British space programme

The British space programme is the UK government's work to develop British space capabilities. The objectives of the current civil programme are to "win sustainable economic growth, secure new scientific knowledge and provide benefits to all citizens."[1]

The first official British space programme began in 1952. In 1959, the first satellite programme was started, with the Ariel series of British satellites, built in the United States and the UK and launched using American rockets. The first British satellite, Ariel 1, was launched in 1962. The British space programme has always emphasized unmanned space research and commercial initiatives. It has never been government policy to create a British astronaut corps.[2][3] The British government did not provide funding for the International Space Station until 2011.[4]

During the 1960s and 1970s, a number of efforts were made to develop a British satellite launch capability. A British rocket named Black Arrow did succeed in placing a single British satellite, Prospero, into orbit from a launch site in Australia in 1971. Prospero remains the only British satellite to be put into orbit using a British vehicle.

The British National Space Centre was established in 1985 to co-ordinate British government agencies and other interested bodies in the promotion of British participation in the international market for satellite launches, satellite construction and other space endeavours.

In 2010, many of the various separate sources of space-related funding were combined and allocated to the Centre's replacement, the UK Space Agency. Among other projects, the agency is funding a single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane concept called Skylon.


Scientific interest in space travel existed in the United Kingdom prior to World War II, particularly amongst members of the British Interplanetary Society (founded in 1933) whose members included Sir Arthur C. Clarke, author and conceiver of the geostationary telecommunications satellite, who joined the BIS before World War II.

As with the other post-war space-faring nations, the British government's initial interest in space was primarily military. Early programmes reflected this interest. As with other nations, much of the rocketry knowledge was obtained from captured German scientists who were persuaded to work for the British. The British performed the earliest post-war tests of captured V-2 rockets in Operation Backfire, less than six months after the end of the war in Europe. In 1946 a proposal was made by Ralph A. Smith to fund a British manned suborbital launch in a modified V-2 called Megaroc; this was, however, rejected by the government.[5]

From 1957, British space astronomy used Skylark suborbital sounding rockets, launched from Woomera, Australia, which at first reached heights of 200 km (124 mi). Development of air-to-surface missiles such as Blue Steel contributed to progress towards launches of larger orbit-capable rockets.

British satellite programmes (1959–present)

Early satellite programmes

The Ariel programme developed six satellites between 1962 and 1979, all of which were launched by NASA.

In 1971, the last Black Arrow (R3) launched Prospero X-3, the only British satellite to be launched using a British rocket. Ground contact with Prospero ended in 1996.

Military satellite programmes

Skynet is a purely military programme, operating a set of satellites on behalf of the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence.

Skynet provides strategic communication services to the three branches of the British Armed Forces and to NATO forces engaged on coalition tasks. The first satellite was launched in 1969, and the most recent in 2012.

Skynet is the most expensive single UK space project, although as a military initiative it is not part of the civil space programme.

Intelligence satellite programmes

Zircon was the codename for a British signals intelligence satellite, intended to be launched in 1988, before being cancelled. During the Cold War, the UK's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) was very reliant on America's National Security Agency (NSA) for communications interception from space. GCHQ therefore decided to produce a UK-designed-and-built signals intelligence satellite, to be named Zircon, a code-name derived from zirconium silicate, a diamond substitute.

Zircon's function was to intercept radio and other signals from the USSR, Europe and other areas. The satellite was to be built by Marconi Space and Defence Systems at Portsmouth Airport, in which a new high security building had been built.

It was to be launched on a NASA Space Shuttle under the guise of Skynet IV. Launch on the Shuttle would have entitled a British National to fly as a Payload Specialist and a group of military pilots were presented to the press as candidates for 'Britain's first man in space'.

Zircon was cancelled by Chancellor Nigel Lawson on grounds of its cost in 1987. The subsequent scandal about the true nature of the project became known as the Zircon Affair.

