YuriGagarin50: Discovery News Goes to Parliament

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Last week, Discovery News was invited to attend an exciting event at the Houses of Parliament. Fortunately, I was already visiting family in England, so I jumped at the chance.

Hosted by The Space Education Trust and The Parliamentary Space Committee, the launch of “YuriGagarin50” — a celebration of Yuri Gagarin’s first flight into space in April 1961 — marks the beginning of a series of events throughout 2011 intended to celebrate British and Russian advancements in space exploration.

BIG PIC GALLERY: Yuri’s Night 2010

The Russian contribution to mankind’s activities in space is very well known, but the UK’s contribution is often overlooked, partly due to the nation’s lack of a space agency (up until 2010) and lack of human spaceflight capability. More often than not, the UK is assumed to be involved solely with European Space Agency (ESA) projects.

However, for a nation brimming with innovation and technical expertise, we’ve always been a powerhouse in the realms of satellite manufacturing, remote sensing and global communications.

It is little wonder then, what with the inauguration of the UK Space Agency (UKSA) in March this year, there’s more than a little enthusiasm for British spaceflight dreams.

“Space is an inspirational subject and human spaceflight in particular has motivated many young people to follow careers in science and engineering,” said Chris Welch, Chair of The Space Education Trust, at the packed Parliament conference room hosting the event.

“Gagarin’s legacy touches many areas of our lives today; many people are unaware of how many applications space has in modern life and the important contribution space makes to the UK economy.”

Welch has got a point, space science is a key sector in the UK’s economy, a fact that Stephen McPartland, MP for Stevenage, was very keen to point out:

The space sector is very important in the UK, providing 70 000 jobs. It has consistantly outstripped the rest of the economy for more than a decade. Space technology is the highest skilled sector in manufacturing. I believe that we can use space as an inspirational tool to drive ourselves out of recession.

And this isn’t just political spin, the UK spends only £230 million ($340 million) on space activities each year (compare this with NASA’s $18 billion budget — although the UK’s space infrastructure doesn’t even compare to NASA’s), but the industry as a whole is worth £6.5 billion ($9.6 billion) to the UK’s economy. It is also the fastest growing industry in a nation where the global recession has bitten hard.

The YuriGagarin50 launch event was packed with space industry experts, MPs, UKSP members, Russian space agency representatives and future “space stars”, youngsters of all ages with a passion for space. The UK’s first astronaut, Helen Sharman, was also there. She flew on the Soyuz TM-12 8-day mission to the Mir Space Station in 1991.

Sharman helped launch the event with an inspirational speech about her personal reflection about the importance of space, not only to the UK’s economy, but how it can inspire a generation of youngsters to pursue a career in science, enriching the nation as a whole.

Welch highlighted the UK’s role in satellite manufacturing, a field of growing importance to our planet. He also pointed out that Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 launch, and the 50th anniversary next year, will provide the perfect “hook” to promote space science.

“Yuri Gagarin was the first person to see the Earth from space and was struck by its beauty, its fragility and humanity’s duty to protect it,” he added.

Personally, I was overwhelmed by the attendance at this launch event, it was a wonderful sight. The enthusiasm for the future of spaceflight, not just in the UK and Russia but for the entire human race, was tangible.

Could this be a sign that the UK’s attitude toward space investment is warming? Possibly. But in the back of my mind, I’m concerned the new UK government may not grasp the investment that is needed to get the UK back to the global stage of manned spaceflight and exploration.

The commercial satellite industry is obviously thriving, will David Cameron’s government increase funding to support the burgeoning UKSP? In the US, President Obama may be gunning to scrap the Constellation Program, but overall funding to NASA has increased. Does the US example demonstrate a global change in attitude to science spending as a means to inspire, innovate and bolster economies? I think only time will tell.

Interestingly, Chris Welch’s day job is actually lecturing space systems at Kingston University, London, and he is also an International Space University (ISU) Faculty Member (ISU is located in Strasbourg, France). In a very exciting turn of events, Chris invited to give a presentation at the ISU’s Space Studies Program 2010 in July, where I’ll be alongside space experts discussing the pros and cons of asteroid mining.

Why asteroid mining? Well, Greg Fish (guest contributor to Discovery News) and myself have a book in the works examining different aspects of space commercialization. Greg took a critical, business-minded view of pillaging asteroids for profit and found the overheads were astronomical (sorry). So I hope to give a good overview at ISU about our findings.

I’ll let you know how it goes!

Image credits (from top): Big Ben at the Houses of Parliament (credit: me), my Parliament pass and YuriGagarin50 invite (credit: me) and Helen Sharman at the microphone launching the event (credit: YG50/Dr B Osborne).

Special thanks to Anita Heward who provided the press release detailing the speaker’s quotes.

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