Britain is to reconsider its long-standing policy of not taking part in manned space missions, a government minister said on Thursday.
Science and Innovation Minister Ian Pearson said the government would review the policy to make sure Britain is not left behind in a new wave of international space exploration.
"We will have a review that will look at all the options of human space flight," he told BBC radio. "Our traditional view has been that human space flight hasn't been a priority for the UK."
But he said Britain would concentrate on unmanned robot-led space exploration for the immediate future.
"We have some really world-leading expertise in robotics and that has got to be the short term priority for us in the UK." The rethink comes as a number of countries are lining up to join the space race, with China planning its third manned mission this year.
On Monday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for a global programme to explore Mars, bringing together European states and more established space powers like the United States and Russia. British scientists have proposed sending an unmanned mission to the moon by 2011.
The MoonLITE project is expected to win initial support on Friday from America's NASA and the UK government's space authority, the British National Space Centre. The mission would fire four penetrating darts into the moon's surface from an orbiting satellite.
Scientific data from the darts would be sent back to Earth via the satellite. MoonLITE's proposed 100 million pound cost is far smaller than the billions of pounds required for a manned moon mission. U.S. President George W. Bush has urged NASA to focus on getting people to the moon and to Mars.
But NASA's Mars Exploration Program says a manned mission to the red planet is unlikely before the early 2030s.