Independent satellite system

On 30 November 2018, it was announced that UK satellites will not be affiliated with the European Space Agency's Galileo satellite system after Britain completes its withdrawal from the European Union. Instead, the UK Space Agency will operate an independent satellite system.[6]

British space vehicles (1950–1985)

The UK developed and launched several space rockets, as well as developing space planes. During this period, the launcher programmes were administered in succession by the Ministry of Supply, the Ministry of Aviation, the Ministry of Technology and the Department of Trade and Industry.

Development of a British launch system to carry a nuclear device occurred from 1950 onwards.

Rockets were tested on the Isle of Wight and RAF Spadeadam, Cumbria and both tested and launched from Woomera in South Australia. These included the Black Knight and Blue Streak rockets.

A major satellite launch vehicle was proposed in 1957 based on Blue Streak and Black Knight technology. This was named Black Prince, but the project was cancelled in 1960 due to lack of funding. Blue Streak rockets continued to be launched as the first stage of the European Europa carrier rocket until Europa's cancellation in 1972.

The smaller Black Arrow launcher was developed from Black Knight and was first launched in 1969 from Woomera. In 1971, the last Black Arrow (R3) launched Prospero X-3, the only British satellite to be launched using a British rocket.

By 1972, UK government funding of both Blue Streak (missile) and Black Arrow had ceased, and no further government-backed British space rockets were developed. Other space agencies, notably NASA, were used for subsequent launches of UK satellites. Communication with the Prospero X-3 was terminated in 1996.

Falstaff, a British hypersonic test rocket, was launched from Woomera between 1969 and 1979.

In 1960 the British Space Development Company, a consortium of thirteen large industrial companies, was set up by Robert Renwick, 1st Baron Renwick to plan the world's first commercial communication satellite company, Renwick becoming the Executive Director. With Blue Streak, Britain had the technology to make it possible, but the idea was rejected by the British government on the grounds that such a system could not be envisaged in the next 20 years (1961–81). (The United States set up COMSAT in 1963, resulting in Intelsat, a large fleet of commercial satellites; the first of Intelsat's fleet, Intelsat I (Early Bird) was launched in April 1965. )

In the mid-1980s, Britain was the only main Western country not to have one, even though the Chairman of the European Space Agency, from 1984-7, was Britain's Dr (later Professor) Harry Atkinson.

The official national space programme was revived in 1982 when the British government funded the HOTOL project, an ambitious attempt at a re-usable space plane using air-breathing rocket engines designed by Alan Bond. Work was begun by British Aerospace. However, having classified the engine design as 'top secret' the government then ended funding for the project, terminating it.

National space programme (1985–2010)

In 1985 the British National Space Centre (BNSC) was formed to coordinate UK space activities.[7]

The BNSC was the third largest financial contributor to the General Budget of the European Space Agency, contributing 17.4%,[8] to its Science Programme and to its robotic exploration initiative the Aurora programme.

The UK decided not to contribute funds for the International Space Station, on the basis that it did not represent value for money.[9] The British government did not take part in any manned space endeavours during this period.

The United Kingdom continued to contribute scientific elements to satellite launches and space projects. The British probe Beagle 2, sent as part of the ESA's Mars Express to study the planet Mars, was lost when it failed to respond but has recently been found by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and it has been concluded while it did land successfully, one of the solar arrays failed to deploy blocking communication antenna.

United Kingdom Space Agency (2010 – present)

On 1 April 2010, the government established the UK Space Agency, an agency responsible for the British space programme. It replaced the British National Space Centre and now has responsibility for government policy and key budgets for space, as well as representing the UK in all negotiations on space matters.

The UK Space Agency provides 9.9% of the European Space Agency budget.[10]

Reaction Engines Skylon

The British government partnered with the ESA in 2010 to promote a single-stage to orbit spaceplane concept called Skylon.[11] This design was developed by Reaction Engines Limited,[12][13] a company founded by Alan Bond after HOTOL was cancelled.[14] The Skylon spaceplane has been positively received by the British government, and the British Interplanetary Society.[15] Successful tests of the engine precooler and "SABRE" engine design were carried out in 2012, although full funding for development of the spacecraft itself had not been confirmed.

