Britain in Space

Flags of the United Kingdom as an Animated Display

This is a technically updated version of the site as it was Hosted on GeoCities..

Yahoo closed GeoCities on the 26th October, and this site needed to be protected from being lost (although the some of the site has been archived by: Internet Archive GeoCities Project Team it is incomplete).

As all efforts to contact Stephen O'Brien have so far been without result, I have taken the unusual step of mirroring the content, whilst making technical updates. Obviously without Stephen O'Brien's involvement this is not an acceptable long term solution.
Douglas Ian Holland

If Britain had rejected satellites it would have been easier to reject the next major advance, and the next, and the next. There would have been no end to it. Yes, there would have been an end. Britain would have become a Switzerland with a few specialised skills - an admirable little Switzerland, but not a Britain.

Ivan Southall from his book Woomera, 1962

Words are often made ironic by time. Today, the idea of Britain being a space power seems almost comic, but this was not always so. As is well known, the end of the Second World War saw the USA and USSR recruit many German scientists and engineers for use in their own projects. What is perhaps less well known is that some also came to Britain.

Initially, the prospects for a British space programme looked bright, and plans for a V2-based were produced. However, these were scrapped due to a belief that there would never be a method of accurately guiding rockets (The gyroscopic guidance system of the V2s which attacked London were accurate only to a few miles). It took the detonation of the UK's first atomic bomb in 1953 to drag Britain back into the Space Race.

It was the search for a Cold War nuclear deterrent which spurred on the high-point of British rockets in the 1950s and 1960s. This was the era of the "Blue Streak" missile and the "Black Knight" rocket which tested its warheads. The greatest achievement of the programme, however, came in 1970, when "Black Arrow" made Britain the sixth country to launch its own satellite. Ironically, this came after the Government of the day had cancelled the project. The reality was that Britain was no longer a Great Power, as it had been before the world wars, and could no longer afford such costly projects, especially before the discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970s.

Today, Britain is still involved in space in a variety of ways. However, due to the political and economic situation in Britain since 1970, the space effort in the UK has stagnated. This was particularly true in the years of the Thatcher governments, when public spending was slashed. This resulted in Britain opting out of ESA projects such as Ariane-5 or the Columbus module for the International Space Station. Also, the revolutionary British Aerospace proposal for HOTOL, a rival to the Space Shuttle, had to be abandoned when both the British Government and ESA refused further funding.

More recently though, there have been some signs of a small renaissance in this area. For example, in 1996 the amateur group Aspirespace launched the most advanced British rocket since Black Arrow. In the professional field, there has been speculation about a British astronaut on the Space Station, Britain has been chosen to supply the Beagle-2 lander to search for life on Mars, and HOTOL lives on, this time as a private initiative called SKYLON. It is possible, therefore, that Britain will have a slightly larger space role in the future.

This page is intended to be a basic introduction to British space projects through the ages. For a more detailed look at the high-point of the rocket programme from 1950-1970, see Nicholas Hill's excellent website:
British Rockets and Satellite Launchers , which includes more political and technical information.



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