By Irene Klotz
Cape Canaveral, Florida
It is probably too late for the UK to play a role in the ISS
The UK's decision to shun human spaceflight was a mistake that needs to be changed, says Europe's International Space Station programme chief.
But with Nasa on the verge of ending its shuttle programme and the Russian Soyuz capsules overbooked, it will not be easy to reverse course, warns Alan Thirkettle, a Brit who left the country to head European Space Agency (Esa) projects.
"I think it's a fundamental mistake," Thirkettle said in an interview with the BBC News website. "They've totally blown it."
He was speaking in Florida where preparations are underway for the launch of Esa's Columbus module. The laboratory is scheduled to be flown to the International Space Station (ISS) in December.
Thirkettle says the UK decided in the early 1980s to only contribute to space programmes that were of immediate financial benefit to industry, such as communication satellites - but believes this was short-sighted.
It had left Britain inexperienced in technologies of long-term benefit, such as life support systems, which would be useful in dozens of Earth-based applications as well as for space travel, he said.
The UK may be warming to the idea of joining the rest of the world in space.
Last month, the government said it would review studies assessing the benefits of human space activities and could reach a decision next year.
"Human beings are going to explore and we can't be left behind," Thirkettle said.
While it may be too late for the UK to build an astronaut corps in time to take advantage of programmes aboard the space station, the US is leading an effort to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020 and prepare for even longer duration missions to Mars and other bodies in the Solar System. The UK could build for these bold ventures.
"The UK really has no idea what's involved in human spaceflight," said Thirkettle.
"They think they can fly an astronaut for 10 days (on the space station) and that they're experienced.
"They also think they can buy Soyuz flights, but the Soyuz is fully booked with six-person crews coming up. There are no spare seats anywhere," the Esa chief said.
Nasa plans to finish building the space station by 2010 and then retire the space shuttles. The addition of a second crew module on the ISS in late 2009 or early 2010 will enable the space station to support six full-time residents instead of three.
But with the shuttles grounded and a new US spaceship not expected to fly until about 2014, the ISS project will be dependent on Russia for crew transport unless a commercial firm proves capable of providing space taxi services.
In September, the UK Space Exploration Working Group (SEWG) said British participation in manned missions was vital for both UK science and the economy.
The panel, asked to review UK space policy as part of a government review, concluded that the long-standing block on "Brits in space" had to change: "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."
A major obstacle, however, is cost. Britain spends relatively little on its civil space programme compared with its European partners; at just £207m a year. Even just purchasing a couple of "tourist tickets" on Soyuz to the ISS would cost about £50-75m up to 2015, the SEWG said.