Britain Awaits Astronaut Liftoff
Because of lagging funds for Project Juno, joint Anglo-Soviet flight is proceeding slowly
TWO would-be British astronauts - one a male free-fall army parachute champion, the other a female food scientist - are hard at work at the Gagarin space center at Star City, near Moscow, preparing for a voyage into space. Meanwhile, in London, a number of scientists, financiers, and industrialists are laboring just as strenuously to make their journey possible. Project Juno is having a bumpy ride. But backers of the first commercial Anglo-Soviet space mission remain optimistic that, come April 1991, either Timothy Mace or Helen Sharman will blast off on a Soviet rocket and rendezvous with the orbiting space station Mir.
So far astronauts from France, Holland, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Vietnam, India, and Afghanistan have traveled into space aboard Soviet rockets. The idea is for a Briton to make the same journey.
Juno's backers are working with the Soviet space organization, Glavkosmos, which expects to be paid about 7 million pounds ($11.2 million) for its part in putting a British astronaut into orbit.
If public interest and enthusiasm were the propellant, the British space mission would have happened already. Major Mace and Miss Sharman were selected last November from 13,000 applicants, all eager to become the first Briton in space.
The two successful applicants came through weeks of grinding tests of physical and mental stamina to satisfy Juno organizers that they knew enough about science to contribute to a series of British space research projects that would be conducted aboard Mir.
Long before the project began, Prime Minister Thatcher declared that there would be no government money available for it. Instead, Juno would be hurled aloft by the thrust of private enterprise - a consortium of business houses and banks.
Initially anyway, the reality has not matched the theory. In March, Sir Geoffrey Pattie, a former British defense minister who heads the business side of Juno, announced that funds had been slow flowing in.
Sir Geoffrey said in an interview last week he is confident that with encouragement and cajoling, more British companies will join in. He concedes, however, that so far only a handful have done so.
The London-based Moscow-Narodny Bank, which provided seed capital for Juno, has decided to limit its investment. British Independent Television, which had decided to spend 3 million pounds ($4.8 million) on exclusive coverage of Juno, has put its plans on hold.
Part of the problem Juno faces is that in the early phase heavy emphasis was put on the glamorous side of the mission, and less on the scientific aspect. Heinz Wolff, a bioengineer from Brunel University in Uxbridge who heads the Juno science program, says the project was ``over-hyped'' at the outset.
``There should be more emphasis on attracting support from science-based companies, rather than companies making consumer products,'' he says.
The organizers, Professor Wolff claims, seem to have imagined that companies would pay heavily to have their logos inscribed on space suits and their food and drink consumed on the flight. As things have turned out, there was little business community interest in such matters.
Wolff is currently attempting to restructure the Juno science program to give it more appeal to science-based companies. One experiment would study chemical reactions in zero gravity. Another would launch 32 English green peas into orbit to discover whether they could germinate and become a food source for long-distance space missions.
``We are working on an attractive package, and I am confident the project will get off the ground,'' Wolff says.
Sir Geoffrey says that so long as the astronauts remain in training, and work on the Juno experiments continues, the project will remain alive. ``Everything is being done to put a Briton into space, and I hope that ways can be found to close the financial shortfall,'' he says.
The outcome of renewed efforts to put Juno aloft is being eyed anxiously in Moscow by Mace and Sharman. Both are quoted in news reports as saying they have little difficulty facing the thought that the other will be Britain's first person in space.