How the UK is quietly disrupting the space industry
Away from the limelight, the United Kingdom is slowly building up a new empire on which the Sun never sets.
The first space race is often conceived of battle between two countries: The United States and the Soviet Union. But in reality, there was another player in the game.
Once the greatest power on Earth thanks to the nation's ocean-going prowess, the United Kingdom made a flying start in the 20th century race to space... and then it crashed and burned.
What happened to the U.K.'s nascent space industry proved a lesson for other, rival nation space programs. But while the U.S. and Russia have notably pulled ahead, the U.K. is starting to reassert its claim to a piece of the interstellar pie.
A troubled history — The U.K. has much it can be proud of — The Beatles, gin and tonic, Doctor Who, chicken tikka masala... the list goes on. And in science, it has been no less influential, home to great thinkers like Isaac Newton, David Hume, and Ada Lovelace. But few people know that the U.K. is also home to the oldest space-advocacy group in the world, the British Interplanetary Society.
As far back as 1947, British newsreels show Society members sketching out plans for lunar travel that are eerily similar to what the U.S. space agency NASA would achieve some 22 years on.
In the aftermath of World War II, the Society drafted an ambitious plan to take the U.K. to a new frontier. Known as Megaroc, the project would have sent repurposed V-2 rockets in suborbital space. It was roughly equivalent to NASA’s Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight program in the U.S.
But the British government, in dire financial straits after the devastating war, had no interest. Beyond academia, the British space program stagnated so much that it faded into obscurity.
Official government policy stood against human spaceflight, and the country did not contribute to the International Space Station, despite it being an international venture between space agencies.
But this laissez-faire attitude to the great beyond may now be a thing of the past, too. A second space race, this time mostly funded by private organizations, is beginning to take shape. And now, almost 80 years after Megaroc, the U.K. could go beyond the British Interplanetary Society’s wildest dreams.
Here are three ways the U.K. is shifting the needle when it comes to space travel and securing our species' future in space:
1. An expanded role in NASA:
The modern U.K. space story begins in 2010, when all of the country's space efforts were re-organized under the U.K. Space Agency, or UKSA for short.
Following the rebrand, the UKSA rekindled its relationship with NASA. The joint NASA-UK Ariel satellite program is probably the partnership's biggest success to date — but what is to come is even more interesting. Now, the UKSA is spearheading development of crucial communications systems that will be onboard NASA's Lunar Gateway.
The Gateway is the second stage of NASA’s ambitious Artemis program. Artemis has two aims: getting an American back on the Moon by 2024, and to create both a sustainable base for research and a way station for further space exploration there.
NASA describes the Gateway as an international “outpost” that will orbit the Moon, acting as a research lab, communications hub, temporary living quarters for astronauts, and storage for robots.
The UKSA is putting over $20 million (£16 million) into their part in this project. The cornerstone of the U.K.'s efforts is the Lunar Pathway, a communications system that will be built by a small company — Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd.
The Pathfinder “will be the first commercial service to address the need for data relay around the Moon," according a statement from the company's managing director, Phil Brownnett. It "will not only demonstrate an innovative business idea, but we fully expect it to also stimulate the emerging Lunar market," according to Brownnett.
2. Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit:
Some of the key companies powering the new space race are themselves powered by billionaires. Elon Musk of SpaceX, and Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin often make headlines, and London’s own Richard Branson is a distant third. But Branson has two companies to his name that deserve further scrutiny: Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit.
While neither company is winning the war of headlines, both Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit appear to be making serious progress towards their very different goals.
Virign Galactic doesn’t do rockets in the typical sense of the word. Rather, the company has developed a unique system in which a cargo aircraft carries a spaceplane 50,000 feet. Then, the spaceplane flies further up, hitting 361,000 feet, or 55 miles up from Earth.
That high up gives passengers a full five minutes of weightlessness, before the craft re-enters Earth’s atmosphere.
This height is not a universally recognized space barrier, but the idea is so promising that NASA recently announced that it will be partnering with Virgin Galactic to fund future space research.
The project will be led by Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute. Onboard a Virgin SpaceShipTwo, as the spaceplanes are known, Stern and his team will study the accuracy of astronomical observations, as well as participating in biomedical experiments.
Then there’s Virgin Orbit, which is geared to satellites. The company eschews traditional ground-based launches for a mid-air approach, but this time using a less-fancy Boeing 747, repurposed from Virgin Airlines (synergy!).
Named Cosmic Girl, the 747 flies to a certain height and then the company’s LauncherOne rocket system carries its satellite cargo into orbit.
The LauncherOne system has had some technical problems this year. But the company recently announced it is partnering with a smaller firm to develop a solar-powered upper stage to its rockets. That would allow LauncherOne to go far beyond the Earth’s lower orbit, even traveling to the Moon.
3. Launch start-ups:
Across the U.K., smaller, ore nimble space companies are starting to launch, too.
Robin Hague, head of launch at the Scottish Skyrora, told Inverse in August of this year people are “often surprised" that such businesses are starting up in the U.K.
Critical to these start-ups' success is the ability send traditional rockets into space at regular intervals, like they do at Cape Canaveral in Florida and at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. That may soon be reality.
The Space Hub Sutherland project aims to bring horizontal launches to northern Scotland. It recently passed local council approval, who had had some environmental concerns.
The UKSA is planning to use the hub for as many as 12 launches a year from Scotland — the first flight could be as early as 2022.
Plans for U.K.-based launch sites don’t end there.
Remember Virgin’s aerial launches? Virgin also plans to build Spaceport Cornwall in southern England. With plans to finish construction by 2021, the Spaceport’s promotional documents say that “over 13,000 satellites are required to be launched” by the UK by 2030.
This aerial Spaceport will require less work than the Space Hub. Working in tandem with a local airport, Virgin Orbit will upgrade existing systems and might build more once the Spaceport is a “commercially viable and a self-sustaining organization.”
Together, these three veins of opportunity show the U.K. is getting seriously into space — and Inverse will be watching.