The 17-nation European Space Agency is scheduled to begin a year-long astronaut selection process May 19 and already is being asked to confront a nightmare scenario: that a British citizen emerges among the best candidates.
Now Britain's Royal Aeronautical Society has written the equivalent of a screenplay for turning ESA's bad dream into a full-length horror film. In a paper to be published May 1 in its Aerospace Magazine, the RAS Space Group Committee says a British astronaut trained by ESA could get an early trip to the moon as part of NASA's Constellation program following a bilateral cooperation accord on a robotic lunar mission between NASA and Britain.
According to the RAS, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin floated this idea in 2007 as a carrot to encourage Britain to invest in lunar robotic technologies alongside NASA, after which the U.S. agency could offer a British national a place on a manned NASA lunar mission.
The British government has remained firmly, and vocally, outside of all astronaut-related programs in Europe for more than two decades, with successive British governments concluding that human spaceflight is more expensive than it is worth. Britain even declined to invest in Europe's Ariane 5 rocket because its original design was based on carrying a crew-transport vehicle.
In recent months, however, British government officials have indicated a willingness to review their position. The United Kingdom and NASA in April 2007 signed an agreement to investigate cooperating on robotic lunar missions. It was at this point that Griffin made what RAS refers to as "this remarkable offer."
"A shorter-term involvement in NASA's Constellation program on the basis of robotic technology could offer British citizens the chance to become astronauts, with the moon as the potential destination," says the paper, which, according to RAS Space Group 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 the next round of ESA astronaut selection. Clearly the details of this opportunity need to be assessed before committing funds, but human spaceflight does seem achievable without the need for the budget normally associated with such activities."
To the dismay of other ESA member states, and particularly Germany, Italy and France, Britain has gone "without the need for the budget" for astronaut programs for years while these nations have spent billions on the Spacelab laboratory launched aboard the U.S. space shuttle, a 20-year commitment to the international space station and their own national astronaut programs.
ESA already is scrambling to find additional astronaut slots at the international space station. Its 8.3 percent ownership stake in the non-Russian section of the orbital complex gives it the right 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 from the current three.
It remains unclear whether ESA's policy of distributing contracts according to each nation's financial participation in a program applies to selecting astronauts as well.
But ESA officials concede that any selection of a British astronaut without an accompanying agreement by the British government to make a big financial contribution to ESA's human spaceflight 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 joining ESA'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 French astronaut 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, the director-general of the British National Space Centre, Tognini asked: "Let's suppose that after our one-year selection process, the best candidate is from the UK: What should we do?"
Clearly surprised, Williams answered: "We would need to understand what would be the consequences, and ask our minister. You're asking a very difficult question: What is the added value in the near term when compared to robotics? But leaving (the selection process) open to all European candidates is the right way to go about it."