Britain’s Space Program


SKYLON, a British Space Plane

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UKspace Members

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Britain actually does have a fully fledged space program due to it’s membership of the European Space Agency. We have a launch site in South America. we have access to all the major ESA facilities.


This is where the ESA is very different to NASA and other space agencies. ESA is a European wide organisation facilitating cooperation and sharing between all ESA member countries. This is the good side of Science. Ever since the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project in 1975 we have seen how Science and exploration can bring people and countries together in the spirit of cooperation. In the middle of the Cold War an extraordinary event happened that was to be forever etched in my memory.


The historic handshake between Stafford and Leonov

The Soyuz and Apollo flights launched within seven-and-a-half hours of each other on July 15, and docked on July 17. Three hours later, the two mission commanders, Stafford and Leonov, exchanged the first international handshake in space through the open hatch of the Soyuz. NASA had calculated that the historic handshake would have taken place over the British seaside resort of Bognor Regis,[3] but a delay resulted in its occurrence being over the town of Metz in France.[4] During the first crew exchange, the crews were read a statement from Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev, and received a phone call from U.S. President Gerald Ford.

While the two ships were docked, the three Americans and two Soviets conducted joint scientific experiments, exchanged flags and gifts (including tree seeds which were later planted in the two countries), signed certificates, visited each other’s ships, ate together, and conversed in each other’s languages. (Because of Stafford’s pronounced drawl when speaking Russian, Leonov later joked that there were three languages spoken on the mission: Russian, English, and “Oklahomski.”) There were also docking and redocking maneuvers, during which the two spacecraft reversed roles and the Soyuz became the “active” ship.

After 44 hours together, the two ships separated, and maneuvered to use the Apollo to create an artificial solar eclipse to allow the crew of the Soyuz to take photographs of the solar corona. Another brief docking was made before the ships went their separate ways. The Soviets remained in space for five days, and the Americans for nine, during which the Apollo crew also conducted experiments in Earth observation.

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My scrap book entry, 1975

That is the ship I drew on the news report in 1975. Even as a five year old I could appreciate the gesture of friendship that this event encapsulated. This is what has been happening to this day across Europe. Britain is very much part of the greater space agency that is the ESA. This is very much the point and actually gives Britain its own fully fledged space program due to the inherently cooperative nature of the ESA. Get it ?


Lord Mandelson and British astronaut Major Timothy Peake at the launch of the new UK Space Agency

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We really do have a space program to rival that of any other country due to the nature of the way ESA is set up. So when you hear someone say that “Britain does not have a space program” you can gently correct their error. Tell them about the SKYLON Space Plane. Tell them that we have direct access to the South American ESA launch facility just as any other ESA member state does. Tell them that we constantly cooperate with and work with all the major ESA space centre facilities, as advanced as any NASA or any other space agency facility.

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