Examination of Witnesses (Questions 425
WEDNESDAY 21 FEBRUARY 2007
Q425 Chairman: Good morning, and
can I offer a special welcome to our three guests this morning,
our first panel, and a particularly warm welcome to Lord Rees
of Ludlow, the President of the Royal Society, Professor Len Culhane,
the Chairman of the UK Space Academic Network, and Professor Michael
Rowan-Robinson, the President of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Good morning to you, you are all very, very welcome, and welcome
also to guests in the gallery and to members of the press. I wonder
if I could ask you, Lord Rees, if you would chair your panel,
if you wish to deflect questions to your colleagues, so that,
if there is a problem, then you will be responsible for it. Lord
Rees, we are very interested in this whole sort of food chain
which goes on in terms of space and its importance in terms of
this inquiry and I wonder if you could talk us through that food
chain really from developing the funding for a space mission right
through to it actually taking place. Could you just give us a
quick view of what is involved?
Lord Rees of Ludlow: Thank you,
Chairman. Let me first say that it is a great privilege to be
in front of this Committee and also to be here with two longstanding
friends and colleagues; we have worked together on many scientific
activities. I am here for the Royal Society, but of course we
have many common interests with those two other bodies represented.
I would like to emphasise the interconnectedness of all aspects
of space. Even the purer science depends on technology and has
often been used to pioneer technology which has led to applications,
so there is an interlinking between the industrial side, the scientific
side and also the public outreach side which is important for
stimulating the flow of able people into the field, in our evidence
we try to emphasise those links. I would also like to emphasise
that it is an inherently international activity because, although
we in the UK can do some things for ourselves, we are very much
plugged into international collaborations and, in particular,
in science, and in many applications we work through ESA. Perhaps
I could just say a word about the perspective of ESA from the
UK. If we look at Europe as a whole, Europe is clearly a match
for the United States in its intellectual capital and in its level
of economic activity, but space overall is one of the few areas
of economic life where Europe as a whole does not match the United
States. The reasons for that are straightforward. Essentially,
the United States ramped up its effort through superpower rivalry.
That is why it has a far larger aerospace industry and that is
why NASA has a budget which is three or four times that of ESA.
For that reason, it seems to me that in ESA there has to be a
focus on some subset of the activities which NASA engages in.
We, as a member of ESA, want, as in all international organisations,
to maximise our leverage to try and get, if we can, more than
our pro-rata share of the action, so those should be the goals.
As to how we do this, I think the important point is to stimulate
excellence in students going into the aerospace area, excellence
in research projects, maximising our impact on the decisions made
by the European Space Agency and maximising our collaboration
between the science and the applications. In that context, one
point which we made in our Royal Society evidence, which was echoed
by the evidence given by a number of other groups, was that BNSC,
although functioning effectively within its limits, has too low
a profile. There should be some effort given to somehow enhancing
its profile because there would thereby be two benefits. First,
there would be some UK organisation which is perceived by UK citizens,
particularly young people, as being a flagship organisation for
space which there is not now, and also it would provide a more
effective interface between the UK and Europe.
Q426 Chairman: I am actually going
to return to that because clearly it is an important issue, but
can I just pin you down on this basis: clearly you have described
the interconnectivity, you say, between particularly academia
and, for instance, industrialists in terms of being able to develop,
and all three of you in your evidence have made that point, but
how close is the interaction between the space science academics
and the industrialists in the UK? We, quite frankly, have heard
evidence that it is not as good as it should be, so, in your view
and indeed the view of the rest of the panel, how good is it?
Lord Rees of Ludlow: Well, if
it is not, it is clearly important to improve it, but I would
have thought it is crucial. Obviously the training of the people
who go into the industrial sector of space in the UK depends on
excellence in universities and strong research groups there and,
even if we are building a space instrument or satellite for scientific
purposes, then of course a lot of the work does involve industry,
so there is the need for a genuine symbiosis in the personnel
and in sharing the technology.
Q427 Chairman: We would agree that
there needs to be that, but the question is: is there, for instance,
compared with France, where there seems to be a really close alignment
between what happens in terms of French space industry and the
academics working in the French universities? Professor Culhane,
what is your view on that?
