Letter to Tony Blair

Written on 16/12/98

Dear Prime Minister Tony Blair,

I am writing to you about the current situation concerning the ESA Mars Express mission, and also about the dangers of allowing Britain to fall behind in the exploration of space. The launch of the Mars Express mission in 2003 is now in serious doubt due to the refusal of Germany, France and Spain to allow the ESA's Science Budget to rise with inflation. While I recognise this is no fault of Britain, it highlights several shortcomings in the way we approach space exploration.

It seems that the prevalent attitude in Britain and Europe is that if anyone should want to conduct work in space, they should go to America. In fact, I would go so far as to say that anything related to space is practically discouraged in Britain. Out of the Western European nations, Britain is one of the countries least associated with space exploration; our contribution to the budget of the ESA is paltry compared to that of France or Germany, and while the media enthuses over the International Space Station, the fact that Britain is not involved in the station (at least not financially) seems to have been glossed over. I doubt that many people are even aware of the existence of the British National Space Centre.

In the last few years, a major new project has emerged that could have vaulted Europe and Britain back into the forefront of space exploration, instead of leaving it all to NASA and now Japan. The Mars Express mission, costing roughly £100 million, a fraction of the price of the Millennium Dome, was to have conducted the search for life on Mars. Britain herself has now been given an excellent opportunity to regain her standing in the scientific community with the Mars Express Beagle 2 lander.

The Beagle 2 consortium, led by Professor Colin Pillinger, were hard pressed to design a lander which would be able to gather conclusive evidence for the presence of life on Mars, past or present, in a package that had to be over ten times cheaper and lighter than NASA's Pathfinder at £25 million and 60 kg. However, with ingenious use of internal space and by avoiding the duplication of scientific instruments for different they managed to make the Beagle 2 perform arguably as many experiments as the Pathfinder did. What's more, they also fitted the Beagle 2 with a robotic arm and a small rover, dubbed the 'Mole'. As such, the Beagle 2 lander epitomises the state of the art in robotic innovation, as well as being great value for money, surely a shining example for the best that Britain can offer in science and technology. Only now, its future is in imminent danger of cancellation.

The exploration and utilisation of space is our future, and it's remarkably near. I do not need to remind you of the myriad advances in spacecraft propulsion, or of the development of the International Space Station, or of the two more probes NASA are sending to Mars. Soon, it will be possible for profitable commercial ventures to be launched to exploit space; plans are already being drawn up to prospect an asteroid for precious metals.

But none of these ventures will be from organisations in Britain. Britain has no expertise in space compared to the French, Americans or Japanese. They will be the countries who will make money out of space, and they are the countries which our young scientists are travelling to, to pursue their research and work in space-related subjects. They are doing this because there are no opportunities here in Britain and because the British government has no interest in spacecraft, or interplanetary probes.

The Beagle 2 mission costs £25 million. You could win that amount from the National Lottery. Even so, the government has had no direct involvement in the development of the Beagle 2. There have been no pledges to contribute funds towards the lander. Is this government so arrogant to believe that space exploration is a waste of money? I do not believe so. I believe that this government thinks it has enough problems on its plate to warrant ignoring the value of space exploration. Crime, healthcare, social security, education.

We cannot afford to keep on fooling ourselves in this matter, pretending that once the problems at home are solved, then we will put money towards the exploration and utilisation of space. This will never happen; there will always be problems which demand our time and money. These problems cannot be ignored. But neither can the advantages of space exploration. One day, we will find that we are far behind other countries in terms of money produced from exploitation of space, and we will still have the problems that we have now. We do not need to spend billions on space, but we need a solid, sustainable plan which will eventually establish Britain as a leading nation in the exploration of space and stand us in good stead for the future.

Why am I so concerned about Britain's role in space exploration? I am currently a sixth form student in Birkenhead School, and this summer I won the Mars Society's Hakluyt prize to attend their Founding Convention in Colorado. When I was there, not one word was spoken about Britain. I have been seriously disappointed in the apathetic attitude in Britain towards space. Everyone thinks that the words 'space' and 'NASA' are synonymous. Britain does not come into the equation, and therefore, why should we in Britain care since we can't do anything about the matter?

In the Mars Society, we believe that the future of humanity lies in the exploration and colonisation of Mars and the rest of the solar system. This will never be accomplished until the populace of the world believes that it is necessary to do so. In 1969, this was indeed the case. In 1998, it is not. We do not need another Apollo mission to inspire the world, but we can start with small, useful missions which will gradually build up our knowledge of Mars and perfect the technology which will eventually let us send humans to Mars for an affordable cost.

This is not a job to be left to NASA, or the rest of Europe. Once, we were responsible for the colonisation of the 'New World.' Perhaps we can be responsible, at least in part, for the colonisation of another world. For this to be done, this government must make a commitment towards a sustainable space exploration plan, starting with the Beagle 2 and the European Space Agency's Mars Express mission.

If you want further information about the Mars Society, please visit http://www.marssociety.org or email me.

Yours truly,

Adrian Hon
Mars Society Chair of Youth Outreach and Official Speaker