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Air chief: UK should have RAF astronaut

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The head of the Royal Air Force (RAF) has said the UK should have a manned space programme, and that his organisation should provide astronauts.

Flight International reports that Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy expressed his views at a big dinner in London this week. The good marshal apparently felt that the lure of spaceflight might attract young people to a career in moustachioed aerial explosives delivery.

"I would like to see an RAF astronaut in the not-too-distant future," he said. "Space is an area where the UK needs more focus."

In countries which have manned space programmes, the traditional routes to astronaut status are a career as a military aviator - often a test pilot - or as an academic in a suitable discipline. NASA also recruits teachers, or "educator astronauts".

A British forces pilot has in fact trained as an astronaut: but he was from the Army Air Corps, not the crabs, and he never actually flew in space. Major Timothy Mace was chosen as understudy for Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut, who took a trip to Russia's Mir space station in 1991.

Thus far, the RAF's only - and rather tenuous - claim to space fame involves a British-born US astronaut, Dr Nick Patrick, who was taught to fly light aircraft by the air force reserves while at university in the UK*. He was persuaded to take an RAF flag into orbit with him on a shuttle mission last year.

In the USA, the air force doesn't have an especially high profile in the astronaut corps. Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, were both navy men rather than being from the pastel-blue mob. Two of the most famous American astronauts of recent times, trenchcoated nappy-clad carpark scuffler Lisa Nowak and her erstwhile squeeze Bill Oefelein, are both naval officers. John Glenn, the only other astronaut whose name we can remember offhand, was a US Marine.

Britain has navy, army and even a few marine pilots too; so in fact, based on the US model, there seems no real reason why Blighty's future armed forces space-aces - if any - would be from the slug-balancers. No matter what air-marshal Torpy thinks.®

*The University Air Squadrons are a kind of free flying club run by the RAF at most UK universities. A fair number of their members go on to become RAF officers, but this isn't obligatory.

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