2011 budget boost and reforms

The UK government proposed reform to the 1986 Outer Space Act in several areas, including the liabilities that cover space operations, in order to enable British companies' space endeavours to better compete with international competitors. There was also a proposal of a £10 million boost in capital investment, to be matched by industry.[16]

Commercial spaceport competition

In July 2014, the government announced that it would build a British commercial spaceport. It planned to select a site, build the facilities, and have the spaceport in operation by 2018.[17] Six sites were shortlisted, but the competition was ended in May 2016 with no selection made.[18] However, in July 2018 UKSA announced that the UK government would back the development of a spaceport at A' Mhòine, in Sutherland, Scotland.[19] Launch operations at Sutherland spaceport will be developed by Lockheed Martin with financial support from the UK government and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, with the aim of commencing operations in 2020.

Space Industry Bill 2017–2019

In June 2017, the government introduced a bill which will create a regulatory framework for the expansion of commercial space activities and the development of a UK spaceport, covering both orbital and sub-orbital activities.[20]

Commercial and private space activities

The first Briton in space, cosmonaut-researcher Helen Sharman, was funded by a private consortium without UK government assistance. Interest in space continues in the UK's private sector, including satellite design and manufacture, developing designs for space planes and catering to the new market in space tourism.

Project Juno

Project Juno was a private space programme, which selected Helen Sharman to be the first Briton in space. A private consortium was formed to raise money to pay the USSR for a seat on a Soyuz mission to the Mir space station. The USSR had recently flown Toyohiro Akiyama, a Japanese journalist, by a similar arrangement.

A call for applicants was publicized in the UK resulting in the selection of four astronauts: Helen Sharman, Major Timothy Mace, Clive Smith and Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Gordon Brooks. Sharman was eventually chosen for the first of what was hoped to be a number of flights with Major Timothy Mace as her backup. The cost of the flight was to be funded by various innovative schemes, including sponsoring by private British companies and a lottery system. Corporate sponsors included British Aerospace, Memorex, and Interflora, and television rights were sold to ITV.

Ultimately the Juno consortium failed to raise the entire sum, and the USSR considered canceling the mission. It is believed that Mikhail Gorbachev directed the mission to proceed at Soviet cost.

Sharman was launched aboard Soyuz TM-12 on 18 May 1991, and returned aboard Soyuz TM-11 on 26 May 1991.

Surrey Satellite Technology

Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) is a large spin-off company of the University of Surrey, now fully owned by Airbus Defence & Space, that builds and operates small satellites. SSTL works with the UK Space Agency and takes on a number of tasks for the UKSA that would be done in-house by a traditional large government space agency.

Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic, a US company within the British-based Virgin Group owned by Sir Richard Branson, is taking reservations for suborbital space flights from the general public. Its operations will use SpaceShipTwo space planes designed by Scaled Composites, which has previously developed the Ansari X-Prize winning SpaceShipOne.

British contribution to other space programmes

Communication and tracking of rockets and satellites in orbit is achieved using stations such as Jodrell Bank. During the Space Race, Jodrell Bank and other stations were used to track several satellites and probes including Sputnik and Pioneer 5.

As well as providing tracking facilities for other nations, scientists from the United Kingdom have participated in other nation's space programmes, notably contributing to the development of NASA's early space programmes,[21] and co-operation with Australian launches.

The Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, invented carbon fibre composite material. The Saunders-Roe SR.53 Rocket/jet plane in 1957 used the newly invented silver peroxide catalyst rocket engine.

The concept of the communications satellite was by Arthur C Clark.

