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The new UK Space Agency, with its mandate to improve the nation’s space industry, may position it well to work with NASA in its new exploration direction.

Per ardua ad astra

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There have been several sore points to UK-US relations in diplomatic, strategic, and cultural terms, and the “special relationship” is an abstraction constantly invoked by British newspapers in their commentaries of political challenges common to the two countries. Historical examples arguably include the use of V-2 rocket technology, the British Miles 52 supersonic flight project and its link to the USAF pilot Charles Yeager’s historic flight, the claims of Barnes Wallis about the swing wing design that became used on the F-111 strategic bomber and, culturally, films such as U-571 which apparently claimed that the US Navy captured the Enigma machines in World War II. However, it is possible to look on the positive side of things and see where there has been mutual benefit: for example, the claims that the Royal Navy helped to establish the famous “Top Gun” school and President Kennedy agreeing to sell the Polaris nuclear missile system to the Royal Navy in 1962.

The apparent setback for NASA of Constellation’s cancellation provides an opportunity for closer collaborations with other countries and, at this time, there can be few other countries as ready to hit the ground running than the UK.

In space, the first British satellite, Ariel 3 (manufactured by the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), now QinetiQ), was launched by a NASA Scout rocket in 1967, and defense and scientific collaborations have continued to the present with the UK making the largest contribution in the Mars Robotic Exploration Program as part of the NASA-ESA ExoMars program. The contrast, however, between recent developments in both countries, at least superficially, appears to be vivid. Soon after President Obama announced plans to cancel the Constellation program to return humans to the Moon, the UK finally confirmed a long-awaited establishment of a national space agency, the UKSA, which is intended to play a far more powerful and strategic role in space activities than the British National Space Centre (BNSC). On the one hand, an American lead in human space exploration seems to be fatally compromised and, on the other, the British reluctance to affirm its status as a serious long-term investor in human space exploration is apparently revoked. While this sounds devastating to the US, it is well ahead of most other countries in preparing the ground for space tourism and the opportunities that this should open to further space developments. Just as importantly, it can be argued that this apparent setback for the US provides an opportunity for closer collaborations with other countries and, at this time, there can be few other countries as ready to hit the ground running than the UK.

Thus, one can see two ways in which the US space community can perceive the cancellation of the Constellation program. There could be a convulsion in which there is a general loss of confidence and a resignation to declining power status, perhaps much like Britain after the 1950s. The country would then bravely try to stay ahead or keep up with China and other emerging space nations but underlying this might be a kind of defeatism and fatalism like that which purportedly led to British retreat from space, first in launchers in the 1970s then in manned space exploration in the 1980s. It is hard to consider this outcome likely, however. Instead, one hopes for a “win-win” model where the US embraces this change and uses it to its advantage in ways other countries are unable or unwilling to do.

I would say that no other country would empathize with NASA’s current predicament more than the UK, with its history of cancelled, abandoned, or underfunded aerospace projects (Miles 52, Blue Steel, TSR-2, Black Arrow, Falstaff, HOTOL, Beagle 2, etc.) The UK, through its new space agency, has a responsibility to clarify and implement an all-encompassing space strategy. Indeed, it is interesting how many recommendations made by the Innovation and Growth Team (established by the UK Government to investigate how to grow the space sector) have been directly addressed. Examples include the instigation of the new space agency, a national space technology strategy, a space leadership council, and utilizing the results of high-level reviews of strategic space interests. These obligations, and the historical falling short of expectations felt by some in this country, would make the UK receptive and motivated to assist NASA’s priority projects. The continued emphasis on economic return as a goal for any mission that the UK participates in resonates with the wish of President Obama to offload much of NASA’s obligations to the private sector. A willing partner, with similar goals, a shared historical legacy, similar historical hardships, and a similar current ethos should appeal to both NASA and UKSA, provided that key personnel and officials are proactive in contact and collaborations.

I would say that no other country would empathize with NASA’s current predicament more than the UK, with its history of cancelled, abandoned, or underfunded aerospace projects.

The defense establishment in the UK was never slow in recognizing the potential of aerospace and space, but the political will has often been lacking and shriveled further by gloomy perceptions about the national economic situation. The early launch of Ariel 3, the advanced but little known Skynet constellation, and the mention of “criticality” of access to space-based capabilities in the Green paper preceding the forthcoming strategic defense review are but recent examples of the establishment’s awareness of space. A review is reportedly under way in government of the Outer Space Act (1986) to facilitate the use of reusable launchers in the UK. However, the political and defense establishment has demonstrated before that, when the strategic imperative is present, lengthy reviews and departmental action (let alone procrastination) can seemingly be bypassed or drastically reduced, as was seen in a short space of time with the construction of rocket test ranges and launch sites at RAF Spadeadam, the RAE at Farnborough, the Isle of Wight, and more famously at Commonwealth sites in Woomera, Australia. In fact, most of these facilities are either still in use or have been reused in the past few years. Thus, the seed of launch capabilities and infrastructure could very well be sown almost immediately in this country following Ministerial directives, providing a foundation for action by the next government and, most importantly, boding well for future space tourism, commercial, and scientific launches (whether domestic or international) from the UK.

To provide a background perhaps instructive to the situation facing NASA and UKSA at the moment, one can look at a disparate chain of events going as far back as the first days of flight. Around eight years after the first powered airplane flights made by the Wright Brothers on the sand dunes at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, the Royal Flying Corps in Britain was formed and quickly a motto was needed. The motto—Per ardua ad Astra (through adversity to the stars)—persists to this day in the RAF and allied Commonwealth air forces. To the officers at the time, their flights could well have seemed like just the first stage to the stars made eventualy by a later incarnation of the Corps. The adversity now facing NASA is a later manifestation of this journey and, like the Wright Brothers and the Flying Corps, the business of NASA and like-minded agencies—of getting to the stars—must continue as ever.