Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 54

Submission from the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine


  1.  In recent years there has been a re-evaluation of the relative merits of human space exploration and a more mature analysis of the potential advantages that this field might yield for the UK. Several impartial reviews of this subject (Holdaway 2004, Wakeham 2003, Close 2005) have deconstructed the long held belief that the UK has nothing to gain from Human Space Exploration and that human space flight (HSF) is not in this country's strategic interests.

  2.  Both the Microgravity Review Panel (2003) and the Aurora Cross Research Council Report (2004) suggest that HSF programmes would yield many benefits to the UK and warrant further investigation. The Royal Astronomical Society's Commission on the Scientific Case for Human Space Flight in 2005, the most comprehensive, impartial review of its kind, concluded strongly in favour of human space flight.

  3.  There exists at this time in the UK a critical mass of individuals and organisations with an interest in human space flight and a significant level of technical expertise in this field. Amongst these is a growing number involved in space biomedical research. This community has developed over the past seven years largely through the implementation of the strategy proposed in 1999 by the UK Space Biomedical Advisory Committee (UKSBAC) and, despite limited resources, has been successful in engaging in research and educational projects with international space partners including the European Space Agency (ESA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

  4.  Over the past seven years the scientific, educational and cultural benefits of further participation in human space exploration programmes have been demonstrated repeatedly (Fong 2005, Crawford 2004). This same period has seen a progressive and alarming decline in the uptake of science at school and undergraduate level with the closure of many University science departments (Smithers 2006). Human space flight is a first class vehicle for science education and the communication of scientific ideas to students at all educational levels. Outreach and the public communication of scientific ideas has been an integral and successful part of the UKSBAC strategy and our experience suggests that it provides role models and context which drive enthusiasm.

  5.  Despite these arguments cost remains the principal obstacle to UK re-engagement in programmes of human space flight. Entry to the ESA astronaut programme would require an annual subscription of 150 million Euro, a sum which is clearly prohibitive at this stage.

  6.  There is an alternative: NASA is now committed to returning to the Moon and continuing with the human exploration of the Lunar surface. As a result the agency is currently in the process of seeking international partners to collaborate in this effort. In this climate it might be possible to engage in a limited, less costly, bilateral agreement with NASA with the goal of further developing UK interest and expertise in human space flight in the hope that we might later be able to participate in the proposed programmes of lunar exploration on more equal terms.

  7.  In summary it is felt that, with the evidence derived from recent investigations, NASA's renewed commitment to human space flight and the critical mass of researchers with relevant expertise that currently exists in the UK, this is an opportune time to consider re-engagement in international programmes of human space flight. Through the efforts of UKSBAC, UK Space Biomedical Group and with assistance from the international space community we have demonstrated that a UK user community exists, that the science is of appropriate quality (Close, 2005) and that there are in addition educational and cultural benefits to be reaped.

  8.  The past seven years have seen a dynamic evaluation of the costs and benefits of human space flight by UKSBAC and related organisations. To prevent stagnation we propose that this evaluation should continue through strategic, bilateral agreements with NASA. This would allow the UK to further develop expertise in this field and evaluate the relative costs and benefits of this programme while deferring the much higher programmatic costs until a more complete picture can be gained. It would allow interested parties to set specific metrics by which success or failure of the programme could be judged, and would allow more informed arguments regarding the merits and demerits of human space flight to be made. It would also preserve the experience base developed over the past decade and the critical mass of expertise that currently exists. Such a programme could be managed at a small fraction of the annual ESA subscription costs and would serve as a logical next step in out strategy of dynamic evaluation.


The Development of the Space Medical and Life Sciences Community in the UK

  In December 1999, in partnership with British National Space Centre, Dr. Kevin Fong organised the Futures in UK Space Biomedical Education and Research Conference at University College London. 152 delegates attended, including senior officials from the European Space Agency, NASA and the United States' National Space Biomedical Research Institute. At a meeting held immediately after the 1999 conference the UKSBAC was created. The goal of this committee was to gather intelligence from the wider, international space community, to guide development of UK strategy and to forge new links between international research groups and UK laboratories. UKSBAC met annually with senior representatives from NASA, ESA and BNSC. A five-year, 3 Phase strategy was agreed upon. Phase 1 proposed the function of the UKSBAC as a steering committee and the establishment of an undergraduate education course in Space Medicine at a UK centre of excellence. This "bottom-up" approach was a departure from previous strategies and facilitated progress where resources were scarce.

Phase 1: 1999-2000

  The Phase 1 goals were achieved by the end of 2000 with the launch of the Space Medicine and Extreme Environment Physiology undergraduate course at University College London. Now in its sixth year with over 150 alumni it is amongst the most popular courses in the final year of physiology at UCL.

