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To infinity and beyond

Britain holds a slightly ignominious distinction: it’s the only nation to have independently developed the capability to launch objects into orbit and given it up. The decision in the early 1970s to cancel the Black Arrow project, followed by another in the early 1980s that the UK should not participate in the European launcher programme which led to Ariane (and, in parallel, should develop robotic space technology rather than take part in manned missions) have probably contributed more than anything else to the mistaken public perception that the UK ‘doesn’t do space’.

black arrow

What might have been — Black Arrow in the Science Museum

Just how mistaken that perception is was plain to see a couple of weeks ago at the Stevenage facility of Airbus Space and Defence (formerly EADS Astrium), where the expanded Mars Yard was unveiled to the press. Slightly unkindly referred to in many reports as a sandpit, the Yard mimics as closely as possible the conditions which the ExoMars rover, due to be launched to the Red Planet in 2018, will encounter on the Martian surface, including lighting of the same intensity as the sunlight on Mars, gradients similar to those at the landing sites which are currently being selected, and yes, sand and boulders of similar grain size and texture.

The upshot of which is that the UK is designing and building a rover which will investigate the possibility that Mars once held life, and the signs of that could be preserved below the Martian surface protected from the radioactive flux that scours the planet; it’s also building the orbiter that will act as the rover’s communications link. As a little side-plug, anybody attending The Engineer Conference in June will be able to hear rover engineer Abbie Hutty, who is current holder of the IMechE’s Woman Engineer of the Year title, talk about the project and her work on it.

To my thinking, it’s a great shame that those political decisions were taken decades ago. They might have made economic sense at the time — the thinking was that hitching a ride on American launchers would be cheaper than using home-built rockets — but they were surely poor politics. There can be few symbols as potent as a whacking great rocket (go and watch the wide-mouthed wonder of people — especially children — looking at the surviving Black Arrow in the Science Museum if you don’t believe me) and there’s hardly anything so well-placed to attract people into STEM studies and careers as space (apart from dinosaurs, but they don’t have a great deal of engineering link-up).

Mars Yard

Some sand. Some pit

Whether staying in the launcher sector would have won Britain a slice of the hugely-lucrative but possibly unforeseeable satellite launch market now is a moot point, although if it did, anyone making that decision in the 1970s would now be seen as a buccaneering risk-taking visionary hero. But it would almost certainly have enabled the development of the HOTOL spaceplane project: we could now have the Skylon spaceplane, which is developed from the HOTOL concept but was considerably delayed by Rolls-Royce abandoning the project in the 1980s, as a result of that decision to avoid launchers.

Fortunately it appears that today’s politicians aren’t as cautious and space-averse as those of the past, and space is flourishing — albeit slightly below the radar — in the UK. It’s a multi-billion pound industry that employs tens of thousands, working on everything from telecoms satellites to discovery machines like ExoMars and space telescopes, and has spin-offs in medicine, materials processing and a multitude of other sectors at which even the most cynical, bottom-line-obsessed type couldn’t turn up his or her nose. What better sandpit could anyone ask for?

Readers' comments (10)

  • A pity Harold Wilson's 'white heat' speech evolved into more of a slightly warm wet squib.

    Imagine what Britain could have been!

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  • Interesting article. . .the content of "Infinity and beyond", but that Heading is unjustified hyperbole in a report on science, technology and engineering in which "sticking to the facts" is a fundamental objective. . .a Red Line that should not be crossed.

    Infinity is not a point in the future but merely a mathematical concept that specifically implies "unboundedness" . . . the abscence of a limit. . . The title does the artitcle no justice.

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  • It's a nice quotation though.

  • Harold Wilson and his government did at least have some 'feel' for technology: sadly the grouse moor Tories (still in evidence in heath's) were not so well endowed (or intentioned in technology!) and if I recall the Grocer's daughter described the Giotta signals as reminding her of frying bacon!

    As long as those in charge of us know the cost of everything but the value of nothing....little will change.

