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by Mick the Ram
Plans, admittedly in the very early stages, have been released for what would potentially be a UK space mission, with four British astronauts making up its crew.
If it were to come to fruition, it is thought that Tim Peake, who flew to the ISS as a European Space Agency astronaut in 2015, could be asked to lead the mission.
The Houston-based Axiom Space have let it be known that they have signed a memorandum of understanding with the UK Space Agency (UKSA), to try to make it actually happen. The company currently organises visits to the International Space Station (ISS).
Were it to become a reality, there would be £200 million price tag attached; but UK tax payers can breathe a sigh of relief, as it would be fully funded by commercial partners.
It is expected that it would be a free-flyer mission, with the crew spending a number of days circling the Earth in their capsule, conducting a series of scientific experiments.
Axiom Space uses SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsules to conduct their current commercial space flights, so it is likely any UK mission would use the same vehicle to reach its orbit.
Still much to be done
Quite when this could take place is not clear, with financing to be secured, and the mission profile fully mapped out. However, Axiom were keen to point out that encouraging conversations with corporations and institutions interested in coming onboard, were already under way.
Details are very sparse and will probably remain so for some time. Things have certainly not progressed towards choosing a crew; indeed there is not even a conceptional notion of how such a crew would be selected, and then there is the small matter of deciding upon a destination.
Nevertheless, it is a very exciting prospect and one which has definitely caught the imagination of Tim Peake, who was appointed Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in the Queen’s 2016 Birthday Honours, for services to space research and scientific education.
He said: “This opportunity is actually unique, because nobody has done a ‘national mission’, commercially, like this before. It’s a new model and would be paving the way for how we do space in the future.”
Invitations already in motion for experiment ideas
Were it to get the green light it is likely that the British mission would be what is referred to a “free-flyer”. These are orbits that involve a crew spending a number of days circling the Earth in just their capsule, conducting scientific experiments.
With forward planning the UKSA has contacted universities and educational institutions to request they submit some ideas for the type of experiments they would like to see put into practice, during what is likely to be a two-week long mission.
Inspiration for millions
Paul Bate, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, is understandably upbeat, seeing it as a fantastic opportunity to inspire millions of UK citizens with space travel. He pointed out it does not just involve the astronauts, highlighting the huge variety of careers available in the UK space sector.
“It takes thousands of people to complete a crewed space mission and actually return the astronauts safely home,” he said.
Commended for positivity
Axiom Space commended the forward-looking strategy of UKSA. Their chief revenue officer, Tejpaul Bhatia remarked: “The UK is in a very unique position right now and in a leadership position for this transition to the commercialisation of space. This approach has got the commercial nature to it, which is at the heart of what the UKSA does.”
Should a decision be taken to expand the mission and take it to board the ISS then the astronauts would have to wait for an available slot on the Space Station. Additionally, NASA would insist on certain conditions, one of which is the inclusion of a seasoned astronaut. The obvious person that automatically springs out for that position is Tim Peake.
He took up a role as ESA ambassador from January this year, leaving active astronaut corps to pursue educational outreach work. From his early reaction it is clear he would be more than willing to step out of “retirement” and take up the challenge.
“There are several hurdles to overcome, the financial model needs to be secured, crew selection and all the training; but it is fantastic that we have started the ball rolling with these exploratory discussions, ” was his follow up to his initial comments.
Others will meet criteria
There are actually two more British ESA astronauts who are currently undergoing extensive training. These being: atrophysicist Rosemary Coogan and British Paralympic sprinter John McFall, who is helping to assess the feasibility of sending people with disabilities into space.
These will be credible candidates who could also be called upon if necessary.