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Can efforts like Skylon reinvigorate Britain’s space industry? (credit: Reaction Engines Ltd.)

Can the UK aerospace base drive human space efforts forward?

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During the Apollo moon program following John F. Kennedy’s decision to land a man on the Moon, thousands of companies and hundreds of thousands of employees were contracted in order to make this prestige dream a reality. The decision was made in response to the Soviet Union’s preeminence in space at around the time and Kennedy wanted the United States to be “first, period”. At around the same time in Britain, much overlooked and arguably hugely under-credited, were developments at the edge of technology that were similarly Cold War focused but rather than exploiting space for prestige exploited it for practical benefits, most notably defense.

By the end of the Apollo Moon landings, the UK had managed to launch a satellite and then cancel the program.

The Mach 2+ capable TSR-2 was being developed which would become one of the first aircraft designed to fly beyond the sound barrier with afterburners, or, supercruise. The first aircraft to supercruise was also British, the English Electric Lightning in 1954. The Lightning itself had an impressive heritage and record. In service until the 1980s, the aircraft once intercepted an American U-2 spy plane at over 26,300 meters (87,000 feet), something that the U-2 pilots must have thought impossible. The technology that produced the Electric was based on the Miles 52 supersonic research aircraft, whose development involved sharing data that—controversially, in the view of the British—led to United States Air Force test pilot Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier in 1947. The TSR-2, despite even accelerating away from the Lightning on one test flight, was cancelled in favor of a planned imported cheaper option which was never bought but its technology found outlets in the form of its swing wings in the Panavia Tornado (until recently the combat workhorse of the RAF) and its engines in Concorde. British Airways was impressed enough with Concorde to invite any NATO aircraft on one occasion to intercept her, something that only the Lightning did. Concorde was also able to supercruise and reach high altitudes.

While developments were progressing in aerospace, fewer people know that a British space program was long underway with the Blue Streak ballistic missile that is an ancestor of the world-leading Ariane launch vehicles. Blue Streak underlines the way in which the US and British space programs started off in the same way. Both Blue Streak and the Atlas rocket, which was used to carry the first Americans into orbit in the Mercury program, were initially intercontinental ballistic missile designs. Both were designed in the mid-1950s, although Blue Streak did not make the astonishing progress of the American equivalents. Conceivably, however, the British governments of the era could have used the rocket for manned flight with further development of the boosters and a manned spacecraft on top. The cost of Blue Streak was estimated to be £300 million to complete, yet the total cost of the Mercury program in total has been estimated at almost $400 million. It is possible, then, that the third country to launch a human in space could have been Britain, perhaps as much as 40 years before China did in 2003. Even the European Space Agency, which had access to the fruits of British developments, has never achieved this.

Thus, there would be no famous landmark achievement like a man on the Moon at the end of this program, only the bittersweet achievement in 1971 of launching a British-built satellite, Prospero, from a British-built satellite launcher, Black Arrow, after the program had been shut down for good. Like many of the projects in that program as well as elsewhere in aerospace, such as the predecessor to Black Arrow, Black Knight, the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) was involved in contracting out work to suitable companies.

And so by the end of the Apollo Moon landings, often described as the most significant technological achievement in human history, the UK had managed to launch a satellite and then cancel the program. The US had looked on in interest in what would become a recurring theme in British aerospace and space projects.

So with capabilities still remaining in this country it seems that the missing ingredient has been a lack of consistent support to see these projects through.

The McMahon Act 1946 terminated US collaboration on nuclear technology with other countries despite British involvement in the Manhattan Project that developed the first ever atomic bombs dropped in World War Two. Exploding an independently-built hydrogen bomb in 1958 helped to convince the American government to rethink that appoach, leading to a mutual defense arrangement. A similar arrangement was made with the development of Blue Streak, during which the US offered rocket engine technology. Also, while work by RAE and Saunders-Roe on the British satellite launcher Black Arrow continued with its innovative aspects such as high test peroxide as a propellant, the US offered free launches on Scout rockets.

Following the end of the official program what remained was a piecemeal, fitful attempt of using space hardware in the national interest, such as the Falstaff hypersonic research rocket and the Skylark sounding rocket, both also coordinated by RAE. Falstaff was used by RAE as a platform to enhance the Polaris nuclear deterrent missile, taking over work carried out by the Rocket Propulsion Establishment (RPE) and later by Royal Ordnance and British Aerospace to investigate space launchers which, unlike the Polaris enhancements, remained on the drawing board. RPE’s contribution was Chevaline, an upgrade to the British warheads for Polaris, designed to penetrate Russian anti-ballistic missile systems.

Later in the 1980s came HOTOL, an attempt by RAE, the Ministry of Defence (MoD), Rolls-Royce, and British Aerospace to build a space shuttle that took off conventionally on a runway without the aid of rockets. Recently published records have shown American interest in this project, but British governmental support was dropped. In fact these records were only released recently following a freedom of information request and even then details about then-defense minister Michael Heseltine’s response to an enthusiastic minister’s interest in HOTOL remain classified, as I wrote in a recent article (see “Breaking old habits”, The Space Review, June 7, 2010). A few years later, HOTOL was also shelved.

