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Michael Foale
British-born Michael Foale is one of the world’s most experienced space travelers, but he had to become an American citizen to be an astronaut. (credit: NASA)

Parsimony and piecemeal: what future does Britain have in space?

The apogee of the original British space program is generally accepted to be the successful launch of Prospero by the Black Arrow rocket on October 28, 1971, yet the irony is that, for generations growing up following that time, very few people indeed even knew that the UK had ever had such a program. Much of the information on such projects remained classified for 30 years for largely military reasons and the repercussions of the program’s cancellation—tragically coinciding with the first and last independent British satellite launch—reverberated throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, with sharp reluctance by British governments to participate to any appreciable degree any longer in space exploration. However, the work conducted until the cancellation of the space program had significant implications for space exploration and utilization as well as defensive purposes in this particular frontier. With the relative economic revival of the UK and the space ambitions held by both existing successful economies or rising powers, a reappraisal of Britain’s prospects and needs in space is long overdue. While some changes with a view to national future have been instigated by government, the foreign policy outlook at the highest levels reflects an assumed continuation of alliances formed in the latter half of the 20th century that has meant the UK has remained largely a user of existing space technologies or, at best, a major contributor rather than a leader in the exploitation of space itself.


The historical achievements in space of the United Kingdom following the Second World War have only recently begun to be collated from the disparate and often hitherto classified reports in journals or official documents. As such, a comprehensive analysis of the extent of British expertise in industry, academia, and government and the facilities existing across the country since the war is yet to be produced. A similar all-inclusive recounting of the technical achievements and contributions to space is lacking as well.

What is clear, however, is that by a combination of historical momentum and political mindset Britain was the only country outside of the post-war emergent superpowers of the USA and USSR to have the capability and perceived cause for embarking on a space program. The nature of the country’s orientation of governmental and industrial infrastructure towards support of military projects further enhanced the standing of the UK in this regard.

By a combination of historical momentum and political mindset Britain was the only country outside of the USA and USSR to have the capability and perceived cause for embarking on a space program.

The totality of these factors amounted to a drive that produced technological outputs and scientific results on a par with any other on Earth. The ballistic missile program produced Blue Streak, which was later to form the basis for the now hugely profitable French Ariane rocket. The Black Knight re-entry research rocket was of international value, representing, as it did, a collaboration with the US and Australia. As a project initiated for ballistic missile research, the “sounding rocket” Skylark became one of the most successful programs in history emerging as a scientific research vehicle and launching 441 times over almost 50 years until its cessation in 2005. Hugh Whitfield, speaking for Sounding Rocket Services Ltd, the private company and final inheritor of the Skylark vehicles said to BBC News online:

We should be immensely proud of the contribution to science that Skylark has made and it is a testament to the skill of British engineers that the program has lasted half a century. This is a 50-year-old program —it began in 1955 and we will conclude in 2005. At one stage, it was a very big program with over 200 people working on it. The Skylark is a classic. Back in the ’50s, Britain was very advanced on the capabilities of aircraft and they were coming up to launch satellites; the country was Europe’s leading light and we were up there with the Americans and Russians.

Less well-acclaimed but equally deserving as an attainment, given the meager resources available and the poignancy of its last “shot at glory” following cancellation, was Black Arrow. Ten years after the initiation of Blue Streak and five years after its closure, work began on this British space launcher with ostensibly scientific purposes but possibly intentions of potential military advantage. Again the country’s space infrastructure in the form of the Royal Aircraft Establishment and industrial partners were critical ingredients in enabling the UK to join the then very small number of nations capable of independent access to space.

The final national serious attempt with this objective in mind was the re-usable space launch vehicle called HOTOL (as it was designed to for Horizontal Take Off and Landing). This concept was announced in 1987. The British National Space Centre had been launched on November 20, 1985, following the escalation of space activities in the UK including HOTOL, but in 1987 the BNSC was declined further funding for British space activities and a year later, for still unclear reasons, funding was withdrawn for HOTOL. The fallout from this affair would be a recurring theme of regret in numerous Parliamentary inquiries many years later.

Following the sudden refusal (controversially, it is claimed, under influence by the Foreign Office) of the government to cease funding of HOTOL, British involvement in launchers (reusable or expendable) virtually disappeared save for an absolute minimal standing contribution to Ariane through ESA membership. Furthermore, political enthusiasm and consequently financial commitment to space policy waned for many years with a civil budget to ESA of £183million in 1997–8 declining to £160million in 2002–3, and with other similarly-sized European economies contributing far more to ESA and even greater amounts to their space activities outside of it.

Throughout the remaining period to the present the UK has refused to be involved with manned spaceflight. This has been re-stated in Parliamentary inquiries in 2000 and 2004. In 2000, Mark Hempsell of the University of Bristol said to panel of the inquiry by the Trade and Industry Committee:

The lack of any support for launchers and manned spaceflight is the core of all the substantial differences between Britain’s and other industrialized nations’ civil space activity.
The consistent abandonment of launch vehicle development and plans for manned spaceflight has effectively set a technological and aspirational upper limit on the UK that threatens to relinquish any recognition of the nation in future extraterrestrial ventures.

