Page last updated at 12:51 GMT, Thursday, 8 May 2008 13:51 UK

'No bias' against UK astronauts

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

Gerhard Thiele from Esa reveals what it takes to be an astronaut

The UK's longstanding opposition to human spaceflight will be no bar to its citizens becoming astronauts, the European Space Agency (Esa) says.

Officials made it clear at the start of a recruitment drive in London that Britons were very welcome to apply.

Although a major Esa member, the UK currently refuses to fund human spaceflight, believing robotics to be a more worthwhile space activity

But the agency said this policy would have no bearing on selection.

Indeed, it was possible to envisage a situation where a UK citizen became an Esa astronaut with no national money behind the programme at all.

"It's possible," said Alan Thirkettle who runs Europe's interests in the International Space Station (ISS).

"Of course, what would be very good would be to have a situation where the UK came into the human spaceflight programme; and there are discussions ongoing. But, yes, it is possible."

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The current Esa astronaut corps numbers eight individuals, all from member states who have contributed to the five billion euros it has so far cost Europe to participate in the space station project.

UK-born individuals who have flown in space recently - such as Michael Foale, Piers Sellers and Nicholas Patrick - took out US citizenship to enrol in Nasa's astronaut programme.

Esa's astronaut selection campaign, the first for more than 10 years, will open on Monday 19 May.

An expected 50,000 applicants will be whittled down to four astronauts, who are destined to spend time on the ISS.

Although astronauts can continue flying into their 50s, Esa will only take on new candidates between the ages of 27 and 37. Successful candidates will probably be experienced scientists or test pilots.

The first and only astronaut to fly as a Briton with a Union flag on the spacesuit was Helen Sharman in 1989. Since her privately organised trip to the Russian Mir space station, the UK has been a spectator in the human spaceflight arena.

Changing times

Britain does not contribute to the voluntary Esa programme, which has the effect also of locking British companies out of the big industrial contracts to build space station equipment.

This could all change. A number of reports recently have argued that the nation's strictly robots-only approach should be more flexible; and the government itself has agreed to review the situation.

Dr Jeremy Curtis is a government space adviser and the UK delegate to the International Space Exploration Coordination Group, a forum to discuss global space strategy.

He said the future of exploration beyond the space station - which could take people back to the Moon and on to Mars - meant it was time for the UK to revisit old attitudes, and assess the type of role it might play in this vision.

He told BBC News: "There isn't actually a formal policy not to do manned activity; it's merely that the government has never found a programme of activities it felt was worth the money to want to do it.

"The UK has a huge skill in robotics and the question is: should it continue to keep this divide on robots versus humans, or should we now widen our ambitions?

"We're doing an official review which will give government the information it needs to answer that question. We hope it will be done by the end of the year."

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk



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