In a completely unexpected move, the British Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday announced outside Number 10 Downing Street that the UK would resume its space launch programme, 47 years after its cancellation following the launch of the Prospero satellite. She outlined a bold plan with a target of placing the Doc Martens of a British astronaut on the Lunar surface as early as 2024. Funded by the £350m per week Brexit windfall, the move would she said place the country at the forefront of a new 21st century Space Race with the North Koreans.
An estimated 2 million jubilant supporters took to the streets of London at the news, bringing the capital to a halt as they paraded with colourful banners from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square and down Whitehall past her Downing Street home. Meanwhile the value of shares in the popular British high street bakery firm Patisserie Gregoire jumped by 19% as it was revealed that their new vegan sausage roll had in fact been a secret trial of the British astronaut diet.
Wait… There Really Is A British Space Effort?
As you might imagine, here at Hackaday we are enthusiastic about space exploration, and welcome wholeheartedly any news of new initiatives in that direction. But we recognise that in the light of the fast-moving political theatre of Brexit these are turbulent times in which what makes the headlines on April 1st might well have become merely chip wrappers by April 2nd. So to try to make sense of the story and give it some context, we thought we’d take a moment to look at the British space industry as it stands. And with a 5.1% share of the global space economy, a Government-funded UK Space Agency with plans for a spaceport, a host of space related work from the private sector, and some of the world’s more bleeding-edge research, it might come as a surprise to find out just how much of it there is.
It’s difficult to write any story involving the UK in early 2019 though without further mention of Brexit, and the space business is certainly no exception with industry figures expressing concern about its effect. A story that came and went last year was that UK firms would be excluded from contracts associated with the Galileo satellite navigation system. Since a significant proportion of Galileo used British technology and their control centre was in the UK, the Government responded by announcing that it would commission a study into creating their own constellation of navigation satellites. To this end they have committed £92m, a sum which seemed to go down well with the choir but even with the UK’s demonstrable expertise in the field would represent a drop in the ocean compared to the cost of a final system. In a nutshell: they could certainly do it, but at a cost which future Governments might find difficult to stomach. This is something which if you’ve read the Prospero piece linked above, you’ll know has happened before. If there is a glimmer of hope for Brits in all this it is that the UK is still part of the European Space Agency, but as with Galileo any UK access might be limited when it comes to ESA projects funded by the EU.
One Day Maybe All Space Planes Will Have British Engines
Happily for UK space-watchers, there is a piece of British space technology that might yet make all those rockets obsolete. Reaction Engines are a company based on a science park near Oxford, and they are a pioneer in the field of reusable space plane technology whose history in part mirrors Prospero, because the company has its origins in the team that produced yet another cancelled UK government funded space project.
HOTOL was a 1980s programme to create a horizontal-takeoff British Aerospace spaceplane that was cancelled as the government of the time decided its focus should lie with the conventional rockets of ESA. Three HOTOL engineers formed Reaction Engines in 1989 with the aim of developing the HOTOL concept of a hybrid engine and aircraft that could use atmospheric oxygen to burn during the stages of its flight close to Earth, only switching to its onboard oxygen tanks as atmospheric pressure reduced to the point of not supporting combustion and the craft entered space. Their work has culminated in the precooled SABRE engine of which they are expected to have a ground-based working prototype by 2020, and the Skylon spaceplane concept design which will it is hoped fly in a future decade. In another nod to the Prospero story, the company’s UK test facilities are at Westcott in Buckinghamshire, once home to test stands for the cancelled Blue Streak rockets of the 1950s.
So you may by now have gathered that while those British boots might not be treading the surface of the Moon in five years time to wave at their American and perhaps Chinese rivals there is a surprising amount of British space tech already in the skies as well as the promise of more to come. Whoever next lands a craft on the Moon should be hailed by space enthusiasts of all nations, accompanied by the fervent hope that they do so in safety and return home unscathed. Brits meanwhile should have no need to go back to the moon for a few more decades, after all they sent an intrepid pair of explorers there in the 1980s.