History of UK spaceflight

Tim Peake Mascot Illustration

Since the founding of the British Interplanetary Society in 1933, the UK has had a strong and influential presence in global space flight efforts – both independently and as a key player in global partnerships.

Early space exploration

Following World War II, the UK performed some of the first tests of the space-capable V-2 rockets. As early as 1946, British engineers were developing plans to build the first crewed suborbital spacecraft. In the 1950s Britain’s space odyssey truly began. Based at a rocket site in Australia, the British Skylark rocket began a 50-year campaign to deliver small payloads to the edge of space. These sounding rockets (capable of travelling at many times the speed of sound, but not of entering orbit) proved to be arguably the most successful of their type and laid the groundwork for bigger and more capable rockets.

The 1960s saw the UK enter the satellite industry. The Ariel program saw the launch of six research satellites into orbit. Having collaborated with NASA, we forged a strong partnership that still exists today. This early era of rocketry saw the launch of Prospero X-3. This joint research and communications satellite was a landmark moment for British space science: the first British satellite to be launched by a British rocket, Black Arrow. Britain then provided the first stage of the experimental European Europa rocket mission, which used the Blue Streak missile as its base. While the rocket was marred by technical difficulties, Britain’s first stage performed perfectly on each test flight.

British innovation

The following decades saw the UK move away from rocket technology and focus on our ability to build satellites. However, we still retained our innovative spirit and engineering excellence. The UK space industry has forged an international reputation for building excellent satellites. As this reputation has grown so has our involvement in the global space market. And now, through young, innovative space start-up companies and supported by the upcoming construction of space ports, the UK is ready to once again make its mark on the spaceflight industry.