The triumphs of 20th century space exploration were colossal. Will Britain play a role in the triumphs of the 21st?by Jay Elwes / June 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Ask someone about space-flight and perhaps they’ll tell you about the heroism of Yuri Gagarin, who in 1961 became the first human ever to leave the Earth’s atmosphere, or about the moon landing—that “giant leap”—taken by the United States in 1969. The triumphs of 20th century space exploration were colossal. They expanded humanity’s sense of what was possible. But what might be coming in the 21st? And what might Britain’s contribution be?
Surprisingly substantial, it turns out—the UK has a burgeoning space industry, employing tens of thousands of people, with a history going back over half a century. When Tim Peake launched into orbit in 2015, he may have been only the second astronaut to fly under the Union Jack (the first was Helen Sharman, in 1991). But Britain’s space programme started in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the victorious powers competed to get their hands on German technological know-how, especially jet and rocket propulsion systems.
The science behind the V2 rockets, which were fired on London from 1944 on, was of particular interest. These 12-ton monsters with their one-ton warheads were terrifying not only for their range—over 250km—but also their destructive power.
They were the first man-made objects to travel into space. When hostilities ceased, Britain swept up as much information about the V2 as it could, keen to learn how such enormous thrust was generated. In an operation known as “Backfire,” British technical staff re-assembled several of the rockets which were test-fired at Cuxhaven, in Saxony. One of them reached a maximum altitude of just over 40 miles. In that moment, Britain effectively conducted the world’s first peacetime spaceflight.
But when it came to space travel, the V2 was a dead-end for British ambitions. The official UK space programme began in 1952 and culminated in 1962 with the launch of the British Ariel 1 satellite, a joint venture with the US. Once in orbit, Ariel carried out a number of onboard experiments, to examine the interaction of the Sun’s rays with the ionosphere, the region from 40-600 miles above the Earth’s surface, the same zone that was crossed by the trajectory of the V2. Ariel’s success meant that Britain became only the third nation to have successfully launched a working probe, after the USSR and US.