Brits in Space: London Mulls Manned Space Missions

Britain is to consider overturning Margaret Thatcher's decision not to launch manned space missions, according to a government strategy document published Thursday.

Under the new strategy, an international space facility would be created at Harwell, Oxfordshire, to focus on climate change and robotic space exploration.

The U.K. would also continue to be involved in Earth observation, space science and telecoms developments. It would have closer involvement in international initiatives on the future shape of space exploration to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

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"Space technology is a vital part of our everyday life, and satellite communications and space technology provide strong business opportunities for the future," said Ian Pearson, the science minister.

"Applications from space underpin today's major business sectors. They provide essential information to understand the Earth's environment, changing climate and weather and they enable great strides to be made in the scientific understanding of our solar system and beyond, and, provide innovative tools for enhancing our quality of life," he said.

"The U.K. is at the leading edge of these activities ... the Government is determined that the U.K. remains at the forefront of the evolving space scene."

The document, entitled U.K. Civil Space Strategy: 2008-2012 and Beyond, follows up on a report by an expert working group last year which recommended that Britain should abandon its opposition to manned space exploration and launch its first astronaut as early as 2012.

Britain gave up on idea of manned missions in 1986 after Thatcher, then Prime Minister, pulled out of manned missions planned by the European Space Agency.

Britain is the only G8 country not to have a manned space program and spends only £200 million a year on civil space activities -- only a third of the amount spent by France, which has a manned program.

Thatcher's decision means that Britain does not have to compete in the hyper-expensive business of training and launching astronauts.

It also means that the only chance budding British astronauts have of making it into space is by winning a competition -- which is how Helen Sharman became the first Briton in space aboard a Soyuz flight in 1991 -- or by getting an American passport and going to work for NASA.

Scientists say that the lack of a manned space program is one reason why there has been such a sharp fall in the number of children applying to study science in U.K. schools.

The review of the 1986 decision is to be led by the British National Space Center, which co-ordinates Britain's civil space activities.