Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 8

Submission from Dr I A Crawford, Lecturer in Planetary Science, School of Earth Sciences, Birkbeck College, University of London



  1.  In January 2004, President Bush announced a new Vision for Space Exploration, which has refocused NASA's objectives towards human missions to the Moon and Mars, and the European Space Agency's Aurora Programme has established similar objectives for Europe. In this new political context, the UK must soon decide whether, and to what extent, it wishes to participate in these exciting endeavours.

  2.  It is true that human space exploration is expensive, and the tragic loss of the space shuttle Columbia in February 2003 reminds us that it is sometimes costly in human, as well as in merely monetary, terms. For these reasons it has been a long-standing policy of HMG for the UK not to participate in human space activities, preferring instead to concentrate on those aspects of space exploration which can be accomplished solely through robotic means. On the other hand, it can be argued that humans are in fact uniquely qualified to undertake a number of key scientific investigations in the space environment. These range from life and physical sciences research in the microgravity, to geological and biological fieldwork on planetary surfaces.

  3.  From a strictly scientific perspective there are three broad research areas which stand to benefit from a human presence in space:

    (i)  Research in microgravity;

    (ii)  Space astronomy; and

    (iii)  Planetary exploration.

  I address these specifically scientific benefits in Paragraphs 4 to 9 below, the broader cultural and political aspects in 10 to 12, and offer some conclusions in Paragraphs 13 to 15.


  4.  The microgravity environment of low Earth orbit provides unique opportunities for research in the life sciences (including human physiology and medicine), materials science, and fundamental physics. Further progress in these areas will rely on the unique capabilities of the International Space Station (ISS). Although the UK has so far opted out of microgravity research on the ISS, the potential scientific benefits are well documented and were recognized by the independent Microgravity Review Panel in 2003. This independent report [1], which was commissioned by BNSC, concluded that the potential scientific benefits justify the UK's participation in the space station utilisation programme (ELIPS) and noted that:

    "without access to such facilities... the UK will be excluded from entire areas of scientific endeavour."

  5.  Probably the most important scientific benefits of microgravity research will accrue to the life sciences where research in the space environment has demonstrated the potential to provide unique insights into such areas as gene expression, immunological function, bone physiology, and neurovestibular and cardiovascular function. These areas are important for understanding a range of terrestrial disease processes (eg osteoporosis, muscle atrophy, cardiac impairment, and balance and co-ordination defects), and as such have potential medical applications here on Earth. The UK has a growing space biomedicine community well-placed to benefit from, and contribute to, these important research fields.


  6.  From almost the very beginning of the space age, astronomy has benefited from being able to place instruments above the obscuring effects of Earth's atmosphere. Most of these observations have been performed by robotic spacecraft, without human intervention. However, one of the principal lessons from the most successful of these instruments, Hubble Space Telescope (HST), is that access to a human spaceflight infrastructure can greatly extend the life, and enhance the efficiency, of space-based astronomical instruments. Since its launch in 1990 the HST has been serviced by four Space Shuttle missions, and a fifth now appears likely. As documented by a recent report of the US National Research Council [2], without this human intervention the HST would have been a much shorter lived, and far less scientifically versatile, instrument than it has in fact turned out to be.

  7.  There are important lessons here for the future of space astronomy. A number of large space-based telescopes are currently being planned (including the James Webb Space Telescope and ESA's Darwin project, in both of which the UK has an interest), and the HST experience teaches us that the operational lifetime, and scientific productivity, of these instruments are likely to be enhanced if a human spaceflight infrastructure exists which is able to maintain and upgrade them. In the longer term, astronomy may also benefit from a renewed human presence on the Moon, as the lunar surface provides an excellent location from which to perform astronomical observations across a wide range of wavelengths.


  8.  The Apollo programme clearly demonstrated the scientific value of astronauts as explorers of planetary surfaces, principally because they bring agility, versatility and intelligence to exploration in a way that robots cannot. Although it is true that humans will face many dangers and obstacles operating on other planets, mostly due to their physiological limitations when compared to robots, the potential scientific returns (resulting from rapid sample acquisition, the ability to integrate widely disparate data and past experience into a coherent picture, and the on-the-spot ability to recognise observations to be of importance even if they relate to phenomena not anticipated in advance) is more than sufficient to justify employing astronauts as field scientists on other planets.

