Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 14

Submission from the Space Group Committee of the Royal Aeronautical Society


  1.  The Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) is the Learned Society for the Aerospace and Aviation community. Based in London, it has a world-wide membership of over 19,000, with over 13,000 in the UK. Its Fellows and Members represent all levels of the aeronautical community both active and retired. Through its various Boards and Committees, it can draw upon considerable experience and expertise in aviation matters. In addition, the Society has over 120 organisations who are members of its Corporate Partners scheme.


  2.  The Select Committee is invited to consider the results of a consultation exercise on whether Britain should join the other G8 countries by funding a human spaceflight programme. The authors of this evidence are highly sceptical of the merits of any such programme, and summarize here the results of a consultation exercise on this subject undertaken under the aegis of the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS).


  3.  The Space Group of the RAeS has been consulting widely on the subject of UK human spaceflight policy. Although the subject of human spaceflight is not explicitly mentioned in the Select Committee's invitation to submit evidence, the Committee may wish to take note of the results to-date of our consultation.

  4.  The RAeS consultation began with publication of a Discussion Paper in the December 2005 issue of the Society's Aerospace Professional magazine that is distributed to all of the Society's 19,000 members. Presentations on the ideas in that Discussion Paper were given at a number of conferences over the following three months, resulting in comments being received from the general public as well as from Society members. A paper describing the results of this consultation exercise is being prepared, and a preliminary version was presented at the SPACE 2006 conference in California in September 2006. Copies of the original Discussion Paper and the SPACE 2006 paper are attached for information.

  5.  In general our view is that this is a good time to review human spaceflight policy because of the phasing out of NASA's space shuttle, and the emergence of a commercial space tourism market—currently being pioneered by the UK's Virgin Galactic. We are generally negative about investing British tax payers' funds in conventional human spaceflight programmes such as the International Space Station, taking the view that they do not address the subject of solar system exploration. We consider that most if not all scientific exploration of the moon can be done via robotic probes under remote control from Earth—telerobotics—because the round-trip delay for radio control signals is about 3 seconds. We recommend that telerobotic exploration of the moon be used to analyse which forms of planetary scientific exploration require a human in the loop, and which can be automated, before deciding on the level of human involvement that is best for exploration of Mars.

  6.  We are impressed with the rapid pace of intelligent automation in recent years—the October 2005 Grand Challenge competition in the USA being a particularly impressive illustration of the sophistication now possible with totally autonomous vehicles—a car negotiating a 180km complex and dangerous mountainous route at an average speed of about 20mph. Improvements in such intelligent automation are set to continue for a decade or more, thus reinforcing the economic argument for using robotic and telerobotics technology where possible.

  7.  We note the view of other recent reports that at least one aspect of scientific exploration of the moon or Mars requires the physical presence of a human, namely drilling deep below the surface. However, we are cautious about accepting this view given that the oil and gas exploration industry is beginning to apply digital technology to drilling—the so-called "digital oil field" initiative. The oil and gas industry is very interested in improving the technology for drilling in dangerous and difficult to access locations, which could give them common cause with scientists seeking to drill on the moon or beyond.

  8.  The sort of incentives that produced the Grand Challenge innovation might be successfully targeted at remotely controlled drilling—that is to say, by offering a prize for achievement of such drilling instead of a conventional research grant. We note that the technology being commercially exploited by Virgin Galactic for space tourism was also the winner of a competition or challenge, the Ansari X-Prize. Furthermore, both the Grand Challenge and the X-Prize involved commercial spin-off, which is often not the case with conventional research grants. We certainly do not advocate the termination of all research grants, but are persuaded that a carefully constructed research challenge can elicit a greater amount of research and innovation than a conventional grant.

  9.  Human spaceflight captures the public imagination, but Britain's Beagle 2 probe to Mars has shown that robotic exploration can too. Space tourism may offer a mechanism to fulfil at least some of the public hunger for British astronauts without the need for tax payer investment. With this in mind, the Society is delighted to have been offered a free place on one of the early Virgin Galactic flights which we will offer to the winner of a competition we will initiate next year. We have decided that the winner will be the person "who will use the experience of the trip to best motivate young people to enter the fields of aerospace and its applications".

  10.  This submission represents the views of the RAeS Space Group Committee whose members are listed at the end of this note. A broader consultative exercise revealed a more positive view of a British involvement in manned space. Most respondents argued in favour of British involvement in Europe's human spaceflight programme. Reasons given included inspiring young people to take up science and engineering, commercial spin-offs and medical advances. The fact that Britain is the only G8 country without a human spaceflight programme was a frequently used argument. The need for on-the-spot human presence for certain scientific investigations (deep drilling was the specific example quoted) was frequently asserted, although none of the respondents suggested a trade-off between investing in automated drilling and human spaceflight—which seems the logical and prudent way forward to the Committee.


  11.  Turning to the five specific issues in the Call for Evidence, the following summary draws from the remarks above:

    (a)  Competitiveness. Regulatory and R&D support for the embryonic space tourism sector is considered highly desirable. Investment in remotely controlled lunar exploration could have important commercial implications.

    (b)  Benefit of ESA. The ESA manned spaceflight programme has not, and currently does not, offer good value for investment money, whereas ESA's unmanned science programme does.

    (c)  Innovation and Knowledge Transfer. The use of carefully targeted prizes has been shown to create highly innovative solutions with great commercial potential.

    (d)  Benefits of Government Space Activities. Compared to unmanned space activities, human spaceflight is not cost effective in delivering public policy objectives.

    (e)  Space Research and Skills Base. The need for a human presence to undertake space research should be traded off against investment in automation before committing to the expense of human spaceflight. Human spaceflight has great inspirational power and the potential to attract young people into science and technology (which the RAeS competition for a Virgin Galactic flight seeks to encourage). The newly emerging space tourism sector offers hope that humans can enter space much more affordably than hitherto.

  12.  The members of the Committee of the RAeS Space Group are (in alphabetical order): Richard Bavin, QinetiQ; Prof Richard Crowther, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory; John Davey, British National Space Centre; Philip E Davies, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd; Tom Keates, Hi-Tech Help; Dr John Loizou, Vega Group plc (Vice-Chairman); Pat Norris, LogicaCMG (Chairman); David Richer, Brunel Technics Ltd (immediate Past-Chairman); Dr Peter C E Roberts, Cranfield University; Carl Warren, EADS Astrium.

  13.  Further details on the work of the RAeS Space Group can be found at

October 2006

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