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The UK Space Agency has selected the first vertical launch site in Sutherland on the north coast of Scotland and is making available a new £2 million fund to boost horizontal spaceport development across Britain, Business Secretary Greg Clark recently announced:

“As a nation of innovators and entrepreneurs, we want Britain to be the first place in mainland Europe to launch satellites as part of our Industrial Strategy. The UK’s thriving space industry, research community and aerospace supply chain put the UK in a leading position to develop both vertical and horizontal launch sites.

“This will build on our global reputation for manufacturing small satellites and help the whole country capitalise on the huge potential of the commercial space age.”

At this point it might be worth asking what sort of “global reputation” the UK actually has. Are we “up there” or is the UK something of a bit-part player when it comes to the Universe and beyond?

Britain was one of the four powers that could have benefited from the capture of the leading German rocket scientists in 1945. According to contemporary reports, however, the likes of Wernher von Braun were “scornful of the French, afraid of the Russians, thought the British too poor and so surrendered to the Americans”.


German WW2 V2 launch site. Getty images


Undaunted, the British assembled a number of V2 rockets, modified them, and then launched them from a coastal site in the Netherlands. They reached the edge of space before landing in the North Sea within a three-mile radius of the intended impact point, a much better accuracy rate than that achieved by the Germans.   The British Interplanetary Society was impressed by the V2’s level of technology and, in 1946, Ralph Smith presented a plan to turn a V2 into a man-carrying spaceship; he called it Megaroc. It was reckoned to be entirely feasible and at least ten years ahead of any other such initiative.


Modern assessments show that Britain could have had a man in space by the end of the 1940s – had the funds been available. However, as we all know, this was not a time of free-spending governments and so the project was abandoned in favour of “sensible research” into conventional avionics and developing the UK’s nuclear deterrent.  Smith gave up the notion and turned instead to designing space-planes and huge orbiting space stations (as one does!).



By the late 50’s, two British military rockets had been successfully tested; Blue Streak and Black Knight. However, once again funding stopped play and Blue Streak was cancelled. Black Knight was different; scientists were determined to keep it going as they saw an opportunity to get Britain into the satellite game and wanted Britain to lead a pan-European effort to enter the commercial space race.


Blue Streak on test at Spadeadam in Cumbria


From  April 1962 the Ariel-series of UK-made satellites were indeed built and launched – although from a US space port called cape Canaveral and using a US-made rocket. Scientists still wanted a British launch-vehicle and refined the military Black Knight rocket to produce the Black Arrow, capable of putting payloads into orbit. This was achieved in late 1971. A Black Arrow rocket took off from the Woomera launch-station in Australia and placed the Prospero satellite in a low-earth orbit. It is still there today and will continue to orbit the earth for another 80 years or more.

Black Arrow launching from Woomera in Australia


There was considerable anger at the cancellation of the Black Arrow programme. Many thought the commercial-satellite age would bring significant returns to whoever had a viable launch-vehicle and so pressure was put on the Government to get involved in an alternative to the US space rocket programme. Although the UK could not afford to do this on its own, by 1975 the European Space Agency (ESA) was established, with Britain, by virtue of its track record, very much a lead partner.  By the mid-1980s, ESA was flourishing and the UK set up its own British National Space Centre (BNSC), to coordinate its national and international space activities.

However, once again, funding became an issue and the then Department of Trade and Industry Minister, Kenneth Clarke, called ESA a “hugely expensive club” while its main projects were nothing more than “frolics in the sky”. Funds were cut and Britain seemed destined to be a poor Space-Cousin once again. However, behind the scenes, UK scientists were hard at work on the Giotto space exploration satellite that was flown to the legendary Halley’s Comet where it examined its core. It then travelled to a second comet, Grigg-Skjellerup, in what was considered a hugely successful mission and a triumph for UK space-engineering.


The UK-built Giotto spacecraft (above) that explored Halley’s comet (below)


British technology contributed greatly to astronomy missions and led to the development of the long-lived and still current Eurostar satellite series, initially designed and built by British Aerospace/Marconi  (now Airbus Defence).  The first of these, Inmarsat-2 F1, was launched in 1990 and retired  in 2013, a period which vastly exceeded its ten-year planned working life. It was the first commercial satellite in the world to rely entirely on a digital system which could be reprogrammed in orbit.  Some 50+ British Eurostar satellites have been built in all, with the basic architecture developed for the first satellite still in production today.

Over the last 25 years  the UK has taken part in many different space projects and several Britons have been sent into space as part of the International Space Station (ISS) programme. British companies are working on projects to develop more cost-effective and re-usable launch vehicles and there are probably few space programmes in the world that do not at some point draw upon a current or past British innovation.  However, the main focus of the modern British space industry is now on satellites, with a growing emphasis upon affordable methods of getting them into orbit.

UK technology has been heavily  involved in developing new satellites and British companies, such as SSTL in England and Clyde Space in Scotland, are already counted among the global leaders in constructing small satellites. Some of these, called CubeSats which measure as little as 10x10x10cm and weigh less than 1.5kg, had formerly been considered secondary payloads, sometimes simply being  “chucked out of the window” from the ISS. But miniaturisation of electronics has allowed extremely capable small (below 100kg) satellites to be built which make it commercially feasible for smaller launch platforms to be used.

