The UK’s first encounter with space technology came out of the blue on 8th September 1944 in the shape of a V2 rocket that exploded killing three people in Chiswick. This was the beginning of a curious tale on show in our museums that hints at an intriguing history and a tragic lost opportunity.
First on display in British museums is the German V2, the Vergeltungswaffe 2 (Retribution 2) – an amazing piece of space technology whose designer Werner von Braun famously went on to mastermind the USA’s Apollo manned space programme. Tragic though his early successes were for London, the V2 fortunately had little impact on the course of the war. Beyond, as space pioneer Professor Freeman Dyson (who was with the RAF in London at the time) argued, diverting critical German resources from their fighter plane programme to the benefit of the allied war effort.
The second space rocket we can see is in many ways the V2’s direct heir: the UK’s Black Arrow, which in October 1971 delivered a UK satellite into orbit from the Australian range at Woomera. This rocket has the dubious distinction of being the UK’s only space craft to deliver a satellite into orbit. Showing its European heritage, this unique piece of technology was one of the only space rockets powered by high-test peroxide (HTP), the same fuel that powered the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet rocket plane, a piece of German technology also on display in Britain’s museums.
These craft tell a tale that started in the ruins of the Germany in 1945. The UK, the USA and the Soviet Union all embarked on a rush to take control of German’s advanced rocket science. The UK took control of V2 missiles and with their German technicians set about studying them and getting them to work. It was this technology allied to the UK’s impressive aeronautic industry that led to the UK’s first steps towards space. Sadly, the UK missile programme ultimately came to naught. The Royal Navy under Lord Mountbatten was aghast that the UK’s nuclear strike capability might be sited on missiles launched from land rather than from its submarines and this contributed inside Whitehall to the rockets’ civilian satellite launch capabilities being sadly overlooked. In addition, already they were having to compete for public funding with the looming financial white elephant that became Concorde.
The final nail in Britain’s space craft industry came in the midst of the UK’s entry to the EEC, Heath having cancelled the project before even its maiden flight. The French, who were a relative newcomer to space technology and advanced aeronautics, having been otherwise occupied during the 1940s technological race, became the driving force of the European Space Agency with their Ariane rockets based in French Guyana. It’s ironic that Ken Clarke, as Science Minister in 1987, and perhaps cognisant of the history, refused to back the Ariane 5 rocket. Declaring that the UK taxpayer would not subsidise putting “Frenchmen in Space”. France’s Ariane went on to become a commercial success, benefitting from the ever-expanding demand for satellites, while ground breaking UK technology such as the HOTOL space plane failed to get ESA backing.
Britain, which had set out after WWII as one of only three potential space powers, has become one of a select band of major economies not to have its own domestic space launch capability. Not only was this a major historical and commercial mistake it is something that should and is now being set right. In this the UK has a number of major advantages.
Despite the failure of the UK to develop its own space launch system the UK has managed to grow a highly successful space satellite industry worth nearly £15bn a year. This industry in turn fosters other high technology industries and drives innovation. Space is big business.
The cost of space launch capabilities has come down dramatically in the last few decades. The technology developed back in the 60s has been improved upon – what was once the preserve of major states is now within the grasp of private companies. The UK has recently put in place legislation to open up commercial space flight in the UK and companies such as Orbex operating out of Sutherland Space port may soon launch the second UK satellite after a gap of fifty years. Others, such as Virgin Galactic, as a part of a taxpayer bailed out conglomerate, may also feel it is now time to come home to the UK. We should seek to encourage these and other pioneers to our shores.
Post Brexit the UK will be uniquely placed. A member of the European Space Agency, able to develop its own projects free of the political pressures of EU membership and in addition able cooperate with North America and Commonwealth states. These strengths should be built on. Space science is a cooperative enterprise and the UK should be in the lead.
But space is more than just a commercial opportunity for private companies and an international scientific endeavour: there is a strategic case for an active British presence in space.
The UK, as with other states, relies on satellite communications to sustain its economy and its defence capabilities. Currently the UK has to rely on others to launch its most sensitive satellites, something that works well in normal times. However, we have seen states, such as China, experiment with satellite destruction. With the current COVID pandemic we have also seen the limitations of relying on overseas supply chains for critical technologies in times of crisis – the UK should arm itself with strategic independence. We have already seen this with the general EU and specifically French attempts to block the UK from accessing the sensitive parts of the Galileo global positioning satellite system. This exposes the dangers of strategic dependence and furthers the case for a reliable UK-led system based on ground stations based on British Overseas Territories and closely allied, dependable states. And for bringing home to European actors their physical limitations in this regard.
Space, however, is not just about strategic independence, it has always been more than that. This is the human desire to explore and push back our frontiers, and it has outlived our mapping of this globe. As far back as 1640 Dr John Wilkins set out a detailed thesis for the ‘Discovery of a World in the Moone’ for English colonisation of space complete with designs for a winged ‘space chariot’. He may even have attempted to fly this contraption out of Wadham College Oxford. And why not, England had recently started to colonise one New World, everything was possible. Four hundred years later and Wilkins’ ideas are no longer a fringe academic heresy but within the grasp of even limited state budgets. Now is the time for the UK should re-join the space race.
The UK should put the force of the state behind its amazing array of scientific space talent. We should develop the next generation of reusable space vehicles capable of horizontal take off. Alan Bond spent decades on minimal budgets attempting to bring his HOTOL dream to life, this should be brought rapidly to fruition. The prospect here is being in the commercial vanguard of the next generation of supersonic airliners. Additionally, the UK should set up a version of the US Jet Propulsion Laboratory and regional centres of space science and materials with an active space programme harnessed for the benefit of wider UK industry.
A cheap method for entry into space has always been the key that opens up many worlds of opportunity. There is no reason why the UK should watch others land on the Moon and Mars any more than Wilkins’ contemporaries felt it right to leave the New World to the Spanish. Space has commercial opportunities aplenty, from communications to asteroids made of precious metals but these will only be exploited by British companies if the UK puts itself back in the game.
Previous generations of Britons grew up in an age of British aeronautic excellence watching in the postwar years the country turn out amazing and world beating aircraft. ‘Made in Britain’ meant high technology adding to the value of all our exports. It encouraged students into science and engineering – what could be a better advert for British engineering than a new domestic space plane taking British satellites and landers into orbit, the moon and beyond? We can talk about wanting children to sign up to STEM subjects, but there’s no surer way to achieve that worthy goal than them taking pride in their actions. A British space project will add booster rockets to science’s credibility with British youth. Why wouldn’t it? It has everywhere else.
Future generations visiting British museums would find it bizarre if the Black Arrow missile from 1971 was the last exhibit in displays charting Britain’s ambitions in space. The UK has a unique opportunity, an amazing space heritage and should now re-join the elite club of spacefaring nations.
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