ESA May Face British Astronaut Quandary

PARIS ? The 17-nation European Space Agency (ESA) is scheduled tobegin a year-long astronaut selection process May 19 and already is being askedto confront a nightmare scenario: that a British citizen emerges among the bestcandidates.

Now Britain's Royal AeronauticalSociety (RAS) has written the equivalent of a screenplay for turning ESA's baddream into a full-length horror film. In a paper to be published May 1 in its AerospaceMagazine, the RAS Space Group Committee says a British astronaut trained byESA could get an early trip to the Moon as part of NASA's Constellation programfollowing a bilateral cooperation accord on a robotic lunar mission betweenNASA and Britain.

According to the RAS, NASAAdministrator Michael Griffin floated this idea in 2007 as a carrot toencourage Britain to invest in lunar robotic technologies alongside NASA, afterwhich the U.S. agency could offer a British national a place on a manned NASAlunar mission.

The British government has remainedfirmly, and vocally, outside of all astronaut-related programs in Europe for more than two decades, with successive British governments concluding that humanspaceflight is more expensive than it is worth. Britain even declined to investin Europe's Ariane 5 rocket because its original design was based on carrying acrew-transport vehicle.

In recent months, however, Britishgovernment officials have indicated a willingness to review their position. The United Kingdom and NASA in April 2007 signed an agreement to investigatecooperating on robotic lunar missions. It was at this point that Griffin made what RAS refers to as "this remarkable offer."

"A shorter-term involvement inNASA's Constellation programme on the basis of robotic technology could offerBritish citizens the chance to become astronauts, with the Moon as thepotential destination," says the paper, which, according to RAS SpaceGroup Committee Chairman Pat Norris of Logica plc, was approved by Griffin.

"As explained by Dr. Griffin,one straightforward arrangement would be for a UK astronaut to be chosen in thenext round of ESAastronaut selection. Clearly the details of this opportunity need to beassessed before committing funds, but human spaceflight does seem achievablewithout the need for the budget normally associated with such activities."

To the dismay of other ESA memberstates, and particularly Germany, Italy and France, Britain has gone"without the need for the budget" for astronaut programs for yearswhile these nations have spent billions on the Spacelab laboratory launchedaboard the U.S. space shuttle, a 20-year commitment to the international spacestation and their own national astronaut programs.

ESA already is scrambling to findadditional astronaut slots at the international space station. Its 8.3 percentownership stake in the non-Russian section of the orbital complex gives it theright to launch one astronaut every two years ? for a period of six months ?starting in 2009 when the station's permanent crew size increases to six fromthe current three.

It remains unclear whether ESA'spolicy of distributing contracts according to each nation's financialparticipation in a program applies to selecting astronauts as well.

But ESA officials concede that anyselection of a British astronaut without an accompanying agreement by theBritish government to make a big financial contribution to ESA's humanspaceflight program would not be well received in Germany, Italy and France, which are also the agency's three biggest overall contributors.

And if Britain's ambition in joiningESA's astronaut corps simply was to get low-cost training for a NASA-U.K.mission with no ESA involvement, the opposition would be that much greater.

Michel Tognini, a former Frenchastronaut and now head of the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, Germany, anticipated this issue in a November space-exploration conference in Berlin.

Addressing David Williams, thedirector-general of the British National Space Centre, Tognini asked:"Let's suppose that after our one-year selection process, the bestcandidate is from the UK: What should we do?"

Clearly surprised, Williamsanswered: "We would need to understand what would be the consequences, andask our minister. You're asking a very difficult question: What is the addedvalue in the near term when compared to robotics? But leaving [the selectionprocess] open to all European candidates is the right way to go about it."

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Charles Q. Choi
Contributing Writer

Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for and Live Science. He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica. Visit him at