A large majority of the British public believes space should not be used for military purposes and is suspicious of President Bush’s backing for a human mission to Mars, according to a MORI poll conducted for Demos.

Over two-thirds of adults polled (68%) were concerned that the US is ‘more interested in the military potential of space than sending astronauts to Mars’, and a similar proportion (66%) thought that space should remain a neutral zone.

The polling was commissioned for a new Demos report on the future of the British space programme called Masters of the Universe, which was backed by the British space industry. The authors analyse the US strategy for military uses of space, which contrasts sharply with the European vision of scientific research, communications and environmental monitoring.

The difference between the US and European approach is highlighted in an interview withJean-Jacques Dordain, head of the European Space Agency (ESA). “For the US, space is an instrument of domination – information domination and leadership. Europe should be proposing a different model: space as a public good,” he told the report’s authors.

Tensions between the US and Europe space programmes have affected the launch of Galileo, a new European satellite navigation system which is due to go live in 2008 and will end the US monopoly over global positioning technology (GPS).

The authors describe this as a battle between the ‘closed’ systems of US military technology versus the ‘open’ approach to civilian technology developed through 30 years of European collaboration in space projects.

“It’s been said that when it comes to foreign policy, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus” say Melissa Mean and James Wilsdon, authors of Masters of the Universe. “Britain could tip the balance between these competing visions – to decide whether space should be used for war or peace.”

Despite concerns about the military uses, the MORI polling shows growing public interest in space, particularly among 16-34 years olds. Following the high-profile Beagle 2 mission, this group is dubbed the ‘Beagle generation’ in the report.

The Beagle generation are notably more enthusiastic about the possibilities of space than those aged 35-54 – ‘the Apollo generation’. The authors conclude that Colin Pillinger, who led the Beagle mission, fired the imagination of younger people by using the endorsement of a pop band Blur and artist Damien Hirst.

In recent years, the British space programme has suffered from a failure of imagination and a workman-like emphasise on commercial spin-offs. But the MORI poll shows clear support for the ambitious objectives of Beagle 2: to find evidence of life on Mars.

The opinion polling also nails the myth that the public is only interested in human space missions. Just over half of people (55%) thought Britain should be involved in manned space flight, but there was more support (65%) for robotic missions such as the Beagle probe to Mars.

Nor should Britain be deterred by the failure of Beagle 2 at the last hurdle; 66% of those polled thought that it was important for Britain to try again.  This is significant for the British space industry as it gears up to persuade government to backAurora, a major European programme which will run from 2010 to 2030.

“The UK should commit itself to investing the necessary resources for Aurora – roughly £25 million a year,” say Melissa Mean and James Wilsdon. “The US is welcome to invest its taxpayers’ money in sending humans to Mars; Europe should forge ahead in solving some of the remaining mysteries of the universe.”

Notes to editors

  1. is published on Wednesday 3 March 2004;
  2. The research was supported by a unique consortium of UK space industry partners. They were: EADS Astrium; British National Space Centre; Met Office; Natural Environment Research Council; Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council; Rutherford Appleton Laboratory; Science Museum, and UK Industrial Space Committee;
  3. Melissa Mean is a senior researcher at Demos; James Wilsdon is head of strategy and has a strong research interest in science policy.