Accordingly Britons who wish to fly in space commonly have to obtain dual-citizenship. The first British astronaut in space was expected to be Nigel Wood but his flight on the Space Shuttle was cancelled following the Challenger disaster in1986 and the convulsions in NASA that followed. Even the unique circumstances that allowed Helen Sharman to become the first Briton and one of the few women in space in November 1991 were almost undermined by the inability of the British industrial consortium to underwrite the cost of the flight. Senior British-born NASA astronaut Michael Foale has since met with Prime Minister Tony Blair to request a UK astronaut program to take Britons to the International Space Station, as yet to no avail.

Finally in 2004, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry, Gerry Sutcliffe, confirmed the UK’s stance:

We are not going to follow the line on manned–or “person-ed”–space travel that the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) suggested. We believe that progress in robotics give us the opportunity to develop what is necessary safely, so that human life is not put at risk. We will review those issues on the basis of particular projects as they come along.

While the UK’s expertise in contributing or leading on scientific missions through ESA—or occasionally with JAXA or NASA—looks healthy, and Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contracts for the manufacture and upkeep of Skynet 5 defense communication satellites represents a pioneering approach to space funding by the UK government, much of the expertise in the British aerospace industry is a result of the national investment made into an independent space-access capability in the past from EADS Astrium in Stevenage, Hertfordshire to Qinetiq at Farnborough, Hampshire and Rolls-Royce at Ansty, Warwickshre. Moreover, Skylark provided a hugely significant platform for the development of UK centers of space science.

There is some evident recognition in government of the national need for technological progress such as the spinning-out of the DTI’s Technology Strategy Board as an independent Research Council-like entity designed to stimulate expenditure on research and development in industry. However, the consistent abandonment of launch vehicle development and plans for manned spaceflight has effectively set a technological and aspirational upper limit on the UK that threatens to relinquish any recognition of the nation in future extraterrestrial ventures and it is perhaps this prospect that draws such a strength of feeling from space-enthusiastic representatives of varying political persuasions.

Return to the Moon?

At the beginning of December 2006, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin visited UK Science Minister Malcolm Wicks MP concerning collaboration with NASA for their planned return to the Moon. This followed a visit by scientists and “officials” to China seeking a British part in their plans for robotic exploration of the moon. The government news network reported:

[G]lobal space exploration strategy is being developed by the world’s space agencies. It will co-ordinate worldwide efforts to return to the Moon and to explore the solar system with robots, so preparing for the historic first human mission to Mars.

However, this misleads concerning the degree of cooperation of the international space agencies as reported later in December:

Speaking about international cooperation in Moon exploration, the Russian space chief said Russia will not join the U.S. in its program, but will develop its own unmanned exploration techniques.
“Russia will study the Moon using unmanned methods, meaning with the help of robotic equipment,” Perminov said. “We are fully cooperating with China in this area.”

Meanwhile, the Indian space agency ISRO, having pulled out of the European satellite global positioning satellite constellation program Galileo because of security fears brought about by other collaborator China, is reported by the Hindustan Times:

“Exploring the possibility of transporting Helium 3, the richest source of energy found on the moon, to the earth and converting it for energy production will be one of the focus areas of the Chandrayaan [rocket series] Mission”, a senior ISRO official said.
“Space scientists are working on it and Chandrayaan series will be continued to find out the potential of the moon and its use for mankind,” Dr K N Shankara, Director, ISRO Satellite Centre, said.

One potential problem with future extraterrestrial missions from a British perspective is that there will be little “historic” about a human mission to Mars because the UK does not have an astronaut program. Nor will the Moon missions be historic because there will be no flag or person if the UK limits itself to scientific instruments. Also going round the world, particularly to places like China, as if to submit to the inevitability of that country’s greater destiny, begging for scraps of missions done for the prestige of the other nation, has a distinct feeling of subservience and is one more humiliation for a once-spacefaring Britain.

Also going round the world, begging for scraps of missions done for the prestige of the other nation, has a distinct feeling of subservience and is one more humiliation for a once-spacefaring Britain.

One wonders whether Minister Wicks was merely seeking contracts for industry—which ultimately may leave this country as physics graduates decline, for example—or whether he had in mind a vision of a permanent ability to contribute to space exploration. The latter would require substantial reforms in the way the UK approaches space activities not least the funding of astronauts. Consider the following:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.

This is an alleged advertisement placed by the Discovery expedition to Antartica led by Robert Scott and including Sir Ernest Shackleton in 1901. Shackleton would later go on to set further precedents in Antarctic exploration including the furthest south expedition in 1909. Fast-forward almost 100 years and the NASA Moonbase, in the still more desolate and forbidding region of the Moon’s south pole, is a crater named after Shackleton himself. The same spirit of exploration that drove the great British explorers of the 19th and 20th century is found today in the American space agency. It’s easy to imagine the explorers of old picturing themselves as one member of an illustrious and continuous line of explorers who, as technology improved with time, would naturally go on further, higher, and to do even greater things. The naming of that region of the Moon is testament to that spirit. Shackleton’s inspirational will and vision provided a legacy far beyond what he probably would have comprehended, extending beyond even this planet. It will be a tragedy if the UK cannot see the good in being able to make a recognizable mark to space exploration as a distinct collaborator rather than a subcontracted minor player.

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