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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Britain's first official Astronaut chosen


Lto R: Luca Parmitano (Italy), Alexander Gerst (Germany), Andreas Mogensen (Denmark), Samantha Cristoforetti (Italy), Timothy Peake (Britain) and Thomas Pesquet (France)

So, in a surprise move, the European Space Agency has chosen a Briton as one of it's next clutch of Euronauts despite the fact that the UK contributes nothing to the ESA manned space flight programme. Whilst we are the fourth largest contributor to ESA (€239 million a year or slighly more than 8% of the total budget - France is the biggest contributor at €778 million or 26%) all of the UK's funding is allocated to non-manned projects.

Major Timothy Peake, from Chichester is the first official British Astronaut. Helen Sharman was the first Briton in space, almost exactly eighteen years ago, but her flight in the Soyuz TM 18 was funded by industry. Five other British born people have been into space but all had American citizenship. NASA astronauts Michael Foale (joint US and British citizenship), Piers Sellers, Nicholas Patrick and Gregory H. Johnson. This group were joined by Richard Garriott, a British born Computer Games tycoon, who paid for his own trip on Soyus TMA 13 last year. Garriott is the son of NASA astronaut Owen Garriott.

Britain nearly had its first astronaut much earlier. Cardiff born Anthony Llewellyn was chosen as a scientist-astronaut by NASA in August 1967 but he resigned in September 1968 having been unable to qualify as a pilot, which was a requirement at the time.

37 year old Peake, an Apache helicopter pilot, will now move, with the other five astronauts (which include Italian fighter pilot Samantha Cristoforetti) to the ESA training facility for an initial 18 months training before another two years of mission specific training follows.

However, only seven of an eventual 14 astronauts will get a chance to fly and so his place in space is far from guaranteed. It could well be a ploy by the wily Europeans to put pressure on the UK to contribute to ESA's manned programme. "With such a good guy, how can they not contribute?" said Jean Jacques Dordain Director General of ESA. Think again Jean-Jacques. Lord Drayson, the Science and Innovation Minister, has said that the budget for Britain's ESA contribution for the next five years is set. So while he is happily taking credit for the selection his inaction on manned projects contributions could well result in Major Tim being stuck in Ground Control come launch day with the slots going to the usual Germans, French and Italians.
But lets hope not!

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