In a bad mood last week (post conference blues seems as good an excuse as any) I was rather scathing about a proposal for the UK to build two new habitat modules for the International Space Station. It’s something of an embarrassment that the British flag is on the side of the station, although we haven’t contributing a single penny to its cost. The modules would look something like this :
but would cost (including running costs) around $1 billion. Treating my post with more respect that it deserves, the lead designer Mark Hempsell responded, and we’ve been arguing the case via email. I’ll be posting our argument here over the next few days, but feel free to join in in the comments.
Mark writes :
Why should the UK fund this rather than more astronomy and space physics
where we already have a strong capability?
The space activities of British astronomers and space physicists are funded
on a GDP basis the same as in all other European countries (enforced by
the ESA treaty). Britain has a very large GDP so they get a lot of money
(about a third of the total UK civil spend that also includes Earth
observation and ventures like the Galileo Navigation system). There is no doubt
they do an excellent job with this money and I for one would not begrudge them
a little more.
However the campaign for UK Human Spaceflight addresses the needs of
all the other UK scientist and engineers who also need access to space for
their research and who have, no facilities, no government money
whatsoever, and no body to look after their interests. Ironically given the
constant emphasis by the UK government on the importance of getting a tangible
return from the UK space budget, the science being excluded includes
medicine, pharmaceuticals, materials, micro-physics, engineering that
is all the sciences that actually produce results the general public will
really notice impact on their everyday lives.
The Habitation Extension Module is the most ambitious of a range of
options the UK Human Campaign has put forward highlighting this iniquity, and
if this were the one selected, it, and a corresponding science programme,
would need annual expenditure at a similar level to that currently enjoyed
by the UK’s astronomers and still leave the UK the lowest spending by
GDP nation in ESA by a very considerable margin.
My response :
I think we both agree that it would be better if the government provided better funding for both astronomy and spaceflight! However it’s dressed up, though, your proposed program (as with all manned spaceflight) is expensive; £500 million is a lot of money. From memory, that’s double the cost of building and launching everyone’s favourite Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
Clearly it’s sometimes worth spending such large sums; whether it’s the Apollo program or the Hubble Space telescope sometimes you get what you pay for. But why on Earth would we tie the biggest UK investment to the International Space Station? You’re better placed than me to comment on whether NASA’s line that the ISS is a necessary stepping stone to the Moon is true or not, but even if it is we’re ready to move on. I’ve never seen a convincing (and cost effective) case for science’s need for a low Earth orbit space station – can you provide one?
Let’s make a deal. You can have your half a billion pounds for manned spaceflight if we use it to do something useful and inspiring, and that means going beyond the ISS.
The debate continues here.