Britain’s Space Race

Britain’s Space Race

17/04/2019Written by Hannah Baker

The story behind our upcoming exhibition…

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mascot Telescope Right

For many years Deck 2 of our Rocket Tower has remained empty and unloved. Once a classroom, this area has left visitors to wonder why the lift skips straight from 1 to 3. What are we hiding in there? Well, the answer was nothing. But not for much longer…

Over the past few months we have been developing a brand-new exhibition to add to the Space Race story that fills the rest of our Rocket Tower. The exhibition will focus on Britain’s response to America and the Soviet Union’s struggle for supremacy in space. It will bring to light the contribution to space exploration made by British engineers, scientists, and visionaries during the Space Race.

Early Designs for Space Travel

Early Designs for Space Travel
Harry Ross explaining the Megaroc design - Credit: British Interplanetary Society

Before the Space Race even began, Britain had the potential to shoot for the Moon. In 1933 a group called the British Interplanetary Society formed, with the goal of promoting human spaceflight. The society was made up of space enthusiasts, many with extensive engineering knowledge. They set about solving the problem of how to put humans on the Moon. Members Harry Ross and Ralph Smith produced the first serious designs for a lunar spacesuit (pictured below – credit: British Interplanetary Society).

Following World War II, the British Interplanetary Society submitted a proposal to the Government to develop a passenger carrying rocket based on the German V2, called Megaroc. It was designed to take humans into space, a feat that wasn’t achieved until Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight 15 years later. With some development, Megaroc could have been ready by the mid-1950s, but the proposal was rejected. As America and the Soviet Union became the two great superpowers of the age, Britain struggled to recover from the war. Investing in space technology did not seem justifiable while people still lived on rations.

Brits Join NASA

Brits Join NASA
John Hodge - Credit: NASA and Chris Gainor

Opportunities dwindled for many skilled British engineers, causing them to look for work abroad. In Canada, the branch of British aviation manufacturer Hawker Siddeley, known as Avro Canada, took on many British workers. However, soon after the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, Avro Canada made thousands of its workforce redundant. The newly formed NASA took this opportunity to snatch up some of the top engineers from Avro Canada, many of whom were British. That’s how John Hodge from Leigh-on-Sea in Essex became a flight director at NASA.

“So when people say to me, ‘How did you get to the space program?’ I say, ‘I was fired.’” – John Hodge

Hodge was instrumental in developing the now familiar set up of mission control – rows of desks, facing an orbital map, with a viewing gallery at the back. Hodge, along with many other Brits, reached senior positions at NASA. While they had a seemingly limitless budget, engineers who stayed in Britain had to do things on a shoestring in comparison.

Britain's Rocket Programme

Britain's Rocket Programme
Blue Streak on the gantry. Credit: RAF Spadeadam. Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

Britain started its own rocket programme in the 1950s in response to the Soviet Union exploding its first nuclear bomb. World War II showed space rockets could be used to devastating effect as weapons and Britain feared nuclear bombs could soon be raining down from space. This pushed the British Government to finally invest in rocket technology. It began to develop a rocket that could carry a nuclear warhead, code-named Blue Streak.

By spring 1960, £60 million had been spent on Blue Streak. A further £240 million was needed to build underground silos around Britain to house the rockets. Finding suitable places to build the silos proved extremely difficult. Locating them too close to towns or villages could inadvertently put locals on the front line of the Cold War. The Government eventually decided to cancel the programme. But in the face of criticism over wasted public money, they looked to give Blue Streak a new purpose – launching satellites.

From Defence to Science

From Defence to Science
The first test flight of a Europa-1 first stage (F1), a re-purposed Blue Streak - Credit: ESA

The cost of re-developing Blue Streak was too much for Britain to bear alone, so it turned to its neighbours to create a joint European rocket. Blue Streak would be the first stage, with France and Germany developing the upper stages. This collaboration, called Europa, aimed to challenge the American and Soviet monopoly on space. Unfortunately, the project ran into difficulties and eventually Britain pulled out. We have the last Blue Streak ever made on display in our Rocket Tower.

Most of Britain’s efforts in space had been focused on Europa, but a small budget of £10 million was allocated to developing an independent British rocket called Black Arrow. British engineers had to rely on their ingenuity and as much existing technology as possible to build Black Arrow. But just as their hard work was paying off, the programme was cancelled. One final launch was permitted because the rocket was already on its way to the launch site. This launch was the first and only time a British satellite has been launched by a British rocket.

What Could Have Been…

As the Space Race came to an end in 1975, Britain’s rocket programme was no more. Despite Britain having viable designs and world leading engineers capable of making them a reality, it never reached the heights of America or the Soviet Union. However, it’s fun to imagine an alternate history where the Government said yes to the Megaroc proposal and the first person in space was Clive from Norwich.

(Disclaimer – Clive will not feature in the exhibition)

About the author: Hannah Baker is the Assistant Curator at the National Space Centre.