The UK took a small step towards the stars with the launch of its own space agency yesterday — although its modest budget means the Science Minister’s dream of “human beings living on Mars” is likely to remain in the realms of science fiction.
The UK Space Agency has an operating budget of just £230m. The US space agency Nasa has a budget of around £12bn.
The emphasis at the launch was on realities of economics, with Lord Mandelson on hand with British astronaut Timothy Peake to keep everyone’s feet on the ground.
The Business Secretary said: “I think it is important to remember that although it is cutting edge, this stuff is not sci-fi. It may start in space, but it comes down to Earth very quickly and is directly relevant to all our daily lives.”
Science Minister Lord Drayson said he would like to see space vehicles launched from the UK one day. He revealed more of his vision for space when asked what he hoped to see happen in the next 50 to 100 years.
“I'd certainly like to see human beings living on Mars,” he said. “That should be do-able technically over that period.”
Britain's mini-version of Nasa will take overall responsibility for UK space activities, replacing the soon-to-be defunct British National Space Centre (BNSC). Operating initially from the BNSC's headquarters in Swindon, it will for the first time allow all aspects of civilian space policy to be handled “under one roof”.
At present, space is the responsibility of a loose partnership of Government departments and research councils.
It is hoped the new agency will help Britain become competitive in the global space economy.
The recession-defying industry already contributes around £6bn a year to the economy and supports 68,000 jobs directly and indirectly. Within 20 years it has the potential to grow to a £40bn industry and create 100,000 jobs, said Lord Drayson.
“The action we're taking today shows that we're really serious about space,” he said. “The UK Space Agency will give the sector the muscle it needs to fulfil its ambition,” said Lord Drayson.
Major Timothy Peake, Britain’s first “homegrown” astronaut, had the job of starting a countdown to unveiling the space agency's “flying arrow” logo, at London’s Queen Elizabeth II centre.
The astronaut is training in Russia prior to flying on missions to the International Space Centre.