Phase 2: 2001-02

  Phase 2 proposed the establishment of a research group capable of identifying opportunities and generating a nucleus research effort. This was achieved through the creation of the Centre of Aviation, Space and Extreme environment medicine (CASE) at UCL in 2002. CASE, a small research group comprising physicians and scientists with an interest in the parallels that exist between extreme environment physiology and critical care medicine, took command of the undergraduate programmes at UCL and created further opportunities for student placements with NASA and ESA.

Phase 3: 2003-04

  Phase 3, proposed the establishment of a multi-centre effort in UK space medicine and physiology. UKSBAC indicated that, in the absence of large scale supporting funds from an external source, this goal was unlikely to be achieved. Indeed in the absence of evidence of a change in stance from UK Government ESA formally withdrew its support for human space flight related research and education activities in the UK in 2004.

  9.  The Current UK Space Life and Medical Science Community

  Despite the lack of formal funding structures a large number of individuals and organisations have continued to pursue their interest in biomedical science. This state of affairs cannot be sustained indefinitely and the effort is in danger of stagnation and collapse if formal support does not materialise.

  10.  Currently we provide some support for the undergraduate community in the UK and facilitate student placements at NASA and ESA field centres. There are no formal opportunities for postgraduates and, at this level, further involvement in programmes of human space flight generally involve emigration from the UK.

  11.  The existing research council structure is too narrow in remit to provide a mechanism for the funding of this nascent effort and, given that the benefits that would derive from human space flight activities go across traditional boundaries between science, education and culture an alternative funding strategy is perhaps required.

  12.  The Scientific Case

  The Royal Astronomical Society's (RAS) 2005 Report on "The Scientific Case for Human Space Flight" (Close et al 2005) represents a current, comprehensive and impartial review of the arguments for and against HSF and found strongly in favour of further participation in this field. The findings of this report are all the more remarkable since the commissioners themselves admit to having started with the private the view that HSF represented poor quality science and was not worth the expense. However they would finally conclude that:

  13.  "In summary, we find 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 The wider commercial educational, social and political benefits help justify the substantial expenditure that full UK participation in a future international programme of HSE will require. A BBC recent web site poll of public opinion has suggested that there would be strong support for such involvement by the UK. It is hard to conceive that the UK, one of the world's leading economies, would stand aside from such a global scientific and technological endeavour. We therefore regard it as timely for HMG to re-evaluate its long-standing opposition to British involvement in human space exploration." (Close et al 2005)

  14.  Life and medical sciences are also part of the scientific case for HSF (Fong, 2005). Weightlessness offers an opportunity to study fundamental properties of many biological systems, allowing us to compare and contrast the physiology of space flight with the terrestrial disease processes that it reversibly mimics, while furthering our understanding of both (Fong, 2004). The use of the space environment to investigate physiology offers a unique tool allowing biological systems to be studied at boundary conditions (Fong, 2001). The physiology of extreme physical environments, and microgravity in particular, has parallels with the process of ageing and critical illness (eg Paloski et al, 2004). Of specific interest are the effects of microgravity upon the cardiovascular system (Zhang, 2001; Waters et al, 2002), muscle (Fitts et al, 2001), bone (Turner, 2000; Vico et al, 2000), and the neurovestibular system (Lackner, 1992; Reschke, 2002).

  15.  Science Education and the Economy

  Figures from Higher Education Statistics Agency compiled in the 2005 paint a bleak picture for the future of science and engineering in the UK. Comparing the year 2000 with 2003, the number of chemistry graduates fell by 7.5%, whilst for physics the number dropped by 5.6%. (Higher Education Statistics Agency, 2005). The more recent report on Physics in Schools and Universities published by Smithers et al is more alarming still. Between 1994 and 2004, 24 physics departments closed. At the same time the number of UK students reading physics fell by 905 (28.9%), including 166 from the 26 top-rated departments in the 2001 RAE (8.2%). (Smithers et al, 2006.)

  16.  This declining interest in science is progressive and nothing so far attempted has succeeded in slowing this trend. The consequences of this and the threat that this poses to the economy are discussed in the HM Treasury Report "SET for Success: the supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills" (Roberts, 2002).

  17.  At the same time, the Department of Trade and Industry's five-year Programme, published at the end of 2004, talks of the need to develop a `knowledge based economy'. This strategy depends upon the UK's pre-eminence in science. It is clear that this goal cannot be achieved given the progressive decline in the popularity of mathematics and science at school, undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

  18.  The popularity of science throughout the education system in the UK is plummeting. It is worth considering the potential impact that UK involvement in astronautics programmes might have. There is a positive correlation between NASA's allocated budget and the number of PhD's gained in technical fields in the United States. The relationship shows graduate numbers climbing steadily during the Mercury—Apollo era from 1961 to 1972 and then falling progressively thereafter (Ehlmann et al, 2002). This should not surprise us; space science, and in particular human space flight, has always been a first class vehicle for science education.

