UK sets vision for human spaceflight and space research

Posted on 7 Jul 2015 by Jonny Williamson

The UK Space Agency has published its National Strategy for Space Environments and Human Spaceflight, ahead of British ESA astronaut Tim Peake’s maiden voyage – expected in December 2015.

The strategy covers a range of scientific and technical disciplines, giving a coherent picture for activities which utilise the space environment – from fundamental physics and novel materials, to healthcare technologies and space science – and sets out the UK’s vision for human spaceflight.

The global space technology and exploration market is worth approximately $314bn a year. Image courtesy of DPC.
The global space technology and exploration market is worth approximately $314bn a year. Image courtesy of DPC.

Dr David Parker, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, commented: “Our new national strategy is all about making the most of space: exploiting the unique opportunities for growth which human spaceflight and associated research programmes can offer.

“I’m immensely proud of British scientists, who really are among the world’s best, as demonstrated by the strong showing in the recent international space life sciences competition. Space and life sciences are two areas where the UK has a proud heritage and the UK Space Agency is committed to helping researchers access unique facilities such as the ISS.”

The new strategy sets out the principles for the UK Space Agency approach to future human presence in space, while also covering the broad varieties of research that are conducted in space; utilise one or more aspects of the space environment – for example, weightlessness or radiation; or take place in ground-based facilities which mimic these conditions, such as drop towers simulating microgravity or Antarctic stations providing isolation.

British European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut

The forthcoming flight of British ESA astronaut Tim Peake, in December 2015, will be a major milestone for the UK’s involvement in human spaceflight. Peake will be the first British astronaut to visit the International Space Station (ISS) and during his six month mission will conduct a range of scientific experiments which will increase knowledge, deliver benefits on Earth and test technologies for future missions further afield, such as to the Moon or Mars. He will also help deliver an inspiring range of outreach and educational activities.

The Strategy brings this diverse range of interests, linked by common requirements and facilities, into a single, coherent framework and outlines the UK’s plan to coordinate the various interested parties in the UK and provide them with continued access to the space infrastructure their research requires.

Most of the UK’s involvement in human spaceflight and research in the space environment is through the European Space Agency (ESA). At the 2012 ESA Ministerial, the UK Space Agency made its first contribution to the International Space Station (ISS) and ESA’s European Life and Physical Sciences Programme (ELIPS).

In the latest Ministerial (2014) the Agency again pledged money to the ISS and ELIPS. This money – £49.2m – gives UK researchers access to the $100bn ISS programme, allowing them to use the unique environment of space to carry out research and make important advances in areas such as materials science, additive manufacturing and medical/biological sciences.

UK success in life science experiments for space

The UK has a strong research base and is rapidly establishing itself as a key player in space environments research. In a recent international call for new life sciences experiments to be flown on the ISS – coordinated by NASA, ESA, and the Japanese and Canadian space agencies – three new experiments led by UK research teams were selected by ESA for further definition.

Of these, two were the top-ranked proposals in Europe in terms of scientific merit, judged to be ‘outstanding’ by the international review panel:

  • Dr Timothy Etheridge, University of Exeter, will study muscle decline in space, and potential ways of counteracting this.
  • Professor Donna Davies, University of Southampton, will investigate how a lack of gravity affects the respiratory system, using a novel 3D model of human bronchia.

Both experiments will improve our understanding of human health here on Earth, as well as the effects of long duration human space travel.