Congratulations to Major Timothy Peake for being selected by ESA as the UK’s second national astronaut!
Although he now has to spend a minimum of 3.5 years in training, surely he won’t have to wait as long as Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang, who spent 14 years as a member of ESA’s astronaut corps before he flew on STS-116 in 2006?
As Duncan Law-Green asks on his blog: “How many British nationals do you think will cross the 100km Karman line before ESA lets Tim Peake take his first flight?”
And, more to the point, who represents the larger growth market for passenger spaceflight in the coming decades?
The latest press release from Virgin Galactic (28 May 2009) announces the successful completion of the first phase of tests on the rocket motor for SpaceShipTwo. Sir Richard Branson is quoted as saying: “As Virgin Galactic gets ever closer to the start of commercial operations, we are reaching and passing many important and historic milestones. The Virgin MotherShip (VMS) Eve, the first of our amazing, all carbon composite, high altitude WhiteKnightTwo launch vehicles, is flying superbly. SpaceShipTwo, which will air launch from Eve, is largely constructed and awaiting the start of its own test flight programme later this year. [...] We believe space is on the cusp of a new industrial revolution.”
Footage of the tests, along with the full interview with Sir Richard Branson, is available online.
Britain’s first national astronaut was selected almost 20 years ago (in November 1989). Helen Sharman OBE has so far made only a single flight in her astronautical career, to the Mir space station in May 1991.
Of somewhat wider significance is the fact that, with the docking of Soyuz TMA-15 on Friday 29 May 2009, the resident crew of the ISS has now increased to six.
Again, progress is achingly slow. It has taken 38 years to get from the first 3-man space station (Salyut, June 1971) to the first 6-person one. The big question is this: how long till the next doubling of the baseline population in low Earth orbit?
According to the British National Space Centre: “The path to becoming a European astronaut is daunting and designed so that only the best of the best will ever make it into space” (SPACE:UK, September 2008, p.3).
So long as this attitude prevails, we’ll be waiting a very long time for the next doubling of the space population -- and a long time, too, before we see a third official UK astronaut!
As you are aware The Planetary Society is already involved in lobbying on an international scale. The UK has specific problems regarding lobbying by space related groups. The BIS has done its best, currently Parliament is too preoccupied to be concerned about space issues, however if the space interest fraternity are serious about lobbying UK parliament then it will need to present a more professional approach rather than the academic enthusiasts style. This would require serious money however and would need aerospace companies involved who would have to fund an All Party Group staging events with some incentives. Without this parliamentarians will not take a serious interest in the numbers required to make a change.
The Planetary Society
With the establishment of the Augustine Review Panel, the future of the Bush Vision for Space Exploration, as of the emerging Constellation programme, is very much up for grabs.
Michael Huang points out that Norman Augustine is not new to decision-making on NASA’s future -- in fact, he headed an earlier commission, in 1990, which helped to terminate the Space Exploration Initiative announced by Bush senior. Could history be about to repeat itself?
“The administration will continue to say, publicly, that it fully supports human spaceflight. [...] Privately, the administration is figuring out how to cut human spaceflight without getting blamed for it.” -- Yes, Minister!!!
So what should NASA be instructed to do? Keep the Shuttle? Scrap the Shuttle? Continue work on the Ares boosters? What about the ISS?
And what about COTS? -- many people are arguing for it to be extended to provide a commercial manned orbital capability (e.g. Jonathan Goff, “COTS Thoughts”, 25 February 2009).
Should commercial access to orbit take priority over the return to the Moon? Or can low Earth orbit, the Moon and Mars be integrated into a broader programme which balances progress in one realm with progress in the others?
See too Jeff Foust’s extremely interesting analysis in The Space Review, reporting the views of Buzz Aldrin, Jeff Greason and Robert Zubrin.
Also the article by John C. Mankins, arguing for a revitalised investment in new space technology development. His view of Constellation is dim: “By recent estimates, the transportation-related cost of a single human mission to the Moon using the present, low-technology design solution will exceed $5 billion; transportation for two crewed lunar missions per year would require approximately 60% of NASA’s annual budget. [...] it is fantasy to suppose that the civil space program can affordably accomplish ambitious goals and objectives in space using systems concepts and technologies of the last century.”
So do we have to be satisfied with a space programme which can only afford the Moon by abandoning the space station built up at such great effort and expense in low Earth orbit? And which by implication will only be able to afford Mars by abandoning the Moon? Is the key international collaboration, as so many in the agencies insist? Or is it commercialisation?
Please send in your views for publication!
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