    Mike B

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  • And I'm sure Mike B. that Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband are well instructed STEM practitioners and versed in British engineering folk law.

    David Cameron - PPE Oxford,
    Ed Miliband - PPE Oxford,
    Nick Clegg - Social Anthropology Cambridge

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  • Everyone is writing as if the future ended yesterday in the UK!
    We have the future ahead of us... the best is yet to come IMHO.
    BTW wasn't there talk of the UK putting a satellite constellation into LUNAR orbit to create a conventional com-sat network linking anywhere on the lunar surface with Earth, allowing us to charge other space agencies a fee for their lunar missions while lowering their costs and mission complexity while increasing their safety? Also a similar one around Mars would be useful for future martian missions?
    We excel at such technology and would be the logical choice to design and build one.
    The UK may NOT be going to LAND on Mars or the Moon... but we sure could make money out of others who do aim to.

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  • Well said David. I second your belief that the best is yet to come for this country. Engineering and Manufacturing are in our DNA. There has been a period where some did their best to ignore it, but it is back and the prospects are looking really good to me.

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  • 'the best is yet to come?'
    Not until we Engineers so alter the public perception that we put the 'sham' groupings (I cannot call them professions as they do not self-regulate at all) -those who manipulate man's laws to the benefit of the highest payer- where they belong in the status stakes: somewhere near the bottom! We manipulate Nature's Laws to the value of mankind!
    Well don't we?
    Mike B

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  • Idiotic industrial decisions have been made by all parties since the 60’s (Harold Wilson nationalised steel, and cancelled the TSR2), governments cobbled together British Leyland (destroying Leyland Trucks in the process), encouraged companies not to expand in their heartlands (look at Birmingham and Coventry), and generally worked together with poor management and bloody minded unions to dismantle the industrial base.
    During the 90’s there was a common agreement in parliament across all parties that manufacturing was history, and the ‘knowledge economy’ would save the day – we would have all the bright ideas and lowly paid foreign workers would make the goods. This view was shared by many in the Engineering world (Institutions, academia, the great and the good). It was only realised that this was utter nonsense by the politicians and the said ‘great and good’ when the wheels came off the economy in 2008/9.
    Subsequently, a number of politicians from all parties (Peter Mandelson being one of the first, but also George Osborne and Vince Cable) figured out that manufacturing industry does indeed have a part to play and that without manufacturing capability the ‘knowledge’ is soon lost to overseas competition.
    Another reality is that Engineers don’t necessarily make great investment or business decisions -some do but many do not – and Engineers would not necessarily make competent politicians. The fact that the three party leaders have degrees in PPE or Social Anthropology is entirely irrelevant (Mrs T was a Chemist, Harold Wilson and Attlee Historians). Their capability as politicians is to a large extent down to intelligence (or lack of it), character (or lack of it), belief and luck (or lack of it). Some very effective politicians have not been very bright at all but have surrounded themselves with people who are bright (Ronald Reagan springs to mind).
    So back to the issue – as a nation we have the opportunity to put behind us the errors of the past and build a very bright future, so let’s get on with it.

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  • Mr anonymous, your analysis is spot on. I am a linguist, but engineering is in the family, and I am totally besotted with Skylon as realizor of Dan Dare / Thunderbirds future, the coolest launch vehicle on the planet. The article's a bit pessimistic in the details I think, as we are on some kind of track to create Skylon, even if it is 30 years late, and with regard to your succinct summary of the root causes gutting our proud Workshop of the World traditions, Osborne has shown faith in Skylon and also the "space" minister Willetts. There is a real feeling in this project of "don't throw it away like the jet engine". Leadership in Space may then help encourage the rebuilding of older gen British manufacturing excellence, from trains to chocolate. We hope.

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  • Spot on. Engineering is only the beginning. It is when you start making the stuff that the really good ideas come. Go Go Go United Kingdom and this comes from the "colonies"

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