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Sod robots, send people into space: report

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People must be at the heart of the UK's space exploration efforts, according to a report published today. The report's authors contradict the UK's long-held policy that robots are where it is at, both scientifically and financially, when it comes to touring the solar system. They argue that it is time for a new vision.

"We recommend that the UK engages in preparatory human space flight activities", said professor Frank Close, University of Oxford and chairman of the UK Space Exploration Working Group (SEWG).

"Simultaneously we should maintain and extend the UK’s significant role in planetary science and robotic exploration. The UK has had a great tradition in exploration over the centuries, but it is now time for a new vision."

The fabulously named SEWG was convened by the British National Space Centre, which asked it to review international space programmes, both national and collaborative. The team concluded that we are opening a chapter of unprecedented collaborative exploration, and that the UK needs to be in at the start.

The team is not arguing for an abandonment of robotic exploration. Both human and robotic explorers have a part to play in generating scientific knowledge and inspiring the public, they say. But it is time to reconsider the priority given to robots. The report's authors say a decision must be taken by 2010 about how involved the UK wants to be in human spaceflight.

The report recommends the UK should establish a detailed plan to enable a decision to be made on whether the UK becomes involved in human space flight in the decade beginning 2010 if it wishes to take advantage of the excellent scientific opportunities that appear in a range of disciplines in the period beyond 2020, when there are plans to establish a permanently crewed lunar outpost.

The group argues that, by 2015, the UK could send two astronauts into space at a cost of roughly £50m-£70m, according to the BBC report. This would help engage the public, inspire a new generation of space scientists, the group says, and put the UK in a position to take advantage of the opportunities that a (much planned) permanently manned lunar base would offer. ®

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