Cubesats in space, above (ESA image) with “the real thing” below (TV to Air mini-satellites: NASA image)

Some estimates now indicate that well over 6,000 small satellites will be looking for space on launch vehicles over the next ten years. A single rocket might be able to launch several small satellites, but this still means that there will be a huge demand for both rockets and pads from which to launch them.  And this is where the recent announcement of the Scottish “Space port” comes in.

The Government announced a £2.5m grant to kick start the development of a new space port at the A’Mhoine Peninsula in Scotland, a figure described by some as amounting to a “less than emphatic commitment” to the space age. However, at Farnborough Airshow it was announced that two much more significant grants have been made to Lockheed Martin and Orbex, two companies that want to actually launch rockets from the site.  Lockheed wants to use Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket already tested in New Zealand, in conjunction with the new Small Launch Orbital Manoeuvring Vehicle — or SL-OMV, being built for them in Reading by Moog. Orbex has its own re-usable rocket system which is still largely under wraps. (Orbex is a UK-based company, though its personnel are very international, reflecting the global nature of the space industry.)

Orbex Small Launch Orbital Manoeuvring Vehicle graphic: Image by Orbex.

The reason they like the Scottish site is that it allows rockets to place small satellites into north-south orbits that fly over Earth’s poles. These orbits are commonly used by Earth-observing satellites and low-latency (minimum delay) communications stations, including mega-constellations of commercial satellites already being launched. The latter are clusters of as many as hundreds of smaller, “cheap” satellites that form a network to create, for example, near-instant comms between schools or government bodies etc.

The government also made small grants to help other space-linked initiatives get off the ground. These include what are termed “horizontal launches”, rockets released at altitude from larger aircraft. For example, Virgin Orbit might well use an airfield at Newquay to fly a modified Boeing 747 carrying its Launcher One satellite-booster rocket.

The overall intent is that Britain will resume its former place in space technology – albeit in a somewhat more focussed manner. According to Patrick Wood, Lockheed Martin’s U.K. country executive for space “The countdown to the first orbital rocket launch from U.K. soil has officially begun. The U.K. Government has stated its desire to grow the U.K.’s space sector to ten percent of the global space economy by 2030.” The statement then goes on to talk about Lockheed being “proud” to be part of that effort; all the usual stuff we now expect in modern press releases of course. However, it makes the important point that large companies increasingly see the UK as being worth thinking about as a rising centre of space-technology – a potentially useful boost to future UK growth as we leave Europe.

The main difference between the days of Megaroc, Blue Streak, Black Arrow and now is that the Government is not funding actual programmes. That said, they are certainly prepared to prime the pump but will leave the heavy-lift to commercial companies. The recent grants are effectively paying for a marketing campaign saying “Britain is pro-space and we will do everything we can to assist “, followed in small print by: “Short of spending significant amounts of public cash”. But at least the UK is on the train and not standing on the platform watching another opportunity disappear along the tracks and into the dawn.


What does all this mean for TMT readers ?

In Part Two of this article we will take a look at how UK industry views the prospects for the space-industry in this country.  

As a taster of what that might be, it is worth mentioning that UKspace, the industry body set up to further the interests of this sector, believes that 30,000 new space-industry jobs can be created by 2030. Statistics already published by UKspace show that “sector productivity “is about three times the national average, with each person generating about £140,000 of value each year. Sector growth has been five times greater than the wider economy since 1999  and the total value of the space-industry sector to the UK economy in 2105 was £13.7bn, some three times its value in 2000.

TMT will be talking to people in the space-industry and providing you, our readers, with an overall view of its prospects, as well as to discuss skills-requirements and ways to get into this exciting new sector. If anyone out there has already moved into the world of space, please may they get in touch and let us have the benefit of their views and experiences?


Comments on Britain’s place in Space: Part 1 – a brief history

There are 2 comments on Britain’s place in Space: Part 1 – a brief history

  1. Comment by M


    If the UK government wants a globally competitive UK-based space launch and space launcher space sector it needs to invest in the required critical space infrastructure of spaceports (supporting vertical and horizontal launch), logistics sites and indigenous space launchers. Importing launch operators and launchers is great, but unless there is technological and skills transfer, these operators and launchers can choose to operate elsewhere as the bottom line dictates. UK is investing £56-66bn in a slightly faster rail link between London, the Midlands and some Northern cities, and £6.5bn on 2 x aircraft carriers, not including the aircraft, manpower, fuel, running costs, dockyard support and escort ships needed. So perhaps investing £1bn-£3bn in UK spaceport, spacehub and space vehicle development and set up costs would be good value for money for a new industrial sector. A national space sector strategy and capability doesn’t come cheap, nor is it delivered purely by erratic market forces. Without the enabling legislation and approvals and accreditation processes, yet to be detailed and consulted on in 2019, UK is once again in danger of grabbing defeat from the jaws of success. Due to process inertia, lack of government commitment, and sluggish and confusing processes, potential competing EU sites will quickly gain momentum and win earlier business in the vital ‘low cost access to space’ race.

  2. Comment by Murray Hammick

    Murray Hammick

    Your points are well made. Somehow we seem to send out messages that we do not quite understand the level of competition we are facing in the larger world. Or at least, we do not send messages that we are 100% committed to a course of action in the way that, say, a French premier would do.

    Is it that we are embarrassed by such shows of enthusiasm ? Or is it that the political classes simply do not understand the facts of life in the fast moving world of space-engineering and technology?

    Clearly we do have the capability to operate in this field – we just need to put our collective shoulders to the wheel and “commit”.

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