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Dr Phillip Lee MP: Why now is the time to put a Briton into space

Dr Phillip Lee is MP for Bracknell and Vice Chair of the Parliamentary Space Committee

Screen shot 2011-04-12 at 14.39.23 The sceptics about space have been wrong before. Can you imagine life without mobile phones and live sports coverage from around the world? Or more seriously, family members without access to kidney dialysis machines and insulin pumps?

The last generation had vision. They replaced Laika the dog with Yuri Gagarin, inspiring generations to follow careers in science and engineering. In the Daily Telegraph recently, Gerard DeGroot described Yuri Gagarin as “a waste of space”. Not even Senator McCarthy would have stooped to that.  By a combination of raw courage and that precious human desire to push back boundaries of knowledge, Gagarin led the way in man’s exploration of space.

A time defined by historic budget constraints, cuts and geopolitical instability might not seem the most opportune moment to suggest that Britain should increase its investment in the exploration of space and embark on its own mission of manned space flight. But I argue this is exactly the time we should be thinking big.

We’ve learnt the hard way that a nation reliant on the financial sector for its income is vulnerable to the hits of global economics. We know that manufacturing has declined faster over the last thirteen years than in any point in history. So how do we rebuild?  Little known fact: the space industry has grown by greater than 10% per year for the last decade, at a time when all else has been a story of decline. And only this week, our Jodrell Bank site in Manchester was named as the home of the world’s biggest ever radio telescope – looking at dark energy and the limits of our universe.

Britain is also leading in other fields such as microgravity.  Manned space flight would dramatically help our research into this - which would have tangible consequences - such as improvements in the treatment of osteoporosis. Sadly, there’s a narrative of economic and social gloom hanging over our island. Our reality of success in space science shatters all that.

And success is about more than just economics. It’s a mindset.  It’s not an untrue cliché that space and dinosaurs are the two things that frequently inspire children at school.  When asked a few years ago, almost 40% of British engineers cited space exploration as the inspiration for their career choice. Dinosaurs may no longer walk, but Britain is at the forefront of the exploration of our universe. Putting a British man in space, in a British-supported project would give expression to that ambition and inspiration. And for anyone saying that inspiration doesn’t pay the bills, for each dollar spent on NASA’s space program, Professor Brian Cox calculates that the American economy has received $14 in return.

But there’s more to life than even economics and inspiration. There’s the preservation of our planet and our way of life for our children, grandchildren and future generations of human beings.  At a time of short-termism thinking, never has rediscovering our delicate and finite Earth been so important. Sadly and ironically, man’s ingenuity has contributed to so many of the threats that our planet now faces. What better way to compensate for that than to harness man’s ingenuity to try and combat it? As Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders said about passing the silver orb that has illuminated all our nights, "We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth."  I suspect he was not looking back at our planet and thinking that Yuri Gagarin was a waste of space.


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