THE government is considering setting up a British version of Nasa, the American space agency which is currently celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Moon landing.
After decades in which successive British governments have considered human spaceflight an expensive distraction, the science minister, Lord Drayson yesterday refused to rule out the creation a British Nasa.
The government is now looking at re-organising its space policy, which, according to Lord Drayson, required a "much higher profile". The 40th anniversary of the Moon landing in 1969 has sparked new interest in space travel among a new generation, he said.
Asked to rule out a dedicated space agency in the future, Lord Drayson said: "Well, we are looking at the way in which we are organised in managing space, getting better co-ordination across departments – so watch this space. We are going to look at whether or not we need to change the way we organise our space policy to address the valid criticisms of better co-ordination across departments."
The promise of a new policy comes just months after a British test-pilot in the Army Air Corps was accepted into the European Space Agency's Astronaut Corps.
Timothy Peake, 37, from Chichester, a major in the Army Air Corps, was one of six new names unveiled in May, and among the most surprising as successive British governments have preferred to fund robotic exploration instead of human spaceflight.
Britain, however, took the lead in an attempt to explore Mars when, in 2003, the British landing spacecraft, Beagle 2 formed part of the European Space Agency's Mars Express mission. The craft was expected to touch down on Mars in December 2003 but all contact was lost six days before its scheduled entry into the atmosphere.
Lord Drayson also insisted that Britain get more "bang for the buck" from its 783 million five-year funding for the European Space Agency. The peer claimed space research was going to be "increasingly important" in the future, particularly in the fields of climate change. He said the 6 billion UK space industry was a "hidden gem" responsible for innovations used in everyday life.
His goal was to "make British space policy and the leadership we have in space much higher-profile".
He added: "This is an industry that employs 20,000 people, creates a 6 billion contribution to the UK economy but it is not very well understood. We want to raise the profile because we believe that space research and the technology that supports that is going to be increasingly important in the future."
But Lord Drayson conceded that this would cost money: "It is an industry which requires us to invest for the long term but the benefits are worth it. Understanding from space what's going on on our planet is central to addressing the biggest challenge the whole world is facing, climate change, rising sea levels."
He added: "We are the fourth largest contributor to the European Space Agency – that is right. We are not going to increase our funding... but we have got to get more bang for the buck from the money we are putting in."
He said he wanted to see a "clear sense" of the priorities for the industry and have a "clear plan" for the next 20 years.