By Rebecca Morelle
Science reporter, BBC News, York
The UK must play an active and central role in future human space missions to the Moon and Mars, a report concludes.
The report envisages UK citizens on the Moon some day
It has proposed a plan in which two British astronauts could go into space by 2015 at a cost of £50-75m.
The UK Space Exploration Working Group (SEWG) said British participation in manned and unmanned missions was vital for both UK science and the economy.
The report was presented at the BA Festival of Science and will feed into the current review of UK space policy.
The working group (SEWG), whose members represent science, technology commerce and the public, was set up by the British National Space Centre (BNSC) in January 2007.
It was asked to assess the UK's future space activity in the light of the publication of the Global Exploration Strategy (GES), which outlined the common space goals of major agencies, including from the US (Nasa), Russia (Roskosmos), China, India and Europe.
The GES put forward a framework for manned and robotic missions to the surfaces of the Moon and Mars; and in the future to remote sites, such as Near Earth Objects like asteroids, as well as unmanned missions that would probe the outer reaches of the Solar System.
The SEWG has now concluded that the UK must play a prominent role in all of these activities.
Doing so, the report said, would "generate new scientific knowledge, increase excitement for science and technology in the young to build the workforce of the future, and provide a grand challenge to invigorate the UK economy".
This would mean the UK moving into human space exploration. To date, British policy has sidestepped all programmes that involve people: it has steadfastly refused to make contributions to the European Space Agency's astronaut corps or related missions, such as to the International Space Station.
Those Britons who have flown in space recently - Michael Foale, Piers Sellers and Nicholas Patrick - have done so by becoming US citizens and enrolling in the Nasa astronaut programme.
UK-born astronauts like Piers Sellers must fly under a foreign flag
But the SEWG said this policy had to change, and put forward a suggestion as to how it should be done.
It has proposed bypassing membership of the European astronaut corps and simply purchasing seats on a Russian Soyuz rocket - as "space tourists" can do now.
An initial five-year programme would see two UK citizens selected, trained and then sent to the International Space Station in 2013 and 2014, the group said.
The total cost for the project would amount to between £50m and £75m over a five-year period - rather than the £60m a year it would cost to join the European corps.
If the proposal was approved, and was a success, then the UK could start to plan to send more Britons into space, perhaps to the Moon after 2020 when it is hoped a permanent crewed outpost will be established on the Moon.
Frank Close, a professor at the University of Oxford and chair of the SWEG, said: "The UK should take early steps for the future role of human exploration in space.
"If it is not done now we will be denying future scientists the opportunity to influence this vision - and if ever we intend to do it then the sooner the better.
"It is time to decide: do we lead or do we just follow."
He added that the recurring debate in Britain over whether humans or robots were best suited to do space exploration was now redundant.
He said: "It is not a question of robots versus humans. There are some questions that robots alone will be able to answer and there are some questions that you require humans to answer."
The group concluded: "The UK has a long and noble tradition for exploration across our planet. It is time for a new vision and a more distant voyage."
Current UK spending on civil space activities stands at about £207m a year. Any involvement in human spaceflight would require a substantial increase in funding from the government.
The BNSC is currently conducting a review of British space policy, with the findings due to be reported in the next few months.