  9.  The scientific advantages of having human explorers on the Moon and Mars were recognized by the October 2005 Report of the Royal Astronomical Society's Commission on the Scientific Case for Human Space Exploration [3], which found that

    "Profound scientific questions relating to the history of the solar system and the existence of life beyond Earth can best—perhaps only—be achieved by human exploration on the Moon or Mars, supported by appropriate automated systems..."

  In the specific case of lunar exploration, these arguments have recently been reiterated by the US National Research Council report on "The Scientific Context for the Exploration of the Moon" [4], which identified a number of areas where a renewed human presence on the Moon would yield scientific benefits not otherwise attainable. There is little doubt that the UK planetary science community would benefit from involvement in these exciting activities.


  10.  Space exploration is inherently exciting, and as such is an obvious vehicle for inspiring the public in general, and young people in particular, to take an increased interest in science and engineering. This was explicitly recognized in the conclusions of the UK Microgravity Review Panel [1]:

    "We have also found considerable public interest in activities in space, particularly those that have human involvement... This is important in addressing the need for future students to study science and technology subjects and in engaging the public in scientific issues."

  A similar point was made by the RAS Report [3]. Although these arguments have so far fallen on deaf political ears in the UK, such inspiration must be of value to any modern, knowledge-based economy, especially at a time when the number of young people opting for careers in science and engineering is falling.


  11.  Human spaceflight is technically very demanding, and this is indeed one of the reasons why it is so expensive. However, for this very reason, engaging in human space activities must necessarily act as a stimulus for employment, skill development, and technical innovation in the participating industries. This expansion of technical capabilities is likely to find applications in other areas of the wider economy. Moreover, under the ESA principle of "juste retour", expenditure incurred as part of ESA's human spaceflight programmes would be invested back in UK, thereby stimulating UK industrial innovation and protecting UK jobs. Currently UK industry is effectively excluded from these potential benefits.


  12.  Space exploration provides a natural focus for international cooperation, as indicated by the collaboration of some 15 nation states (currently excluding the UK) in the construction and operation of the ISS. In trying to build a stable geopolitical environment on Earth, it must be desirable to increase the range and depth of such collaborative endeavours. Human space exploration is especially, and perhaps uniquely, well-suited to enhancing a sense of global solidarity owing to its globally high media profile. From this point of view, it would seem to be desirable that a major economy such as the UK is seen to be "pulling its weight" in the international exploration of space.


  13.  The United Kingdom is the only major industrialised economy that has consistently declined to participate in human space exploration, and the reasons for this anomalous situation need to be addressed. Present UK government thinking on the subject was spelt out by the Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury, in a speech at the Royal Society on 17 October 2001:

    "We also do not intend actively to participate in manned exploration of the Solar System. This is because we are not convinced that the benefits of human exploration go beyond the political and cultural into the scientific and commercial... We require a solid justification rooted in science or commercial arguments before supporting any human spaceflight programme."

  This is an interesting, if rather muddled, justification for present policy. It acknowledges that "political and cultural" benefits of human spaceflight exist, but it implies that these are not in themselves sufficient to justify investing in it. Instead, Lord Sainsbury's statement attempts to justify UK policy regarding human spaceflight by its alleged lack of scientific benefits.

  14.  However, as pointed out above, clear scientific benefits of human space exploration can in fact be readily identified. Given that participation in human space activities would also be inspiring UK school children, supporting UK industry, and making a positive contribution to international cooperation, there appears to be a strong case for re-examining UK policy this regard. This is especially so given the new international context provided by ESA's Aurora programme, and the US Vision for Space Exploration, where UK participation would provide wide-ranging scientific, industrial and educational benefits that cannot obviously be attained in any other way.

  15.  In the light of the above I urge the Select Committee to take this opportunity to examine the case for recommending a change in UK policy with respect to human space exploration, and in particular to assess the possibilities for UK involvement in the human aspects of ESA's Aurora programme (in preparation for the next ESA Ministerial Council Meeting in 2008), and/or possible bi-lateral involvement with the US in the Vision for Space Exploration.


  [1]  Wakeham, B, Sykes, R, Williams, P, Garwood, S: 2003, Recommendations of the Microgravity Review Panel, (

  [2]  Assessment of Options for Extending the Life of the Hubble Space Telescope: Final Report, US National Research Council (available at

  [3]  Close, F, Dudeney, J, Pounds, K (2005). Report of the RAS Commission on the Scientific Case for Human Space Exploration (

  [4]  The Scientific Context for the Exploration of the Moon, US National Research Council (available at

  [5]  Bezdek, RH and Wendling, RM: 1992, "Sharing Out NASA's Spoils", Nature, 355, 105-106.

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