Two habitation modules emblazoned with the United Kingdom's Union Jack could launch to the International Space Station (ISS) by 2011 under a new plan devised by British scientists and engineers.
The proposal — not yet official with the ISS partnership — would not only improve living conditions on board the space station, but would also allow the United Kingdom to join other nations that have a foothold in space.
"I don't think there's an excuse for us not to be engaged in manned launches," said Mark Hempsell, aeronautical engineer at the University of Bristol and lead author on the proposal published in Spaceflight magazine.
The proposed Habitat Extension Module (HEM) would consist of two modules attached to the ISS Node 3 segment, a hub-like connecting module slated for a 2010 launch. The British addition would provide additional room and equipment for a permanent space station crew of six, as opposed to the current crew of three. The station is scheduled to shift to six-person crews in 2009, NASA officials have said.
Because NASA plans to retire the space shuttle by 2010, the HEM modules would launch on a Russian-built Soyuz-Fregat rocket in 2011 at the earliest. Once in orbit, the modules would use their own propulsion system to reach ISS.
Although ISS has plenty of experimental space for conducting scientific research, earlier plans for expanded living space were scrapped. The HEM modules would resurrect those facilities and provide enhanced protection for astronauts against space radiation.
Each module is a cylinder 12.5 feet in diameter and 18.7 feet long. The two modules would add 3,531.5 cubic feet of living space, doubling the room provided by Node 3. They would include a communal area and six crew rooms with a radiation protection equivalent to 20.5 pounds of lead per square foot.
The modules would also deliver about three tons of supplies and experiments when they arrive to help keep the space station running.
"It's doing two things," Hempsell told SPACE.com. "Britain would make a contribution while also delivering a load of logistics equipment, and paying for the running costs and supplies."
That would cost the United Kingdom approximately $1 billion to build, launch, and run the HEM modules until 2015, when the current operating life for ISS ends. The British Interplanetary Society supports the proposal, but the government has yet to seriously latch on.
"The British government keeps saying it's aware, but it's not actually saying it's going to do anything about it," Hempsell said.
An alternative proposal would simply use the Russian "astronaut tourist route" to launch British astronauts and some experiments into space, at the cost of just $31 million. However, Hempsell noted he was much more "enamored" of the bolder approach.
The United Kingdom currently makes no contribution to ISS and is not involved in the European Space Agency's activities on space station. For instance, the British opted out of contributing to the European Columbus module that is scheduled to launch with space shuttle Atlantis in February.
The British flag is currently displayed on the ISS Destiny module only because the nation signed the Space Station Agreement. Hempsell wants to see the United Kingdom take a more active role that would allow its scientists to participate in space-based research.
Current ISS participants such as the United States seem cautiously open to a serious British effort.
"If the British National Space Center decided it was something they wanted to do, NASA would look at the feasibility in terms of power, crew size, and propulsion," said John Yembrick, a NASA spokesperson at the agency's Washington, D.C., headquarters.
"In general, we support all our national partners," Yembrick added.
For now, Hempsell and his peers hope the idea will spur British space efforts as a new space race heats up across the globe. On the question of whether to take action, "the answer 'nothing' is the wrong answer," Hempsell said.