s powerful and evocative story Ministry of Space in 2005 describes a world that never was but is surely inspired by the thinking of innovators and dreamers comprising the post-war Britain that had been motivated by a survival instinct to mobilize its resources into an infrastructure that technologically revolutionized or helped to revolutionize the world. The channeling of national resources, talent, governmental decision-makers, and other structures into a larger machine propelled agencies such as the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) into jet and later rocket design that were pioneering in ways as diverse as gas turbine exhaust jet propulsion and upper atmosphere research. From the early thinkers of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) and their proposals for moon missions, the civil servants and contracted workers involved in rocket development to the more numerous readers of Dan Dare and its anticipated technological victories for Britain, the notion of a future leading role in aerospace has repeatedly been injected into the national consciousness. The pride in the world’s first commercial jet airliner, the de Havilland Comet, and in Concorde alone attest to the civil aviation side of the story.

What Pillinger, along with a growing chorus of prominent figures in Britain, object to, it seems, is the lack of anything but a vague attitude to space from consecutive governments since the 1970s at least.

A visit to London’s Science Museum is both awe-inspiring and a somber experience. The first exhibit that strikes the visitor is the hulk of the final and successful Black Arrow rocket that launched the Prospero satellite for Britain at the turn of the 1970s. Looking closer at the other associated pieces in this collection, it is extremely hard to avoid the feeling of unfinished business. Bewilderment could strike any visitor regarding why this technology was not part of a continuum running through to the latest space-exploring and space-exploiting vehicles of today. Indeed, this is encapsulated in one exhibit legend that states that Britain remains the only country to gain and then abandon an indigenous launch capability. The message is further drilled home with the adjacent display of models of the reusable launchers designed partly by the same generation of talent that brought this initial capability: HOTOL and Skylon. A commitment by the government of the day (or even now with regards to Skylon) could have brought, in some ways, a handle on space exceeding that of modern day NASA to the country.

Michael Huang wrote recently in The Space Review that the current establishment in Britain is the generation that rebelled against human spaceflight (see “British space policy on life, the universe, and everything”, March 17, 2008). One can well imagine many being of either the “too expensive and let’s spend on Earth instead” camp or the “so what?” mentality that perhaps grew tired of watching astronauts play golf on the Moon when in fact scientific stations from those missions remain on the barren satellite together with the regretful inscription that marked the end of America’s moonshot. Possibly Huang is being unfair, however, given that Prof. Colin Pillinger, an Apollo program veteran and the man behind that other great British space tragedy, Beagle 2 (also on display at the Science Museum), is of that generation, rebellious or not. Pillinger’s genius was capturing the British public’s imagination in such a splendid way in the run up to the expected landing date of Boxing Day 2003.

The Beagle 2, of course, like so much of the innovation for the Apollo program, provides the best counterargument to the charge (so often seen in responses to newspaper articles concerning space) of expense. Pillinger is today working on bringing initially to Africa a rapid test for tuberculosis developed from technology used in the ill-fated Mars lander. One can also point to the miniaturization of technology in other space missions to project beforehand the likely benefits from spinoffs as well as that necessitated by the economically streamlined (as it were) Beagle 2 mission. On top of that NASA is gradually easing in the commercial sector for the operation of low Earth orbit missions that have long been a responsibility and increasingly a burden on its limited budget while there are concurrent expectations from the public and politicians to expand humanity (no less) into the solar system and beyond.

What Pillinger, along with a growing chorus of prominent figures in Britain, object to, it seems, is the lack of anything but a vague attitude to space from consecutive governments since the 1970s at least. Indeed, a read of Douglas Millard’s An Overview of United Kingdom Space Activity 1957–1987 indicates that this uncertainty has manifested as far back as to the origins of the UK’s organized space activities.

Joining together the dots of news items and developments over the past couple of years, however, reveals an exciting but oh-so-tenuous undercurrent that this current generation has a subconscious sense of that “unfinished business”. Despite many of the details of the abandoned space program emerging only in recent years of what never came to be, perhaps this cultural “something” in Britain has been directing the minds and aspirations of the new generation of space enthusiasts and professionals?

