It has been written that Space Science in Britain was initiated, and the foundations for its development were laid, very largely by one man, the late Sir Harrie Massey.
He headed the Physics Department at University College London and helped organise the first British scientific rocket in 1957, launched from Woomera in Australia. He also attended the 1959 meeting of the Committee on Space Research of the International Council of Scientific Unions (COSPAR) where the United States proposed to launch scientific satellites created, designed, and constructed by scientists from foreign countries. Britain accepted this offer.
The result was Ariel-1, named for the sprite in Shakespeare's Tempest. This was the world's first international satellite. The spacecraft was designed and built by NASA and it carried seven British experiments designed to study the ionosphere – the top of the Earth’s atmosphere - and the radiation coming from the Sun. At that time, very little was known about the space environment. Finding out about it was important both for scientists and for the engineers wanting to build spacecraft - for example, ordinary electronics is easily damaged unless special precautions are taken.
Ariel-1 was the first in a series of five satellites and was launched on a Thor Delta rocket on 26 April1962. Ariel-1 provided data from launch until September 1962 after which its performance degraded due to radiation damage to its solar panels from the high-altitude nuclear test called Starfish, the previous July. The satellite continued to function erratically and was cut off in November 1964. It finally burnt up on re-entry on 24 May 1976. Ariel-2, launched in 1964 carried out similar scientific research and then on 5 May 1967, Ariel-3 was launched.
This was the first all UK-built satellite. Ariel 3 carried five scientific experiments. By modern standards, the spacecraft was small – about half a metre high and weighing 90kg. The spacecraft was initially spin stabilized at about 31 rpm but slowed to about 12 rpm by the end of the first year in orbit. Attitude and spin were monitored by a combination of onboard sun sensors and by optical observations of solar reflection from a series of six mirrors mounted near the satellite equator. A tape recorder was included to store scientific data when the satellite was out of touch from the ground control centre. Unfortunately, on 24 October 1967, the tape recorder began to malfunction. It operated sporadically until its complete failure on 6 February 1968. But real-time operation continued until the satellite was turned off in September 1969 and it re-entered on 14 December 14 1970.
Information from the satellite was processed at the Atlas Computer Laboratory at Chilton, next to the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. The Atlas Computer Laboratory's role was to provide a national computing facility for research in science and engineering. In those days, there were only a handful of large computers available for research and ATLAS was probably the most powerful one in the country. Today, the Atlas building is home to European Space Agency’s Centre in the UK, next to the
International Space Innovation Centre (ISIC)
As well as continuing the science research Ariel 3 was a historic mission for British spaceflight, because it was the first spacecraft to be entirely built in the UK, by the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) in Bristol. This helped build technical skills which led to the first telecommunication satellites built in the UK and later to the Giotto spacecraft which intercepted Halley’s Comet in 1986.
The early work also led to the Prospero satellite launched into orbit by a Black Arrow vehicle on 28 October 1971. This was the only time a British satellite was launched on a British rocket. A Black Arrow rocket is on display in the Science Museum in London. Prospero remains in orbit to this day.
Harrie Massey also played a key role in bringing about the European Space Research Organization (ESRO), which arose following the success of the CERN physics laboratory in Geneva. The idea of European scientists working together on space research was discussed with Massey at the COSPAR meeting in January 1960, and he arranged a more formal meeting in April at the Royal Society by invitation of the British National Committee on Space Research.
When the Commission Preparatory Commission for European Space Research convened in Paris in the early Spring of March 1961, he was elected President, both of the Commission and its inner bureau. Three years later ESRO formally started work. Later ESRO was merged with the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) to form the European Space Agency in 1973.