Professor Culhane: Well, I certainly
take the point that, of the order of a decade or more ago, the
interaction was not effective. In my comparatively recent experience,
it has become much more effective and there are a number of things
driving this, one of which relates to your point about the food
chain. ESA, in establishing large missions in particular, increasingly
operates in the area of so-called `facility class instruments'
and here, contrary to previous practice, an academic group which
will become a niche player will not lead such a thing and there
will be an industry prime, but the prime is absolutely dependent
on the niche skills of the academics, so, for very pragmatic reasons,
universities are allying with industry to make competitive winning,
bids, for these major new facilities. I think this is a structural
change in the way ESA procures some of its large instruments and
that has, for simple pragmatic reasons, led to this outcome. I
believe that is working very well. Certainly in our own institution,
we have at least two major mission examples going through where
this is happening and it is becoming more general.
Q428 Chairman: Professor Rowan-Robinson,
can you comment on that? Do you think it is working well?
Professor Rowan-Robinson: Well,
I think it works at the level of an academic group designing space
instrumentation and then working with industrial contractors to
develop the design and build it. I think what we felt was lacking
was co-ordination by BNSC at the higher level of universities
and the space industry and I think there were two areas where
we thought there was a lack of co-ordination and leadership in
BNSC. One was in the area of technology development in the industrial
context and the other was in the level of training of young people
which is sort of more or less left to the universities to do if
they feel like it, but there is no real national plan for that.
Q429 Chairman: Do you think that
is BNSC's role? Is it their responsibility?
Professor Rowan-Robinson: Well,
it may not be defined as their role, but we feel it is needed.
We feel that whatever organisation is leading space in the UK
should be taking the lead in co-ordinating these areas.
Q430 Chairman: Lord Rees, in terms
of the sort of gestation period between a concept and actually
putting a space mission into operation, what sort of timescale
are we talking about?
Lord Rees of Ludlow: That timescale
is growing of course because of the scale of the operations and
I think for some of these satellites it is 10 or even 15 years
from the concept to the actual flight. The operational phase lasts
longer still. This of course does have a negative impact on how
we train students and involve PhDs, and we have to try and get
the universities to fund distinctive PhD projects, but that is
a problem we share with students in particle physics, et cetera.
Just as a footnote to what my colleagues have said, I think we
have got to bear in mind that the level of our expenditure overall
is much lower than in France, I think we are all aware of that,
and I note that the evidence from the industrial sector has emphasised
this, but that of course does make the linkages less effective
and lowers our profile.
Q431 Chairman: So, in terms of the
UK taking a leading role in ESA and bilateral missions, how could
we improve that, other than just spending more money? Is it just
a matter of money?
Lord Rees of Ludlow: Obviously
if we were involved in more of the so-called `optional' programmes,
then clearly we would have a bigger stake overall, but, if we
look at our involvement in the science programme where of course,
as you know, our contribution is based on a firmer relationship
with GNP, then I think our key strength comes from the high standing
of our academic community and also from our effectiveness in the
decision-making process. There is tremendous competition in deciding
which particular mission actually flies among the many proposals
made to ESA, and the more effective we are in our interface with
ESA and in arguing our case, the more likely it is that the projects
that ESA chooses will be the ones in which the UK has the maximum
stake and for which the UK can get the greatest pay-off.
Q432 Chairman: Could I suggest, Professor
Culhane, that, in terms of bilateral missions with, for instance,
Nigeria, with India, with China, we might be better and get more,
if you like, bangs for our buck, if you will pardon the expression,
by looking at that rather than putting all our eggs into one basket
Professor Culhane: Well, in general
terms I would agree, although I would not pick up all of your
examples, but rather be very pragmatic in selections. The key
issue which is involved here is the comparatively small volume
of our national programme as distinct from that which is directly
related to ESA, and our evidence indeed emphasised that our ratio
of non-ESA to ESA spend is significantly below that of the major
European countries. I think were we to increase that conceptually
rather than simply fiscally, that is to place more emphasis on
a national programme, and here BNSC would obviously be a player,
then we could very selectively and pragmatically pick partners
with whom we are likely to win. We do this at the moment, but,
in my view, not on an adequate scale and we could get much more
bang for buck, so to speak, if we were able to choose from a broader
spectrum of partners.
Q433 Chairman: Professor Rowan-Robinson,
would you agree with that analysis?
