Putting space exploration back on the agenda

Senior reporter

Space exploration probably isn’t at the top of most people’s priority lists if you ask them what areas of government spending should be protected from cuts. Persuading anyone that visiting Mars is more important than building schools, fighting disease or protecting against floods would be a near impossible task.

With Western governments still struggling to get their deficits under control, it’s not surprising that NASA’s budget is set to remain at its lowest rate (as a percentage of total spending) since 1959 for the next few years. Its European counterpart ESA has just agreed a €10bn budget for the period 2013-2017, effectively a big cut given that it has spent over €4bn this year alone.

No wonder NASA pulled out of the planned ExoMars mission to follow the Curiosity rover with an operation to look for signs of life on the Red Planet. Perhaps we should be more surprised that ESA is still pushing ahead with the project.

Viewed through this lens, the short-term outlook for space exploration doesn’t look good. But there are a few other signs that we should feel more optimistic about the prospects for space – and there are plenty of ideas and enthusiasm out there to get excited about, even if the path to funding new projects isn’t clear.

For one thing the UK space industry is one of the few sectors of the economy that has continued to grow throughout the downturn and the government has increased Britain’s contribution to ESA with the aim of helping create a £30bn industry by 2030.

Of course, the UK’s speciality is in satellites not space exploration, but that hasn’t stopped us from joining ESA’s programme to contribute to NASA’s manned vehicle Orion. According to a recent report, this multi-purpose crew vehicle (MPCV) could be flying astronauts to the Moon by 2019, although NASA has yet to confirm this.

And, as the UK Space Agency’s science director David Parker pointed out to The Engineerwhen we questioned him about where the Britain’s contribution to propulsion systems might come from, UK-based companies such as Astrium and Ampac ISP have been building spacecraft thrusters for many years.

Returning to the Moon (even just to orbit it) would be a big deal but it wouldn’t be breaking exciting new ground or capture the public’s imagination like, say, a manned mission to Mars. That might still be decades away but some recent developments make it seem like a more realistic possibility and might even bring such an achievement somewhat closer.

Barack Obama announced NASA’s intentions to send humans to Mars by the mid-2030s back in 2010 but the entry of private companies to the space transport sphere has seen some more ambitious plans formulated. Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp is hoping to establish a permanent colony on Mars by 2023 through his Mars One project, while SpaceX founder Elon Musk recently announced similar intentions of taking 80,000 people paying $500,000 each to a Martian settlement.

Just this week, UK firm Reaction Engines announced that it (and ESA) had validated its heat exchanging technology that will enable the creation of the Skylon single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane. Such a craft has already been envisioned as facilitating a manned journey to Mars (although the inter-planetary travel would take place with a different vehicle) through a scheme named Project Troy.

And I haven’t even mentioned China, which has its own Mars mission proposals and could become the world’s largest economy in the time it takes for the US to get its plans off the ground.

None of these schemes yet have the funds, the backing or the technology to be certain to happen. And with the economic downturn likely to drag on for some years yet, a sudden announcement of funds to bring forward a manned Mars mission seems pretty unlikely.

But humanity’s space ambitions are by no means dead. The resourcefulness and creativity that helped get us to the Moon 40 years ago are now being channelled to find new ways of enabling space exploration. And what’s more, the UK could play a greater role in this than ever before.