Press Release

Royal Astronomical Society Commission Supports The Scientific Case for Human Space Flight

By SpaceRef Editor
October 18, 2005
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Royal Astronomical Society Commission Supports The Scientific Case for Human Space Flight

Full report (PDF)

After 9 months of expert consultation and gathering of evidence from many sources, the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) Commission assigned to investigate “The Scientific Case for Human Space Flight” has presented its final report to the Society’s Council.

The three independent Commissioners conclude by recommending that the British Government re-evaluates its long-standing opposition to involvement in human space exploration.

In summarising their findings, the Commissioners state: “We find that profound scientific questions relating to the history of the solar system and the existence of life beyond Earth can best – perhaps only – be achieved by human exploration on the Moon or Mars, supported by appropriate automated systems.

“The wider commercial educational, social and political benefits help justify the substantial expenditure that full UK participation in a future international programme of HSE will require.

“It is hard to conceive that the UK, one of the world’s leading economies, would stand aside from such a global scientific and technological endeavour. We, therefore, regard it as timely for Her Majesty’s Government to re-evaluate its long-standing opposition to British involvement in human space exploration.”

Professor Frank Close, Chair of the Commission, said, “We commenced this study without preconceived views and with no formal connection to planetary exploration. Our personal backgrounds made us lean towards an initial scepticism on the scientific value of human involvement in such research.

“However, while fully recognising the technical challenge and the need for substantial investment, we have, nevertheless, been persuaded by the evidence presented to us that the direct involvement of humans in situ is essential if we are to pursue science of profound interest to humankind that can only be undertaken on the Moon and Mars. Autonomous robots alone will be unable to realise those scientific goals in the foreseeable future.”

Another Commissioner, Dr. John Dudeney, commented, “The wider commercial, educational, social and political benefits add justification to the substantial expenditure that full UK participation in an international programme of Human Space Exploration will require. A recent BBC opinion poll suggests that there would be strong public support for such involvement.”

The third Commissioner, Professor Ken Pounds, added, “Recent developments across the world strongly suggest that, after a 30-year lull, space-faring nations are gearing up for a return to the Moon and then to Mars. It is hard to imagine that the UK, one of the world’s leading economies, would not be fully involved in a global scientific and technology endeavour with such strong potential to inspire. We therefore recommend that the government re-evaluates its long-standing opposition to British involvement in human space exploration.”


The main conclusions of the RAS report are as follows:

* The essential scientific case for Human Space Exploration is based on investigations on the Moon and Mars. There are three key scientific challenges where direct human involvement will be necessary for a timely and successful outcome:

– Mapping the history of the solar system (including the young Earth) and the evolution of our Sun by studying the unique signatures left on and beneath the lunar surface;

– The search for life on Mars;

– Detailed, planet-wide exploration of Mars.

* Scientific missions to the Moon and Mars will address questions of profound interest to the human race. These include: the origins and history of the solar system; whether life is unique to Earth; and how life on Earth began. If our close neighbour, Mars, is found to be devoid of life, important lessons may be learned regarding the future of our own planet.

* While the exploration of the Moon and Mars can and is being addressed by unmanned missions, the capabilities of robotic spacecraft will fall well short of those of human explorers for the foreseeable future.

* Assuming a human presence, the Moon offers an excellent site for astronomy, with the far-side and polar regions of the Moon being shielded from the “pollution” from Earth.

* Medical science will benefit from studying the human physiological response to low and zero gravity, to the effects of radiation and in the psychological challenge posed by a long-duration mission to Mars.

* There appear to be no fundamental technological barriers to sending humans to the Moon or Mars.

* A major international human space exploration programme involving a return to the Moon and the longer term aim of sending humans to Mars is likely to involve the US, Europe, Russia and Japan. There are also growing ambitions in China and India. Under present government policy the UK would not be involved and would look increasingly isolated.

* The cost of the UK playing a full role in an international human space exploration programme to explore the Moon and Mars could be of the order £150M per year, sustained over 20-25 years. It is not realistic for the bulk of this to be taken from the existing Government-funded science budget. Rather, a decision to be involved should be taken on the basis of broader strategic reasoning that would include commercial, educational, social, and political arguments as well as the scientific returns that would follow.

* There is compelling evidence that the outreach potential for human space exploration can be a strong positive influence on the interests and educational choices of children.

* Involvement in technologically advanced exploration of the solar system will provide a high profile challenge for UK industry, with consequent benefits in recruitment of new engineers and scientists. Evidence from NASA and ESA surveys have shown a significant economic multiplier from investment in space projects, with an additional overall gain in competitiveness.


The full text of the report will be available for downloading from the RAS web site ( after today’s media briefing (Tuesday 18 October).

The members of the RAS Commission reported their findings earlier today during a media briefing at the Science Media Centre in London.

The formation of the Commission was formally announced at the Royal Astronomical Society on 10 December 2004 and the Commissioners’ deliberations were completed in September 2005.

The Commission was asked to review the scientific case for Human Space Exploration, focusing on astronomy and geophysics, so that its findings could be taken into account by the British government before the ESA Ministerial Meeting in December 2005, which will decide the next stage of the agency’s “Aurora” programme of future space exploration.

In addressing the basic question, “Will having people in space materially advance our knowledge, especially of astronomy and geophysics?, the Commission was allowed full freedom by the RAS to devise the parameters of the study and, where appropriate, to draw on the insights of other disciplines.

Evidence was taken from a wide range of experts, and the views of scientists and the general public were polled. In addition a wide range of written sources was consulted. The decision of the RAS to commission an independent review of the scientific case, focusing on astronomy and geophysics, for human space exploration should be seen in the context of the European Space Agency’s “Aurora/Inspiration” programme, and recent changes in US space policy.

Important decisions will shortly have to be made as to whether, and to what extent, the UK should participate in the next phase of Aurora – whose longer term objective is to send humans to Mars – and how ESA should respond to the US President’s “Vision for Space Exploration” initiative.

Support for a manned component of “Aurora” does not currently match UK government plans for space. In inviting three eminent scientists, none of whom had previously adopted a position on Human Space Exploration, to constitute a commission to review the scientific issues, the RAS hoped to put the debate on a more objective footing which, depending on the outcome of the review, could conclude by asking the government to review its position.

The Chair of the Commission is Professor Frank Close OBE, Professor of Physics and Fellow at Exeter College, Oxford, where his research interests are in the quark structure of matter. He was formerly the head of the Theoretical Physics Division at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire.

Dr. John Dudeney OBE is Deputy Director of the British Antarctic Survey. He has served on or been involved with a number of international committees and bodies, both scientific and non-scientific, and has made around 20 trips to Antarctica.

Professor Ken Pounds CBE FRS is Emeritus Professor of Space Physics at the University of Leicester. He was President of the RAS 1990-1992 and Chief Executive of the UK Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) 1994-8.


Professor Frank Close
Exeter College, Oxford
Tel: +44 (0)1865-273368 (work); or +44 (0)1235-523302 (home)

Dr. John R Dudeney
Deputy Director, British Antarctic Survey
Madingley Road, Cambridge CB3 0ET
Tel: +44 (0)1223-221523
Mob: +44 (0)7711-127280

Professor Ken Pounds
University of Leicester
Tel: +44 (0)116-252-3509 (work) or +44 (0)116-271-9370 (home)

SpaceRef staff editor.