Professor Rowan-Robinson: I would
agree, but I think the thing we would want to emphasise is that
enrolment in missions should be decided on scientific grounds
and you should go for the best scientific missions. Sometimes
those will be ESA missions and sometimes there are very good opportunities
with bilaterals, and I am involved in bilateral activities with
NASA and with JAXA, the Japanese agency, and these are very effective
where a real scientific opportunity arises. I am not so much in
favour of saying, "Let's do a mission with Nigeria"
just for the sake of it because it is cheap; it has got to be
Q434 Dr Iddon: Can we reach an agreement
with NASA that, when a British scientist goes up on one of their
missions, they fly with a British passport? Helen Sharman is the
only person who appears to have flown while holding a British
passport and Piers Sellers of course had to convert himself to
being an American.
Professor Rowan-Robinson: These
were not really science missions, so I think the thing is that,
if you are asking, "How important is it in the UK space programme
that there be British astronauts with British passports?",
I would say in itself it is not important. I think there are other
reasons maybe for wanting to see British astronauts.
Chairman: We will return to that later.
That could take a whole morning!
Q435 Dr Spink: Let me take that one
by the horns right now because the Royal Astronomical Society
report of 2005 concluded, "There is science of profound interest
to humankind that can only be pursued on the Moon and Mars by
direct involvement of humans in situ". Now, we also heard
Lord Rees earlier very eloquently saying that BNSC should raise
its profile, of course implying it would need help to do that.
You all can guess of course that, if the UK Government funded
manned flight in some way, this would engage and focus public
excitement and interest and it may well be of scientific value,
according to the Royal Astronomical Society, and in fact the Royal
Society did say that it would cost around about only £150
million per year for quite a few years to engage in full international
manned flights, so why are we not doing it? Do you think we should
Lord Rees of Ludlow: I think I
am on record in earlier contexts as saying that, as a scientist
and practical man, I am sceptical about manned space flight, but,
as a human being, I am strongly in favour. What I mean by that
is that I really hope that some people now living will walk on
Mars and I am an enthusiast about it, I fully realise the inspiration,
but we have to realise that programmes of the kind carried out
by NASA involve immense expense and very long time-frames.
Q436 Dr Spink: Do you disagree with
the £150 million a year that the Royal Astronomical Society
Lord Rees of Ludlow: I think it
depends how much you want to do and it depends what the ticket
price is charged by NASA, because clearly in the short term NASA
would be providing the launch. To go back to the general issue
of the prestige of having people in space, there have been astronauts
from many nations, even from Mongolia, and this has perhaps had
some impact on the public opinion in those countries, but if we
were to pay the full economic costs, then that would be far beyond
us. It is good that the Minister, Malcolm Wicks, did make a statement
that we were not, in principle, opposed to manned space flight.
It is clearly an `own goal' if we say we would never do it, but
we do have to ask how much are we prepared to pay. It is just
a question of the price of the ticket and, if we can raise our
profile by having UK astronauts, then that is great, but we have
got to bear in mind that, if we paid anywhere near the full economic
cost, it would overwhelm all we could do on unmanned. If I can
comment on ESA generally
Q437 Dr Spink: Actually let us just
stick to this, please. Professor Culhane, you have said in your
evidence that we are living on past investment and perhaps suggested
that the investment could be increased. Of course the £150
million per year for manned flight would be in addition to the
£207 million for general space, but do you think it would
be worth spending that to engage young people and the public in
science more positively?
Professor Culhane: I think it
would be very difficult to justify on purely scientific functionality
grounds and, whilst in the past there has been an excessively
doctrinaire opposition to the use of humans in space, I think
we should nevertheless, as Lord Rees has said, evaluate the situation
on its scientific merits. Now, if there are issues of public appeal,
if it is a national matter judged worthy of £150 million
a year to induct a large pool of students, that is a totally different
issue, but it is not doing science.
Q438 Dr Spink: So it is political
as well as scientific?
Professor Culhane: I believe at
this point the case would be largely political.
Q439 Dr Spink: Professor Rowan-Robinson,
do you take a view on this?
Professor Rowan-Robinson: You
have quoted the RAS report and it is absolutely true that the
independent commission which we asked to look at this found examples
of science programmes that probably at the moment could only be
done involving astronauts. For example, deep drilling on Mars,
it needs people to say where the drills should go and so on, so
it is just not very likely that you could do it robotically at
the moment. To achieve those kinds of science scores, the ones
we identify as needing humans, we are talking about a huge programme
and I do not think, within this modest programme of £150
million a year, you are going to get to that goal.
1 Note by the witness: Though we should continue
to evaluate critically the role of humans in space for particular