British astronauts

Because the UK government has never developed a manned spaceflight programme and initially did not contribute funding to the manned space flight part of ESA's activities, the first six British astronauts launched with either the American or Soviet/Russian space programmes. Despite this, on 9 October 2008, UK Science and Innovation Minister Lord Drayson spoke favourably of the idea of a British astronaut.[22] In 2015, Tim Peake became the first UK-government funded British astronaut.[23]

To date, six UK-born British citizens,[24] and one non-UK born British citizen have flown in space:[25]

Name Birthplace Missions First launch date Nationality/ies
Helen Sharman Grenoside, Sheffield, South Yorkshire Soyuz TM-12/11 18 May 1991
First Briton in space. Funded partially by private UK citizens as Project Juno and by the Soviet Union.
Michael Foale Louth, Lincolnshire STS-45 (Atlantis)
STS-56 (Discovery)
STS-63 (Discovery)
STS-84/86 (Atlantis)
STS-103 (Discovery)
Soyuz TMA-3
24 March 1992 /
Born and grew up in the UK with dual UK/US citizenship, his mother being American. First British spacewalker. First Briton to both Mir and International Space Station.
Mark Shuttleworth Welkom, Orange Free State, South Africa Soyuz TM-34/33 27 April 2002 /
Self-funded space tourist to the International Space Station. Born a South African, he also holds UK citizenship.
Piers Sellers Crowborough, Sussex STS-112 (Atlantis)
STS-121 (Discovery)
STS-132 (Atlantis)
7 October 2002 /
NASA astronaut. Born and grew up in the UK, US citizen after 1991, died (cancer) 23 December 2016.
Nicholas Patrick Saltburn-by-the-Sea, North Yorkshire STS-116 (Discovery)
STS-130 (Endeavour)
9 December 2006 /
NASA astronaut. Born and grew up in the UK, US citizen since 1994.
Richard Garriott Cambridge, Cambridgeshire Soyuz TMA-13/12 12 October 2008 /
Self-funded space tourist to the International Space Station. Born in UK to US parents (son of Skylab astronaut Owen Garriott).
Timothy Peake Chichester, West Sussex Soyuz TMA-19M 15 December 2015
First government funded Briton to live aboard the International Space Station.

Gregory H. Johnson served as pilot on two Endeavour missions (STS-123 and STS-134). Although born in the UK, while his father was stationed at a US Air Force base, he does not hold British citizenship.[24]

Dr. Anthony Llewellyn (born in Cardiff, Wales) was selected as a scientist-astronaut by NASA during August 1967 but resigned during September 1968, having never flown in space.

Army Lieutenants-Colonel Anthony Boyle (born in Kidderminster) and Richard Farrimond (born in Birkenhead, Cheshire), MoD employee Christopher Holmes (born in London), Royal Navy Commander Peter Longhurst (born in Staines, Middlesex) and RAF Squadron Leader Nigel Wood (born in York) were selected in February 1984 as payload specialists for the Skynet 4 Programme, intended for launch using the Space Shuttle. Boyle resigned from the programme in July 1984 due to Army commitments. Prior to the cancellation of the missions after the Challenger disaster, Wood was due to fly aboard Shuttle mission STS-61-H in 1986 (with Farrimond serving as his back-up) and Longhurst was due to fly aboard Shuttle mission STS-71-C in 1987 (with Holmes serving as back-up). All resigned in 1986, having not flown.

Army Air Corps Major Timothy Mace (born in Catterick, Yorkshire) served as back-up to Helen Sharman for the Soyuz TM-12 / Project Juno mission in 1991. He resigned in 1991, having not flown. Clive Smith and Royal Navy Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Gordon Brooks, also served for a year as back-up astronauts for the Juno flight, learning Russian and preparing the scientific programme. Sharman, Mace and Brooks were subsequently put forward by the BNSC for the European Space Corps.

Former RAF pilot David Mackay was appointed as Chief Pilot by Virgin Galactic in 2009, and is participating in the flight test programme of the suborbital spaceplane SpaceShipTwo.

