What happened to the British Space Programme?
I mean, the one that we should have had in the second half of the 20th century. I’m less concerned about the future, for reasons that I’ll get to at the end of this post, but right now I’m talking about what might - hell, should have been. (And yes, I’ve been listening to a lot of David Bowie in the last few days, with special reference to Space Oddity.) There’s really no reason why we couldn’t have had one, not really - I’m going to hear a lot of arguments about budget and cost, but we built an independent nuclear deterrent, not to mention that we actually put a satellite in space with our own launcher, even with the limited funding we had.
British post-war technological development is a catalogue of disastrous foul-ups. Our computer designs from the Second World War were largely squandered, the Miles M.52 had an excellent chance of beating the Bell X-1 to Mach 1, and we were making advances in aerospace technology that really should have seen us go further. We had a collection of V-2 rockets, and even a plan that probably would have worked to put a man on one, throwing him up into a limited sub-orbital trajectory. Hell, we built a nuclear weapons program, only to later on throw it aside and move to buying from the United States.
My conclusion is that all that was missing was an advocate. Someone who would have argued for a British space effort in the same way that there were arguments for a British nuclear programme - perhaps if the United States had been a bit more willing to share data early on (especially given all the help that Britain gave to the Manhattan Project, after all) a co-operative nuclear weapons programme of the 1940s might have been realistic. Not cancelling the Miles M.52 gives us a rocketplane in RAF service, and that would have got Rolls-Royce seriously into rocket engines.
We needed - with acknowledgement to Warren Ellis - a Ministry of Space. A lot of the technological efforts required were in works anyway, with designs for spaceplanes and rockets being produced. Even without this attention, we had Black Arrow, developed from Black Knight. Let’s say that Black Knight continues on its funding, which gives us a satellite launcher in the early 1960s - with realistic funding.
Let’s go a step further and ask why? If you want a point-of-departure, try this one. The Megaroc, the manned V-2, is approved in 1947, after the flight of the Miles M.52. While it would have taken years, a different Minister of Supply might have conceived of it as a prestige project for the post-war years, something to keep Britain on the map. Not that crazy - the Labour government of the day was determined to prove their patriotic credentials, and this might just have appealed. The result? Britain gets the first man in space, some time in the late 1950s. We’re only talking about a sub-orbital hop, well within the reach of the launchers at their disposal. So - Captain Eric Brown is the first man in space.
A one-off? Unlikely. We’d have something equivalent to a sub-orbital Mercury, but once started, projects like this can be tough to stop. We were close in any case, and this likely seems the Black Knight launcher getting a lot more funding. The future that Arthur C. Clarke wrote of in his early books, British flights launching from Woomera, happens. Now we have a three-cornered Space Race, and would we have been able to resist competing in that? Yes, there would have been diplomatic pressure to push us back, but by this point, a lot of companies are involved, a lot of jobs at stake in marginal constituencies. Things a Government does not want to mess with.
So the race to the Moon has three participants, maybe even four if the French choose to stay in the game, perhaps with some sort of early European co-operation. (Given Concorde, it’s not unrealistic to see an Anglo-French space programme coming into view in the 1960s if we’ve both got something to put on the table, and that has some pretty immense repercussions. Not only are we a major player in the race, we’d have a chance of winning it.)
We’re getting a lot more into the realm of theory here. I suspect that this means that Truman gets his way, and Britain subsumes its nuclear programme into that of the US much earlier, saving the money for something else. Likely we’d have thought along the lines of spaceplanes; there were designs for such programs in the UK as early as 1962 - but I suspect we’d end up with rocket/capsule projects instead, simply because they are cheaper. In terms of satellites, well, the communications satellite was devised by Arthur C. Clarke - so we might well see a British version coming along earlier than Telstar, maybe a Telstar Ring around the world. (Interesting what careers might be butterflied by this. Clarke was in the RAF during the war, and if a British space programme was abuilding, he might have been tempted back in.)
Ultimately, we’d end up co-operating with someone as the expenses rose. It would just be a matter of when. A European partnership probably keeps us in the driving seat, whereas a United States partnerships probably means that Neil Armstrong’s Lunar Module Pilot is British. (If we’re actually putting people into space, we’re not going to settle for a share of the science.) Maybe we don’t try for the moon at all, but we end up with a much earlier International Space Station, sometime in the 1970s.
I’d like to think we would, though. And that in this other world, a Union Jack rose on the moon, sometime around 1972, with the crew of the ship playing Bowie, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles as they drifted through space. Something that makes me smile. (Yes, I did love Ministry of Space. Yes, I do wish we’d done it, and I’d like to live in the world where we did.)
As for the future? Well...things are looking up. The British space industry is actually booming, the Isle of Man is one of the major hubs of commercial space activity, and we’re building a spaceplane in Bristol that is actually being properly funded. At this rate, sometime around 2030, you’ll be able to get to orbit on the weekly Skylon flight out of Heathrow. Something to look forward to, at least. And yet, I still wonder what might have been, in that world where Eric Brown (look him up, seriously) rode a modified V-2 to orbit on the fifth anniversary of the Coronation...