The UK is known the world over as a nation of explorers: from Sir Walter Raleigh to David Livingstone, Sir Ranulph Fiennes to Captain Robert Falcon Scott, the British are surely amongst the globe’s most curious voyagers.
Mention exploration of the stars, however, and a host of organisations probably springs to mind: NASA, for sure, and perhaps the European Space Agency, as well as Russia’s cosmonauts and Roscosmos successes. But what about Britain?
The UK’s role in exploring space is something of an unsung success and is little appreciated – not just by people around the world, but also within Britain itself. Yet this year marks the 50th anniversary of Britain joining the space race, when the first ever satellite designed and built in the UK was launched.
The satellite, named Ariel III, was fired from Vandenberg Air Base in the United States on 5 March 1967, launched via a US Scout rocket (as Britain did not have its own suitable launch vehicle at that time).
Ariel III was designed, built and tested over several years at the Royal Aircraft Establishment’s space department in Farnborough, Hampshire. The satellite went on to exceed expectations and continued to orbit for two years. It was deemed a great success and kickstarted Britain’s interest in space exploration.
Over the next 50 years, the UK’s contribution to the space industry was somewhat eclipsed by China, the US and Russia. But throughout the 1960s and 70s, the UK worked on its own satellite launch capability and a British rocket, Black Arrow, succeeded in placing a UK satellite, Prospero, into orbit in 1971.
The UK has also seen the founding of the British National Space Centre in 1985, replaced by the UK Space Agency in 2010.
In fact, today Britain’s space industry is booming. Its application is wide-ranging – from manufacturing satellites, to advanced research and design for space exploration. According to the government’s 2016 report, the industry was recently valued at £13.7bn, and its world-leading contributions to major space projects support more than 38,500 jobs around the country. It is estimated that wider UK industrial activities representing over £250bn are supported by satellite services.
And according to figures reported by the BBC, the UK space industry is growing faster than the wider economy. The British government aims to capitalise on all this activity and wants the UK to have its own space port for commercial flights and satellite missions.
What is interesting from our view across the pond is the close relationship Britain has with the US state of Florida. There are lots of opportunities for UK companies to broaden their horizons and opportunities in Florida, given the state’s expertise, geographical positioning, technology, and good weather.
Take a look at Inmarsat, the UK’s biggest space company. The company has boosted its global broadband network recently with the launch of a fourth high-frequency satellite, which was taken into orbit by a SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.
The UK has had a relationship with Florida and its space industry for some time. Eight years ago, Florida signed a memorandum of understanding with what was then the government department for trade and investment, and earlier this year the UK’s minister for International Trade, Mark Garnier, visited Florida to discuss the development of further collaboration.
There are of course new, exciting times ahead for Britain as it looks to set out its new role in the world after exiting the EU.
At a time when the UK government is trying to drive up productivity across the British economy, it’s notable that the space sector has one of the most highly productive and skilled workforces in the country. As well as expanding, exporting and engaging more globally, a real opportunity for the island of Great Britain may well lie in the stars.