  19.  HSF is especially well suited to the task of reinvigorating interest in science amongst our school children and undergraduates: a multidisciplinary subject with an embedded human story, where cutting edge science finds practical application in the most dramatic of fashions. This potential benefit was recognised by the independent Microgravity Review Panel (Wakeham et al, 2003), which was established to examine the case for UK participation in the exploitation of the International Space Station:

    "We have also found considerable public interest in activities in space, particularly those that have human involvement. This has been exploited by several space agencies to enhance the interest of the community in science and its applications, and the UK could do the same."

  20.  The programmes of scientific research upon which we embark at this time will be prosecuted not by us but by the current generation of schoolchildren, a generation that is turning away from science as never before. At a time when university science departments up and down the country are closing through lack of students, can we afford to ignore this aspect of human space flight activity?

  21.  Conclusions and Recommendations

  There currently exists a critical mass of researchers with an interest in human space flight. The intelligence gained through the Royal Astronomical Society's efforts, the Aurora Cross Council Meeting and UKSBAC in favour of human space flight is current and, given that this has emerged through the exhaustive efforts of a large number of individuals working voluntarily, this is this is likely to be the most accurate and complete picture that the UK will ever achieve.

  22.  If the UK believes that there may be a case to be put for a British astronaut at some point in the future but not immediately one must ask how this case will be eventually be made? In the absence of further engagement in programmes of HSF, the assembled groups and individuals that currently exist and serve to gather intelligence will disband. In their absence there will be no mechanism to cultivate new researchers with an interest in this area and there will exist no community who can inform future debate. In this regard the "wait and see" approach is fundamentally flawed. This opportunity for re-engagement in the field of human space flight is truly ephemeral. In the next five years the United Kingdom should extend its evaluation of the case for human space flight through a cost effective, bilateral agreement with an international space agency partner, with NASA likely the best candidate.

  23.  There is broad agreement that engagement in programmes of human space exploration would yield a wide range of benefits to the UK, returning value across he spectrum from science and education to culture and the public understanding of science. With the body of evidence presented on this subject by multiple recent, independent reviews, we should carefully consider the cost to the UK of non-participation.

October 2006


  Close F, Dudeney J, Pounds K: 2005 Report of the Commission on the Scientific Case for Human Space Flight. (

  Crawford, I A: 2004, Astron. Geophys. 45, 2.28-2.29.

  Ehlmann, B L et al: 2002, Humans to Mars: The Political Initiative and Technical Expertise Needed for Human Exploration of the Red Planet, Group Report of the 2002 Astrobiology.

  Academy (

  Fitts, R H, Riley, D R, and Widrick, J J: 2001, J Exp Biol 204(18), 3201-3208.

  Fong, K: 2001, Earth, Moon, Planets 87, 121-126.

  Fong, K: 2004, Br Med J 329, 1441-1444.

  Fong, K: Earth, Moon, and Planets (2005) 94: 169-176.

  Higher Education Statistics Agency: 2005, Where Do Graduates Do?

  Holdaway, R: 2004, Report on the Aurora Cross-Council Meeting,

Task_Group_Reports/Cross_Council_Report.pdf (

  Lackner, J R: 1992, Perception 21(6), 803-812.

  Paloski, W H, Black, F O, and Metter, E J: 2004, Otol. Neurotol. 25(1), 53-56.

  Reschke, M F, Kozlovskaya, I B, Somers, J T, Kornilova, L N, Paloski, W H, and Berthoz, A: 2002, J Gravit. Physiol. 9(1), 133-136.

  Roberts, G: 2002, SET for Success: The Report of the Sir Gareth Roberts Review, HM Treasury (available at

  Smithers A and Robinson P: 2006, Physics in Schools and Universities: Patterns and Policies. (

  Turner, R T: 2000, J Appl Physiol. 89, 870-847.

  Vico, L, Collet, P, Guignandon, A, Lafage-Proust, M H, Thomas, T, Rehaillia, M, and Alexandre, C: 2000, Lancet 6(9215), 1607-1611.

  Waters, W W, Ziegler, M G, and Meck, J V: 2002, J Appl Physiol. 92(2), 586-594.

  Zhang, L F: 2001, J Appl Physiol. 91(6), 2415-2430.

  Wakeham, B, Sykes, R, Williams, P, and Garwood, S: 2003, Recommendations of the Microgravity Review Panel, (also available at

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