Today, RAE remains in the form of the British-owned defense company Qinetiq, while RPE became Royal Ordnance, which was then taken over by British Aerospace, itself becoming BAe Systems. BAe has became the final resting place of the talents, records, and facilities of many companies and organizations that have been involved in British flight, aerospace, space, and defense research and production since the early part of the 20th century. Rolls Royce Plc, whose technology was used by Dehavilland for Blue Streak, is one of the world’s largest defense contractors and still very much involved in aerospace. Saunders-Roe became part of Westland Helicopters, which is now foreign-owned AgustaWestland and whose overwhelming focus remains helicopters, despite being a company that once helped design and build rockets and unmanned aerial vehicles. So with capabilities still remaining in this country it seems that the missing ingredient has been a lack of consistent support to see these projects through to a point where benefits can be reaped in the way of transportation, defense, space science and exploration, and commercial satellite launches.

While the UK Space Agency awaits funding and advances on regulatory and legislative issues, potential progress is slipping away from the country.

What options, then, does the current coalition government have? David Cameron’s recent trip to India, accompanied by many government and industry representatives, involved promoting BAe and Rolls-Royce defense equipment. The Science Minister reportedly briefly engaged with ISRO. Meanwhile, however, the Prime Minister is faced with retaining the successor to Polaris, Trident, whilst demanding cuts in government departments. One can clearly see that key private or public organizations that played so much of a part in the initial British space program retain great importance in the political decisions of the present and thus it is fair to question if their prospects can benefit space exploration as well as national economic and defense matters.

The commercial space launch sector, favored by the current US president to take over human access to low Earth orbit, is also establishing itself in the UK. Skylon, from Reaction Engines Ltd, is a reusable spaceplane (whose development is overseen by Blue Streak, Rolls-Royce, and HOTOL veteran Alan Bond) that has eventually secured limited governmental support. Starchaser Industries competed for the X Prize in 2004, in the process building and launching the biggest rockets or privately built rockets ever from the UK and Europe, respectively. However, along with Virgin Galactic, Starchaser had to pursue its dream of “putting Britain back in space” and its vision of “contributing positively to a permanent human presence in space” from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Thus, while the UK Space Agency (UKSA) awaits funding and advances on regulatory and legislative issues, potential progress is slipping away from the country.

Arguably the ideal strategy for the UK coalition government with regards to space exploration and activities that benefit society is a combination: supporting and nurturing the strengths of national aerospace industries, empowering UKSA to coordinate major civil and defense space projects in the national interest, facilitating direct commercial space projects, and ensuring that the RAF retains sufficient sweep in capabilities and infrastructure to be able to drive the development, test, or even launch major projects such as spaceplanes, rockets, and engines.

A fascinating documentary made by UK’s Channel 4 a few years ago titled “Engineering Britain’s Superweapons” included contributions and laments by former contributors to the ballistic missile program and civilian space program of the era. One, John Salton, remembers with pride about the Black Arrow program:

“We had the best technicians in the world […] We will never, ever have the community we had at that time with so many people that were so keen to do so much.”

Another, Nobby Clarke, remembers painting an inscription on one of the girders for the Blue Streak platform at RAF Spadeadam, as re-enacted in the documentary, for future generations to see what was done there: “We did good work here for a long, long time”.

Britain can seek to assume a lead in the new wave of space exploration, given the earlier leads it abandoned, to the dismay of those involved and those that learn what could have been.

This sentiment resonated through the decades such that the same gantries where Blue Streak was tested was used many years later, in 2006, by Starchaser to test one of their rocket engines. The sound of British rockets being tested in the deep was heard not for one last time but for one more time. What was most striking about these tests was the size difference between what Starchaser was working on in the 21st century and the huge test bays and platforms at the base in the remote Cumbria wastes used by RAE and others in the 1950s. At first sight the investment made decades earlier was visibly benefiting a company with a mission to benefit society in the present. Beneath that, it can be argued that the RAF as an organization designed to push aerospace technology to the limit has necessitated the maintenance of an innovation, skills, and research and development base across the decades. One can speculate whether the current defense secretary, Liam Fox, recognizes the historical contribution the RAF has made to technological progress by facilitating the growth of aerospace industries.

The industrial base is not the whole story, of course. UK space science has long been high in world rankings, even the world leader in Thompson Reuters’ research relative impact factors in 2008. However, the aerospace commercial base and military infrastructure has delivered advance after advance. Some of these have been spectacular while some were destined to be a footnote in space history, but this resource continues to offer possibilities in space exploration and exploitation as the existence of Reaction Engines, the success of UK satellite manufacturing, the work of Starchaser, and the ambitions of Virgin Galactic attest to.

The closing commentary at the end of “Engineering Britain’s Superweapons” was, “Britain had reached the stars and fallen short.” However, a new phase of space exploration now beckons with NASA, still by far the most well funded space agency in the world, seeks to leverage more capabilities of the commercial space sector. Perhaps with the effective instigation of a new, formal, top-level, official space program following the arrival of UKSA, Britain could start that journey again, setting itself a target to regain satellite and perhaps even human launch capability well before Prospero’s orbits collapses. Britain can seek to assume a lead in the new wave of space exploration, given the earlier leads it abandoned, to the dismay of those involved and those that learn what could have been. It will be good, for one, for those who were “so keen to do so much good work” to see that their efforts were not in vain.