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European Space Programme

Volume 712: debated on Tuesday 21 July 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, following the selection of Major Timothy Peake as a member of the European Space Agency’s astronaut corps, they will further their involvement in the European space programme; and, if so, how.

My Lords, the Government are delighted that Britain has its first official astronaut and applauds ESA for picking the best man for the job. The UK is the fourth largest contributor to the European Space Agency budget. Our focus is to get the most out of that investment for UK science and industry.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. As everybody knows, it has been more than 30 years since anybody walked on the moon and the only people who have walked on the moon have been Americans. Have the Government any plans for a British astronaut, or at least a European one, to walk on the moon as soon as possible through the help of the European Space Agency? Are the Government prepared to spend more of the space budget on exploration, which is more inspiring and glamorous, and less on the specialised unmanned satellite launches, on which most of the money is now spent? There is too much junk flying around the earth at the moment.

My Lords, the Government spend approximately £260 million a year on civil space research. We believe that that is an appropriate amount and that we get a tremendous return for that investment. It generates, for example, more than £6.5 billion of turnover for the UK within the UK space industry. We recognise that manned space exploration is important but we believe that by focusing our investment on those scientific areas where the UK has real critical mass and real leadership, in satellites and robotics, we can leverage that leadership in return for participating in manned space exploration through the ESA programme. That is why we are delighted that we now have our first British astronaut.

My Lords, most of the funding for our space research comes from the science budget within the research councils. Most countries do not do that. Most countries establish a space agency which seems to me appropriate as much of the fallout and application of space research is in the military and commercial sector. Does the Minister think that that would be a better route for us to take as well? I declare my interest as chairman of Diamond Light Source, which is funded from the science budget.

My Lords, the noble Lord explains exactly the issue relating to the way in which we organise the investment in space. We have now launched a consultation to assess whether the current arrangements, whereby we have pooled funding from a number of different departments into the NSC, could be organised through an agency status to give better clarity and to strengthen our position in negotiation with international partners, such as within ESA.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Does the Minister not agree that manned space flight is extraordinarily expensive compared with unmanned space flight, given the extra payloads required to send men into orbit beyond the earth’s gravity? Therefore, is it not right for most of our attention to be focused on unmanned space flight, which gives the best scientific return for money?

My Lords, my noble friend makes a good point in that manned space exploration is extraordinarily expensive but it provides extraordinary benefits too, as has been very thoroughly reviewed over the past few days on the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landings. I agree with my noble friend that the current policy of the UK Government of concentrating our investment in areas of scientific strength around robotics and satellites is appropriate and will continue.

My Lords, as a former member of your Lordships’ Science and Technology Committee which undertook a study into space technology many years ago, I ask the Minister whether he agrees that there are dangers in sending people into space. It may be glamorous but it can be very polluting. The decision of your Lordships’ Select Committee was that unmanned space experiments were far more valuable than sending people into space.

My Lords, I disagree with the noble Lord in that I believe that the benefits which accrue to mankind from manned space exploration outweigh the potential drawbacks. I recognise the risks—they are taken very seriously—but I believe that the way in which the world has remembered what happened 40 years ago yesterday brings into focus the real importance to the human race in continuing exploration into space. I hope that we participate fully in the plans regarding landing a man on Mars.

My Lords, I am somewhat disturbed by some of the answers to these questions. Has the Treasury, together with my noble friend, been looking at the prospects of expenditure with a view to the priorities of other departments over the next few years?

My Lords, as my noble friend is well aware, the Treasury looks at everything. I can reassure him that the Treasury has looked very carefully at the science budget. However, I repeat what I said in one of my earlier answers: we believe that the investment that we are making at the moment, some £260 million per year, is the appropriate level of investment. That makes us the fourth largest contributor to the European space programme. We have no intention to increase that investment, but we believe that we can go further in leveraging for the UK returns from that investment. Getting our first British astronaut into the European programme and having the first investment by ESA into the United Kingdom at Harwell in Oxfordshire are two signs that we are achieving that aim.