Really, we are. But for the love of god old chap, make sure the first 2015 space station cargo run is packed to the brim with tea bags!
Ever since I heard the first UK government-funded astronaut was being trained to join the European Space Agency in 2009, I nearly wet myself. You see, when you’re a kid growing up in the UK, you can say: “I want to be a fireman,” “I want to be a policeman,” or “I want to be a doctor,” (I said the latter, which, as it turned out, wasn’t too far off.) You can’t say, for example: “I want to be an astronaut!” — to do that you’d have to emigrate, something my mum would never have endorsed to a starry-eyed 10-year-old.
Ever since Margaret Thatcher’s government deemed human spaceflight too expensive for our little island nation to shoulder in the 1980s, we Brits have been relegated to spectators in the human spaceflight arena (robotic spaceflight, however, is a whole different matter). But now, that’s beginning to change with the announcement that Major Tim Peake has been selected as a 2015 space station crew member.
For an island of explorers, you may be confused by the fact there’s never been a British astronaut.Poppycock! What about that Michael Foale bloke? He’s British, and he spent a hell of a lot of time in space for a guy who shouldn’t be up there! Actually, Foale wasn’t a ‘British astronaut,’ he was a ‘British-born astronaut’ who is dual-nationality, lives in the US and works for NASA; being from the UK wasn’t a factor. Other British-born astronauts have either changed nationality or had to take the private route into space. The UK didn’t invest any money in their aspirations for rocketry.
And that’s what it came down to in 1986 when UK Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher decreed that there would be no British astronauts. We were ‘banned’ from space. Bummer. Basically, the expense of supporting a British manned space effort was sidelined, thereby removing the UK from any involvement in any manned space program. This included the International Space Station (just in case you haven’t noticed, there’s no British flag on the ISS, and there’s no 30-minute tea breaks or roast dinners served on Sundays in low-Earth orbit).
However, in a bloody fantastic turn of events, it’s been announced (right at the time of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing) by Lord Drayson, UK Science Minister, that British astronauts will feature in the future of the UK’s space ambitions.
“Britain should be playing a full role in space exploration. There was a special fund for training astronauts and we did not contribute, but that is now changed. There are important benefits that come from manned space-flight and we have dropped our opposition. We have an astronaut entering training soon and I hope he will be the first of many. —Lord Drayson“
This news comes after the European Space Agency (ESA) selected lucky Tim Peake for their astronaut training program. Up until now, the annal £180 million ($290 million) the UK pays ESA could only be invested in robotic space exploration programs. Therefore, Peake can now be supported by the UK government, making him the first British astronaut to train in Europe.
“I hope Tim Peake will be the first of many Britons selected to train as European astronauts,” Lord Drayson added.
This increased interest in British manned spaceflight could have some serious ramifications for the future of the nation, but the first thing that will need an upgrade is the British National Space Centre (yes, we really do have one) which is currently run by a part-time crew of civil servants pulled from other government departments, two research councils and the Met Office.
I can’t begin to put into words of how many shades of awesomeness this is, but I’m very excited that the United Kingdom will once again be involved with manned spaceflight… rather than just being known for making small craters with unfortunate Mars robots…