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Page last updated at 09:23 GMT, Monday, 20 July 2009 10:23 UK
Would-be spaceman bemoans progress

Peter Longhurst in Houston
Peter Longhurst in Houston, in front of the simulation shuttle

A Somerset scientist - who was supposed to go into space in the 1980s - is questioning why a manned space flight to Mars still hasn't been achieved in the 40 years since the first landing on the moon.

Peter Longhurst was working with the Royal Navy to develop its long-haul communication systems.

He was deployed by the MOD to look into the next step in this field, which involved moving away from the old high frequency system to satellite communications.

"I was in the States on a working party," Mr Longhurst said.

"You have to remember that these satellites are designed in the UK by our own manufacturers and producers.

"The first time you ever see them is on the space shuttle on the Cape, so it's quite important they fit in all sorts of ways."

During a visit to the United States, a British civil servant - who was looking after British interests - told him the President had made a new initiative which meant all foreign countries who sent satellites in the shuttle had the chance to send up any astronauts.

Mr Longhurst was told to create a job description for the role but, to his surprise, he was then told by his managers that he was best qualified to go into space.

"I went to the appointers and he took one look at it and said 'you'll have to do it'.

"I said 'what do you mean' and he said 'we don't have anyone else, you're the only one who knows anything about it,' I said, 'it's not very much,' and he said 'it's more than the rest of us.'

Challenger disaster

The training only took six months because he was a payload astronaut.

But just five months before his mission was due to go into space disaster struck.

The Challenger space shuttle exploded just 73 seconds after its launch, killing all seven astronauts on board.

"Obviously I was saddened by the loss of Christa McAuliffe and Greg Jarvis who were two specialists we trained with.

"It was more of a frustration really," added Mr Longhurst.

"I've been on this project for five years and we were looking to it to come to a conclusion and to suddenly have all your work dashed in front of your eyes, however tragic the circumstances, was a huge frustration."

The plans for Peter to go into space were permanently shelved.

"In the end the project was finalised when the satellites were redeployed onto expendables (unmanned rockets) because obviously we did our assessments and we thought the shuttle had quite a long downtime after this dreadful incident; our mission as such became redundant."

Although he felt disappointment, the Challenger disaster also brought home the very real risks.

"It's one of those things. It could have been even worse. I could have been on the Challenger so it puts quite a different complexion on things perhaps."

Weightless environment

Now, forty years since the first moon landing, Peter says it is surprising that more hasn't been achieved.

"I'm somewhat surprised that we haven't yet been to Mars - a manned mission to Mars.

"You think 40 years ago we went to the moon and you would think after 40 years we would have done something.

"I believe the technology's there, there are certain problems to overcome, how humans behave on a two year round trip to get there and back and the problems operating in a weightless environment and the effects on the body, but these aren't problems which can't be overcome."

Speaking to BBC Somerset, Dr David Williams, the Director General of the British National Space Centre, said Europe had focussed on telecommunications, broadcasting, and robotic explorations rather than manned flight over the last 20 or 30 thirty years.

"Whether it's our lifetime or not it will happen," said Dr Williams.

"It will take an enormous amount of effort and focus to get there but steps are underway for missions to Mars.

"We've got sample returns missions planned and the UK is leading on that with the Rover for Mars, so we are in there but it will take a long time."




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