Page last updated at 23:59 GMT, Wednesday, 20 May 2009 00:59 UK

Understanding the UK's space 'anomaly'

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News, Paris

J-J Dordain (AFP)

It was a stunning announcement: Major Tim. British astronaut. His impact is going to be immense as an icon for science and technology.

No longer do the British media have to claim UK-born US citizens flying with Nasa as their own. They now have the real thing.

It will be some time before Timothy Peake gets into orbit, of course. It will be several years, in fact.

His training - including learning Russian so he can work on the space station - will keep him on the ground well into the next decade.

But that's not the point. The UK, for so long a bystander in the realm of human spaceflight, is now part of the game.

There are questions, though, about commitment.

There is a frequently expressed opinion in other European capitals that Britain could and should do more in space, especially given its extraordinary technological heritage.

The UK, remember, once had its own rocket capable of putting a satellite in orbit. It simply gave it up.

A la carte

Jean-Jacques Dordain, the director-general of Esa, often describes the UK's position on space as an "anomaly".

It is the second richest nation in the 18-member organisation and yet it is only the fourth largest contributor to the agency's funding.

Timothy Peake

It is by no means a small sum of money; the UK stumped up just under a billion euros at last November's ministerial meeting for space programmes running for the next three to five years. But it is considerably less than the money Germany, France and Italy put into Esa.

The UK has traditionally taken a very selective approach to its involvement in the agency, picking and choosing from Esa's "a la carte" menu of activities only those pursuits it feels buffer particular capabilities.

What it will not do is get involved in the "big ticket items" - which are the launchers programme and the space station - which it considers expensive distractions.

The latter, for example, has so far cost Europe something in the region of five billion euros. It is committed to spend a similar sum in the coming years. Not a penny of these costs is covered by the UK.

And that's what makes Major Peake's unveiling on Wednesday all the more fascinating - because he now becomes a standard bearer for an endeavour the London government prefers to ignore.

Across the piece

Mr Dordain expressed the hope that the selection of Major Peake might persuade the UK to start making a contribution to Esa's human spaceflight programme.

"I have not selected Timothy to attract money; I have selected Timothy because he is a very good guy, and I need good guys at Esa," he told BBC News. "But now what I hope, with Timothy in the group of astronauts, [is] that the British government will realise that human spaceflights are also an important aspect of space activities in general."

Not immediately, it won't. Certainly not in the short term. The line from Whitehall on Wednesday evening was that Britain's contribution to the Esa budget was fixed in November, and that would be that.

No additional funds would be made available to help pay for the costs of Major Peake's training, Science Minister Lord Drayson said.

His view is that the UK has made contributions in other areas such as climate change monitoring from which other nations benefit even though they put in much less than the UK; and that Britain's choice to fund unmanned activities shouldn't be an obstacle to astronaut selection.

It's not a sentiment which will be well received in the ministries in Berlin, Paris and Rome, or in the other nations which do help to fund the space station even though they've yet to see one of their nationals selected as an astronaut.

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