BBC and Science Museum present: Britain in space

Explore Britain's history in space

Britain’s space industry is booming. Recently valued at £12bn, its world-leading satellite businesses and contributions to major space projects support more than 115,000 jobs.

Yet to earn a place among the stars, Britain faced political and economic battles. Follow this curated journey around the Science Museum to explore Britain’s role in the space race – success, missed chances and vital contributions.

December 1946

V-2 rockets provide key to the stars

The 20th Century explosion of space exploration was not only driven by academic curiosity but by the rapid development of military technology.

Towards the end of World War Two, Germany had successfully launched the world’s first long-range missile – the V-2 rocket. Such was the weapon’s potency that 9,000 people were killed in attacks on London, Antwerp and Liege. After Germany conceded defeat its remaining rockets were seized by the US, the USSR and Britain. Ralph Smith from the British Interplanetary Society proposed adapting the V-2 to carry humans into space, but the government rejected his plans due to limited post-war funds.

Capt Eric Brown talks about German scientist Wernher von Braun, creator of the V-2 rocket. (Timeshift: British Space Race, 2012)

October 1957

Soviet Sputnik 1 takes Cold War to space

Post-war rivalry between the US and the USSR had triggered the Cold War, starting decades of tension.

In 1955, America announced plans to launch the world’s first satellite. In response, the USSR built and deployed their satellite Sputnik – beating the US by four months. The Americans were desperate to track the satellite's launch rocket as it flew over the US. Jodrell Bank observatory in Cheshire housed one of the few instruments able to do it – the Mark 1 radio telescope. The US pleaded with its creator, Bernard Lovell, to help and so Britain played its part in the first space race milestone.

A 1957 newscast shows the pictures of Sputnik, the first satellite to be launched into space. (The Satellite Story, BBC Four, 2007)

April 1960

Discarded weapons provide engines for Black Knight

Britain had developed its own nuclear weapon strategy in response to the US and Soviet military posturing.

Britain’s first military rocket, Blue Streak – together with its test rocket Black Knight – was designed to launch nuclear weapons. Although both rockets proved extremely reliable, Blue Streak was expensive and the project was cancelled in 1960. Yet British scientists and rocket engineers regarded it as an opportunity. They persuaded the government to focus on creating a pan-European space effort. Britain’s rockets would now be used for civilian purposes, like launching satellites into space.

Watch footage of British test rocket Black Knight launching into space in 1958 from Woomera, Australia. (British Pathe)

October 1971

Black Arrow puts Brit satellite into orbit

Britain joined a select group of nations by independently launching a satellite into orbit from Woomera in Australia.

The British satellite launcher Black Arrow was based on its earlier test rocket, Black Knight. It successfully released the satellite Prospero into low-Earth orbit – the only time a British satellite has been taken to space using solely British technology. Despite this triumph, the project’s funding had already been cut by the government, which could not see the commercial value of building rockets. Prospero is still in space today, expected to circle Earth for the rest of the century.

Engineer John Scott-Scott on the resentment when Black Arrow was cancelled despite a successful launch. (Timeshift, 2012. Rocket footage by Nick Hill)

October 1990

Britain established as a world leader in satellites

British engineers continued to pioneer ever more advanced satellite technology.

Hertfordshire-based telecommunications firm Inmarsat contracted British Aerospace (now Airbus Defence and Space) to design and build its flagship Eurostar satellite. Inmarsat-2 F1 was the first commercial satellite with a digital system reprogrammable while in orbit, bringing new simplicity and accuracy. It operated for 23 years, outlasting its intended 10-year lifespan. Since then, more than 50 British Eurostar satellites have been launched providing mobile, broadband and secure communications.

More than 50 Eurostar satellites have been delivered since Inmarsat-2 F1. The Eurostar 3000 (above) is the current model.

May 1991

Helen Sharman is the first Briton in space

As the UK had no government-funded human spaceflight programme, a group of British companies instigated Project Juno to send a Briton to space.

