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Leicester 2002 Wednesday, 11 September, 2002, 14:12 GMT 15:12 UK
Privateers to push space frontier
Mars, Nasa
The risks could be too great for national agencies

If manned spaceflight ever does extend beyond Earth's orbit and the Moon, it could well be the privateers who lead the way - not publicly funded space agencies.

England's Astronomer Royal, Professor Sir Martin Rees, used an address to the British Association's science festival in Leicester to speculate on the future colonisation of other worlds.

He said the space tourists Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth showed there were plenty of people prepared to pay to go into orbit and if the technology became available at a reasonable price, he said it was more than likely that explorers and adventurers would want to reach out into the Solar System.

"But it's clear that before humans go far beyond the Earth, all kinds of machines will go there first. You can confidently predict that in the next 20 years very advanced robots will be developed to go there.

"What may then happen as costs come down is that space exploration ceases to be something done as national and international programmes but becomes something that is done in more boisterous and disorganised ways by private consortia and even individuals.

World agency

"If that is the case, it will be done even more cheaply because risks could be taken that could not be taken by a national or international body."

These privateers would be following the example of explorers who set out from Europe for the New World in the 15th and 16th Centuries, mainly bankrolled by rich monarchs.

And if missions did take this route, the astronomer said, the Solar System could rapidly resemble the Wild West, where early pioneers staked out new territories across America.

Dr Ian Crawford, a space scientist from University College London, is appalled by the prospect.

"We should develop appropriate international space institutions to protect the environment of space," he said.

"I for one would argue for a World Space Agency and in the countries that have come together to build the International Space Station we have an embryonic world agency."

He said such a body could manage the commercialisation of space and limit its uses for military purposes.

BA science festival at Leicester University.

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