Tim Peake’s second flight to space has been called into question because of haggling over how much money the UK should contribute to the European Space Agency.
It was announced by the government in January that the UK-born astronaut would follow up his widely acclaimed six-month mission to the International Space Station last year with a second space flight.
But members of the ESA, an intergovernmental organisation that is not under the auspices of the EU, are demanding that the UK significantly increases its current contribution of €41m over three years. This would help to fund a shortfall in the budget to send astronauts to the ISS after 2019.
People with knowledge of both the UK and ESA positions confirmed that an initial demand had been rejected by London.
One official said that the UK felt it was already contributing its fair share, and preferred to fund activities that delivered a commercial or scientific return, such as developing satellite technologies and sending unmanned probes to Mars.
But another person said that, compared to other ISS funders, “the UK got a very good deal [for Major Peake’s first flight] and so . . . ESA will want more money. There are certainly discussions to be had.” Major Peake could not be reached for comment.
The UK funds 7.9 per cent of the ESA’s €5.75bn spending in 2017, far less than France and Germany, at 22.7 per cent each, and Italy at 14.6 per cent.
It provides an even lower proportion of the ESA’s €960m budget to continue participating in the International Space Station programme. At its current level, the UK contribution amounts to roughly 4 per cent of the programme budget.
One person close to the ESA said the UK’s pro rata contribution should total 14 per cent. Although the dispute does not relate directly to Brexit, the cost to the UK is increased by the weakness of sterling after last year’s vote to leave the EU.
Britain has used Major Peake’s mission to the ISS as a symbol of its revived commitment to the space sector.
Margaret Thatcher regarded UK spending on manned space flight as a waste of public funds and axed its involvement in 1987.
But space has become a priority of the current government’s new industrial strategy and the UK has ambitions to claim some 10 per cent of the £400bn global space market by 2030. In 2015, the industry generated revenues of about £13.7bn.
Major Peake’s first flight was the result of clever negotiating by former science minister David Willetts in 2012, who offered a last-minute injection of €20m to resolve a row between France and Germany over funding future Ariane rocket development.
In return for this relatively small commitment, Lord Willetts secured the promise of a space flight, on condition that Major Peake passed his training.
But the other big ESA members, including Italy as well as France and Germany, were critical of the decision to give Britain a cut-price astronaut’s mission.
Tensions have resurfaced as the funding has run out for flights to the ISS after 2019, when Major Peake could expect to return.
At the ESA’s next ministerial meeting planned for 2019, “we will look to the UK and other states to contribute their fair share,” an ESA official said.
Lord Willetts, chairman of the British Science Association, said he hoped that the promise of a second flight would be honoured. “Tim’s flight really transformed British attitudes to space. He was an exceptionally skilled and competent astronaut,” he said.
Industry executives, gathered in Manchester last week for the UK’s biennial space conference, said that Major Peake’s mission had done much to make UK space visible around the world.
“We need to do it again,” said Stuart McIntyre, chief executive of Orbital Access, which is part of a consortium bidding to launch a spaceport in the UK. “As part of growing our ambitions in space, we have to have the UK there. An astronaut and British space flights are key elements of that.”
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