LOSSIEMOUTH, we have lift-off. Space tourism - including a plan by Sir Richard Branson to launch commercial rockets from Scotland - should be encouraged by the government, according to a group of MPs.
The House of Commons science and technology select committee says important projects should be supported by ministers rather than left to enthusiasts and entrepreneurs.
It also warns that there must be a coherent strategy on space exploration, including space tourism, if Britain is not to be left behind by other countries - and says Britain should consider its own manned space exploration in future.
The call means that, within a decade, Cape Lossiemouth could rival Cape Canaveral as a launch centre, and Scotland could be hosting international visitors eager for the ultimate tourism experience. The spin-off would be the creation of hundreds of well-paid jobs and the attraction of investment in the "knowledge economy".
In its report 2007: A Space Policy published today, the committee says the government must do more so that the UK can fulfil its potential in a number of key areas, such as exploration, satellite navigation and earth observation, the last of which could be crucial to the fight against climate change.
It also calls for support for space tourism by "appropriate regulation", paving the way for official approval of plans to fly paying customers into space.
Sir Richard's firm Virgin Galactic has already pledged to launch commercial space flights from RAF Lossiemouth on the Moray Firth by the end of the decade. Sigourney Weaver, star of the sci-fi film Alien, and Victoria Principal, the former Dallas actress, are among more than 150 who have already booked their 114,000 seats on the programme.
Highland and Islands Enterprise yesterday confirmed it had been in touch with Virgin Galactic about the project, which could bring huge benefits to Scotland's tourism industry and to its research and development economy.
Ian Yeoman, the scenario planning manager for VisitScotland, said space tourism was no longer far-fetched and was vital in helping Scotland's tourism industry achieve its ambitious growth targets. "Consumer values have changed because of greater affluence, and visitors are wanting a unique experience - something that appeals to their emotions," he said. "In the near future, space travel will be within the reach of the growing numbers of the very affluent, and Scotland should make sure it is well-placed to benefit.
"Luxury tourism, aimed at the top end of the market, is one of the most important areas of growth. Space travel means the ultimate luxury adventure is here, as technology makes it accessible and affordable. The future tourist is looking for newness and adventure to distinguish them from the crowd."
Space tourism became a reality in 2001 when American multi-millionaire Dennis Tito paid 10 million for a trip to the International Space Station aboard a Russian spacecraft. He orbited the Earth for a week.
Although Virgin Galactic will be based in New Mexico, it plans to create a European launch site, and has already identified the "ideal" conditions at RAF Lossiemouth.
Its space tourists would be taken to a height of about 55,000ft at which point the rocket would be fired, propelling them out into space before returning to Earth in an operation similar to that of a Space Shuttle landing. The whole flight would take about two and a half hours, with tourists spending 15 minutes in space, including five minutes of weightlessness. Seven or eight people would be able to travel on any one trip.
But while there has been enthusiasm about the idea of space tourism, governments and public-sector agencies have been wary.
The committee of MPs says it should not be the responsibility of the government to fund this work but says developments should be encouraged through appropriate regulation. It also criticises the government's apparent outright rejection of manned space flights - MPs want the option of such missions to be left open.
Phil Willis, MP, the chairman of the committee, said: "Space should be an arena in which today's fantastic ideas are assessed seriously, because they could be tomorrow's reality. It is crucial the government increases funding for space programmes now in order to benefit future generations. The space sector should not have to survive solely on the fruits of past investments in space. There are opportunities for the UK to lead developments in many emerging areas as long as the government shows the political lead essential for the UK research and industrial sectors."
Last year, the government spent 207.6 million on space activities. The committee says that's not enough if Britain wants to establish its own space agency. It also points to potential practical uses of more space-based technology, including satellites to monitor offenders or patients with Alzheimer's.
At present, two-thirds of UK investment is channelled through the European Space Agency, and the committee says the establishment of an ESA centre in the UK would be beneficial.
Lord Rees, the president of the Royal Society, Britain's leading academic institution, said: "The UK's profile in space lags behind France and Germany and to change this we need an expanded effort, and a UK space agency.
"Moreover, the report rightly emphasises that the UK's existing efforts, which are modest but highly cost-effective, deserve greater 'visibility' and coherence. Everyone has heard of NASA - hardly any have heard of the British National Space Centre.
"Human space flight captures our imaginations and the UK should never completely close the door on this. However, the UK and Europe could lead the world in space science and technology if they were to focus on robotic projects."
Scotland is uniquely placed to benefit from interest in space technology, with 13,250 jobs and 150 companies already dependent on aerospace activities such as avionics, maintenance, airframes and engine manufacture and supply. Scotland is also leading the way at developing materials such as carbon composites that are used to make aircraft lighter.
Douglas McLachlan, of the law firm Biggart Baillie, which specialises in intellectual property rights, said: "A thriving UK commercial and civilian space sector will contribute to the Exchequer and, through tax revenue, promote the development of bespoke intellectual property, reduce the brain drain of workers to the United States and could reverse the decline in the uptake of science and engineering courses in secondary and tertiary education."
Scottish Enterprise is staking a claim for the country's future space industry through Careers Scotland Space School - a world-leading programme supported by the Executive and the international space community. A total of 26 young Scots are preparing to travel to the space school in Houston, Texas, in September as part of a programme that aims to inspire them into a career in space science.
But there is fierce competition from other agencies. Yorkshire Forward has secured a deal for the creation of the European Space Agency's latest education centre - its first in Britain.
The committee says: "The government currently spends only 0.038 per cent of its overall budget on space. It is necessary for government to take a more strategic approach."
FAR FROM A FLYING START
SPACE exploration might be a new frontier for British technology and scientific research, but not all previous efforts have instilled confidence in UK space missions.
Today's House of Commons committee report notes: "We are conscious that some critics will argue space is high-risk and costly. There are numerous examples of projects that have not gone to plan."
Among them is the Cryosat, the satellite designed to monitor sea-ice thickness, which crashed shortly after its launch in October 2005. In 2003, the Beagle 2 landing craft, whose purpose was to search for signs of Martian life, past or present, went missing while trying to land on Mars - it is also thought to have crashed.
The UK's involvement in space began in 1959, when Harold Macmillan, the prime minister, announced a space research programme. The first results were seen three years later, when NASA's Ariel satellite carried several experiments contributed by British scientists.
Helen Sharman was the first Briton in space, in 1991, on the Soviet enterprise Project Juno, while Michael Foale became the first British man in space a year later.