Richard Branson gives voice to the sense of an epic underlying national wish to redefine the future when he describes work with commercial spaceflight as “what we imagined the future would look like.” Branson’s backing of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo is a heartening reminder of what an asset he has been to Britain in pushing the boundaries of possibility for the wider good, yet the regulatory framework for commercial spaceflight is still lacking. Last year saw a similarly enthusiastic Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy of the RAF calling for the air force to contribute astronauts for British space flight. The existence of the space division of the RAE and the work of its 11,000 strong successor Qinetiq into the rockets for the British-led moon exploration probe Moonlite make this aspiration far from unprecedented in those charged with the future security and prosperity of the country. This year a spokesman for the Royal Society called for the British National Space Centre (BNSC) to be upgraded into an agency rather than the mere “tinkering” that has taken place over the years since its inception in the 1980s.

The BNSC remains a mysterious and ill-defined, arguably unequipped body comprising as it does an amalgamation of seconded staff from other government departments, although ostensibly overseeing civil space activities retains an office at Qinetiq’s famous site at Farnborough, Hampshire. Although the BNSC was set up to better coordinate the wide-ranging space science activities to which Britain has long contributed in piecemeal (including the current Mars Phoenix lander) it has equally lacked the ability to direct the programs that, as the Beagle 2 mission demonstrated, the country when quizzed yearns for. Colin Pillinger himself adds, “Britain should have enough money in space to have its own missions, its own ideas that it personally does and if necessary it should welcome and invite others to join in. It should lead.”

Only by assuming a lead in exploration or innovation can a country “find” a role. It is hard to see that finding a role is any more realistic than finding happiness—it is surely a decision, albeit a hard one, that is made.

A Britain leading is reminiscent of much of the rhetoric used by the current Prime Minister during his years as Chancellor of the Exchequer and, in this, Britain can, as ever, learn from the example of NASA. Recently Buzz Aldrin expressed his great disappointment of the slow progress of American space capabilities and, despite warning of the risk that in the near future less well-meaning countries might surpass them, he said, “Don’t expect Americans to let others assume the lead in exploration”. This is the lead Warren Ellis envisaged of the British in his alternate timeline story and yet the mindset is not at all far from the truth in the era when, with an Empire on the verge of collapse, many were looking for new ways to sustain the country and its direction.

Unlike Ellis’s story, however, mutual hostility is thankfully not a prospect. Britain can learn from the direction of NASA and answer what in opinion-forming circles has long plagued it—the idea from former American politician Dean Acheson that “Britain has lost an Empire but has yet to find a role.” Only by assuming a lead in exploration or innovation of which Aldrin and Pillinger speak can a country “find” a role. It is hard to see that finding a role is any more realistic than finding happiness—it is surely a decision, albeit a hard one, that is made.

If one of the earliest proposals for space exploration from a British organization is the BIS Moon mission, then the narrative has come full circle with the same organization hosting the prestigious International Astronautical Congress being held in Glasgow late this month. The BNSC, which will attend the event, recently asserted one of its major objectives in the next four years will be to “improve public and political recognition of the value of space systems as part of the critical national infrastructure”. To achieve this, the BNSC and British government have to do so much more. The importance of public perception is key: the CEO of Rolls-Royce at the beginning of this year remarked to BBC News that as a country we need to stop describing ourselves as “post-industrial” as other emerging countries do not.

The Moon landings and Mars missions envisaged by Ministry of Space are all within reach of the country but they do not need to rest upon the dark premise of isolationism and illegitimate money. However, they do require a Britain that has a capacity to lead and direct its space ambitions for the economy, for innovative spinoffs, for everyday improvements to people’s lives, and for the wider good of the planet. Perhaps it’s time to bring the hopes of the past into the capabilities of the present and assume the particular role in the future that many people in this country thought would embody the progress through technology they once had faith in, or at least fighting chance for a hopeful future.