Singer/songwriter and actress Sarah Brightman announced on 10 October 2012 her intention to purchase a Soyuz seat to the International Space Station as a self-funded space tourist in partnership with Space Adventures. She underwent cosmonaut training with the aim of flying on Soyuz TMA-18M, but stated on 13 May 2015 that she was withdrawing "for family reasons". It is not known whether she intends to fly at a later date.

On 20 May 2009, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced that Major Timothy Peake, an Army Air Corps test pilot from Chichester, West Sussex, had been accepted as a member of the European Astronaut Corps.[26] In May, 2013, the ESA announced that Peake would fly to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur in Kazakhstan.[27] Peake's mission was launched on Soyuz TMA-19M on 15 December 2015.[28]

In fiction

Notable fictional depictions of British spacecraft or Britons in space include:

See also


  1. "What we do". BIS. Retrieved 27 April 2012.
  2. "UK vision to stay at the forefront of space sector published". Archived from the original on 2 June 2009. Retrieved 29 May 2009.
  3. Sample, Ian (14 February 2008). "UK carves out its place in space, but hopes for Britons on moon dashed". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 29 May 2009.
  4. Lunan, Duncan (November 2001). "Promoting UK involvement in the ISS: a space station lifeboat?". Space Policy. 17 (4): 249–255. doi:10.1016/S0265-9646(01)00039-X.
  5. "Megaroc". The British Interplanetary Society. Retrieved 18 May 2018.
  6. "Minister quits over 'naive' Brexit deal". BBC News. 1 December 2018. Retrieved 1 December 2018.
  7. "BNSC:How we work". Archived from the original on 19 December 2008. Retrieved 29 May 2009.
  8. "BNSC and ESA". Archived from the original on 20 April 2009. Retrieved 29 May 2009.
  9. "Space station 'not worth' joining". BBC News. BBC. 18 February 1999. Retrieved 18 June 2013.
  11. Reaction Engines Limited FAQ Archived 2 June 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  12. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 26 September 2010. Retrieved 2011-03-01.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  13. Reaction Engines Ltd 2006
  14. Robert Parkinson (22 February 2011). "SSTO spaceplane is coming to Great Britain". Space:The Development of Single Stage Flight. The Global Herald. Archived from the original on 23 February 2011. Retrieved 28 February 2011.
  15. Amos, Jonathan (23 March 2011). "UK space given boost from Budget". BBC. Retrieved 24 March 2011. reforms are designed to lower the sector's insurance costs and to make it easier for future space tourism companies to operate out of the UK. The government says it has recognised the success the British space sector has achieved in recent years and wants to offer it further support to maintain and grow its global market position.
  16. McKie, Robin (13 July 2014). "Britain plans to build commercial spaceport". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 July 2013.
  17. McArdle, Helen (20 May 2016). "UK spaceport competition axed in favour of licensing model". HeraldScotland. Retrieved 7 February 2018.
  18. "UK spaceport proposed for Sutherland site". BBC News. 16 July 2018. Retrieved 3 October 2018.
  19. Hutton, Georgina (2 February 2018). "The Space Industry Bill 2017-2019". House of Commons Library. Retrieved 7 February 2018.
  20. Eugene Kranz, Failure is not an Option
  21. Minister wants astronaut 'icon'
  22. "UK astronaut Tim Peake returns to Earth". BBC. 18 June 2016. Retrieved 4 October 2016.
  23. "Tim Peake launch: The seven Britons to go to space". BBC. 15 December 2015. Retrieved 17 December 2015.
  24. "For the next generation of astronauts to shoot for the moon, a STEM education is vital". City A.M. 29 August 2017. Retrieved 31 August 2017.
  25. "Europe unveils British astronaut". BBC News. 20 May 2009. Retrieved 27 April 2010.
  26. "UK astronaut Tim Peake to go to International Space Station". BBC News. 19 May 2013. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  27. "Tim Peake begins stay on international space station". BBC. 15 December 2015. Retrieved 4 October 2016.
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