BRITAIN could send astronauts into space after decades of robot-only missions to take advantage of a "new wave" of exploration.
The science minister Ian Pearson said the international community was "on the cusp of a wave of new space exploration", and Britain needed to take full advantage of the opportunities.
"What we want to do is review the situation to make sure the UK does not get left behind," he said.
The rethink comes after China started investing more in its space programme and follows France's call for an international manned mission to the Moon.
Britain has also recently signed up to a Global Space Strategy with Nasa and 12 other agencies, which has a mission for manned space exploration at its heart.
On Monday, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, called for a global programme to explore Mars, bringing together European states and more established space powers like the United States and Russia.
British scientists have proposed sending an unmanned mission, but others worry about the impact that a costly astronaut mission would have on other budgets.
Professor Ian Robson, the director of the UK Astronomy Technology Centre at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, said space exploration could lead to spin-off technologies that benefited other areas of science and had everyday uses.
But he admitted that scientists were wary of human spaceflight as it was extremely expensive compared with robotic programmes. The astronomy centre itself faces having its budget slashed in half over the next three years.
Prof Robson added: "The amount and quality of the science that can be achieved is doubtful.
"With current technologies it certainly is not possible to send humans to study any object further than Mars and even that is still on the verge of being science fiction."
Human space flight was more about "exploration rather than delivering hard science".
"While potentially important to the aspirations of a nation, it should not take money from the science budget, which is already very hard-pressed. Scientists in the US have seen the Nasa budget redirect funding from science into human spaceflight with the resulting loss of scientific missions and hence the extreme caution with which this topic is viewed by many in the UK."
Under the new civil space strategy – which runs until 2012 – an international space facility will be created at Harwell, Oxfordshire to focus on climate change and robotic space exploration.
Meanwhile, the British National Space Centre (BNSC), which co-ordinates the UK's civil space activities, will examine the scientific, technological and economic costs and benefits of manned missions.
"In 1986 the UK chose not to participate in human space missions," a spokesman for the centre said. "The publication of the Global Exploration Strategy provides a suitable point to review this decision."
The strategy sets out ambitions for closer involvement in international initiatives to explore the Moon, Mars and beyond.
We must return to final frontier
IF THE UK does not seize its chance to be involved in human space travel now, it will miss out on lucrative opportunities for the coming decades.
The government's promise to at least look at this is welcome after successive working groups made up of scientists have set out the benefits of human space exploration.
The UK has also made a commitment to space travel through the Global Exploration Strategy, an agreement with 13 other international space agencies. The strategy includes human space exploration, so the UK has to decide how significant it wants its role to be.
While the costs of human space missions are large – with a modest programme costing perhaps 100 million over five years – the benefits are even greater.
Human exploration of space can help scientists as the effects of being in space mimic many of the symptoms of diseases.
For example, the lack of gravity can lead to a loss of bone density similar to osteoporosis. We can also examine effects similar to the loss of balance through inner ear problems and study cardiovascular conditions.
Also, we still need astronauts to maintain scientific infrastructure in space. Had it not been for astronauts carrying out work on the Hubble telescope, we would have lost it.
Another benefit of human space travel relates to commercial and industrial advantages. If the UK opts out of human space flights, it will ostracise itself from the kind of commercial contracts dedicated to such missions.
Human space travel can only encourage more students to take up sciences at a time when interest in these subjects dwindles.
A new report on the collaboration with Nasa over the MoonLITE space probe will be very positive about the UK's participation. This is good news because, while it is a robotic mission, it paves the way for later human lunar exploration and possible UK involvement in that exciting endeavour.
• Dr Ian Crawford is senior lecturer of planetary geology at Birkbeck University.
Dr Ian Crawford
US PLANS TO SHOOT DOWN FAILING SPY SATELLITE
THE United States is planning to shoot down an out-of-control spy satellite that is in a deteriorating orbit and is expected to hit Earth during the first week of March.
Officials said the preferred option would be to fire a missile from a US navy cruiser and blast the satellite before it enters Earth's atmosphere.
Shooting down a satellite is a sensitive issue due to the controversy surrounding China's anti-satellite test last year, when Beijing shot down one of its defunct weather satellites, drawing criticism from the United States and other countries.