They negotiated a seat on the Soyuz mission to the Russian Mir space station alongside two Soviet cosmonauts. The advert went out: ‘Astronaut wanted. No experience necessary’. A 27-year-old British chemist named Helen Sharman came across the opportunity while working for Mars Chocolate. She was selected from 13,000 applicants and trained intensely for 18 months in Star City. On board the spacecraft, she carried out medical and agricultural experiments and photographed the British Isles.

Helen Sharman launched on 18 May 1991 and spent eight days in space, visiting Russian space station Mir.

October 1997

British technology sent to explore Saturn’s moons

As other nations continued to explore new ground, British scientists helped to drive forward the most ambitious deep space mission yet.

In 1997 Cassini-Huygens was launched into space. The mission was a joint venture between Nasa, the European Space Agency (Esa) and the Italian Space Agency to fly by Saturn. On board the spacecraft was the Huygens lander, which successfully descended onto Saturn’s largest moon Titan. The Open University designed Huygen’s Surface Science Package, a complex set of sensors, to analyse Titan’s atmosphere and ground. The scientists’ data revealed Titan has a solid rather than liquid surface.

British Prof John Zarnecki and his team explain why the mission was a success. (Destination Titan, BBC Four, 2011. Footage from Esa)

December 2003

Beagle 2: Success or failure?

By the turn of the century, Esa scientists dared to explore the possibility of life beyond Earth in its first attempt to touchdown on another planet.

British lander Beagle 2 was tasked with looking for signs of life on Mars. Led by Prof Colin Pillinger of the Open University, the lander was deployed in 2003 but no contact was ever made. Then 11 years later Beagle 2 was spotted on the red planet. It appeared intact, yet its solar panels had not deployed fully, hiding the communication antenna. To have come so close to success gave the mission’s British team some vindication, but came too late for Pillinger who had died months earlier.

Maggie Aderin-Pocock discovers why we lost contact with Beagle 2. (The Sky at Night, BBC Four, 2015. Images by University of Leicester and ISRO/MOM).

December 2005

British company helps pioneer global satellite navigation

European ambitions in space were about transforming daily life too, as Esa began work on a new global satellite navigation system.

No longer needing to rely on the US GPS and Russian Glonass systems, Europe’s own network of satellites called Galileo will provide real-time positioning with metre-accuracy and the most precise readings at high latitudes. Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) was commissioned to build the prototype satellite GIOVE-A, followed by the innovative measuring instruments on the first 22 Galileo satellites. The system is due to begin offering services in late 2016, with full functionality by 2020.

Europe's new global navigation satellite system – named Galileo – is being created by the EU as an alternative to US and Russian navigation systems.

May 2009

Tim Peake becomes the first British Esa astronaut

Since 1983 Esa had been sending Europeans into space alongside Nasa and Russian astronauts. In 2009 it selected its first ever British recruit.

Army major and test pilot Tim Peake was chosen from 8,413 applicants. The selection surprised many as, at this time, the British government had not contributed funds to the International Space Station (ISS), maintaining its focus on unmanned space research and commercial ventures. But Tim was chosen on personal merit, according to Esa, and has already begun to inspire a new generation of space enthusiasts in Britain. He has since been chosen to spend six months on the ISS from December 2015.

“It reflects on the tremendous direction the UK space industry is going…” Tim Peake visits the Science Museum after being assigned to a space mission.


Britain’s future in space

Today the space industry is one of the fastest growing sectors in the UK economy, generating a turnover of £12bn a year – double that of a decade ago.

Where space exploration was once considered a military necessity or costly pastime, it is now recognised for its economic and scientific value. Britain thrives as a world leader in satellite technology. Its astronomers continue to help pioneer ambitious endeavours, such as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), set to image the Universe with unprecedented clarity from 2018. And as the next space race to Mars warms up, Britons remain at the forefront of ever more daring missions into the unknown.

Maggie visits the ‘Mars Yard’ in Stevenage to find out why British engineers are building a new Mars rover. (The Sky at Night, BBC Four, 2015)