Tim Peake in space

Reaching For The Stars: The UK's History In Space

Tim Peake in space

Tim Peake on board the International Space Station, reading a book Helen Sharman had taken to space in 1991 (Picture: Tim Peake).

Britain’s space industry is booming.

Last year the UK Space Agency valued the sector at £14.8 billion, employing almost 42,000 people across the country.

The UK's involvement in space stretches back to before the Second World War, with the government initially focused on its military capabilities.

Forces News has taken a look back at the key events that have shaped the industry over the decades. 

Timeline Of Britain In Space

The British Interplanetary Society
The British Interplanetary Society meeting with the American Rocket Society (Picture: The British Interplanetary Society).

1933: The British Interplanetary Society is founded

It is the world’s longest-established organisation devoted solely to supporting and promoting the exploration of space and astronautics. 

The word "interplanetary" in the title was chosen by the group so they were not constricted to just this galaxy but to encompass interstellar space travel.

The group of space flight enthusiasts dreamed of using rocket propulsion to fly to the Moon and the planets.

MegaRoc launcher concept
The MegaRoc launcher concept (Picture: British Interplanetary Society).

1943: First proposal to fund a British manned suborbital space flight submitted to the government

However, it was rejected because of limited funds following the Second World War.

The plan was to launch an adapted V-2 rocket called 'MegaRoc' to carry humans to space.

Developed by Germany during the war, the supersonic V2s were the world's first long-range missiles.

At the end of the war, V-2 rockets were seized by the Allies, forming the basis of early American and Soviet rocket design.

Laika Soviet satellite dog
Laika, the satellite dog who was one of the first animals in space, was a space race victory for the Soviets (Picture: PA).

1952: British Space Programme officially launched by the UK Government

This was done with the intention to develop the country's space capabilities.

The UK programme came as Cold War tensions were hotting up between the United States and USSR, triggering the space race.

Replica of 'Ariel-1' satellite, the world's first internationally conceived and executed satellite (Picture: Smithsonian Institute).

1962: First British satellite is launched by Nasa

'Ariel 1' was launched on 26 April.

Designed in the UK, it was built by Nasa and launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

It established Britain as the third satellite-operating nation after the US and USSR.

A further five satellites were launched between 1962 and the 1980s as part of the programme.

The Black Arrow rocket was the first British power to enter space (Pictures: Imperial War Museum).

1971: Britain officially enters the space race with the Black Arrow carrier rocket

Launched from Woomera in South Australia, it was the first - and so far only - British rocket to successfully place a satellite into orbit.

Despite the triumph, Black Arrow programme's government funding was cut.

The satellite, named 'Prospero', still remains in space and is expected to continue circling the Earth for the rest of the century. 

ESA Main Control Room
The Main Control Room at the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany (Picture: ESA).

1975: Britain teams up with nine other nations to found the European Space Agency 

The European Space Agency (ESA) sought to consolidate European space technology and provide a capacity that was not reliant on the US.

Britain provided much of ESA's technology and expertise, at the forefront of many early projects, like the International Ultraviolet Explorer - the world's first high-orbit telescope.

Giotto spacecraft CREDIT ESA
ESA’s Giotto spacecraft was built by British Aerospace in Bristol, 1985 (Picture: ESA).

1985: British National Space Centre is established

It was a Government agency to coordinate national and international space activities.

British cosmonaut Helen Sharman
British cosmonaut Helen Sharman after a successful space flight (Picture: PA).

1991: Helen Sharman becomes the first British astronaut to enter space

She is also the first woman to do it.

Ms Sharman spent eight days orbiting the Earth in a Soyuz spacecraft.

Beagle 2 on Mars
Beagle 2 Lander observed by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (Picture: Nasa).

2003: 'Beagle 2' is launched

This was the British-led effort to land on Mars.

However, contact was lost just after six days before entry into the atmosphere, and it is not known for certain whether it reached the Martian surface.

VSS Unity suborbital spaceplane
VSS Unity suborbital spaceplane on the tarmac in Mojave, California (Picture: Virgin Galactic).

2004: Virgin Galactic is set up by Sir Richard Branson

Sir Richard Branson announced that his company would sponsor the flight of an experimental air-launched rocket-powered aircraft.

If SpaceShipOne's flight was successful, then Virgin Galactic would finance the design and build a fleet of commercial spacecraft.

It is said the spacecraft would allow thousands of people to travel to space.

Tim Peake
In 2015, Tim Peake conducted a spacewalk to repair the station's power supply.

2015: Major Tim Peake is the first British ESA astronaut to visit the International Space Station

Alongside crewmates Tim Kopra and Yuri Malenchenko, Major Peake, a British Army Air Corps officer, visited the International Space Station.

They launched on a Soyuz rocket on 15 December 2015.

Tim took part in over 250 scientific experiments for ESA and international partners during his mission.

He returned to Earth on 18 June 2016.

2019: £30m investment in space technology announced

In July 2019, the Defence Secretary announced the multi-million-pound investment to fast track the launch of a small satellite demonstrator.

The technology could eventually allow fighter pilots to receive live video streams into their cockpit, with the aim of raising their battle awareness.

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