UK Space history
It is now more than 50 years since the Soviet Union's Sputnik satellite made history in October 1957 and became the Earth's first artificial satellite.
In 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth and by 1969 the United States had put a man on the Moon.
While the space race continued, the UK was also developing a space programme. Its achievements may not have grabbed the headlines but they were impressive nonetheless and laid the foundations for Britain's successful space industry.
Flying bombs and sounding rockets
After the Second World War the Americans recruited many of Germany's leading rocket scientists, including the 'rocket team' leader Wernher von Braun. But the British were also able to examine a captured German V2 rocket.
In a programme known as Operation Backfire, the British supervised the test firing of three V2s over the Baltic using German troops to launch them. The V2 showed what was possible - a bit more power and you could put an object in orbit!
By the mid 1950s the United States and Soviet Union had developed missile programmes of their own, essentially to deliver nuclear warheads. In 1955, British designers started work on the Blue Streak missile, also conceived to carry a nuclear weapon. But while the bulk of resources were going into military research, the UK's first civilian 'space scientists' had ambitious plans of their own.
Led by the late Sir Harrie Massey, the head of the Physics Department at University College London (UCL), a team of scientists and engineers from the Government's defence research establishment and UCL succeeded in launching the first British scientific rocket in 1957.
Skylark was a 'sounding rocket' capable of ballistic flight, like a missile. Launched from Woomera, Australia, several months before Sputnik, the Skylark rocket was designed to investigate the properties of the atmosphere.
Skylark was phenomenally successful. By the end of the programme in 2005 there would be 441 launches with 99 per cent reliability, making Skylark arguably the most successful rocket ever.
Sputnik to sprites
A few months after the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the United States got its first satellite Explorer 1 off the ground. Without a rocket capable of delivering a payload into orbit, UK scientists were in danger of being left behind. However, in 1959, the United States offered to launch scientific satellites designed and constructed by foreign partners. Britain accepted the offer and began work on Ariel 1, named after the sprite in Shakespeare's The Tempest.
Ariel 1, the world's first international satellite, was designed and built by NASA and carried six UK experiments. These were designed to study the top of the Earth's atmosphere and the radiation coming from the Sun.
It was the first in a series of five satellites and launched on 26 April 1962. Five of the experiments on board were built by UCL and, as a result of its success, the Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL) was set up. Since then, MSSL has been involved in many international space science missions including XMM-Newton, Cluster and Cassini-Huygens.
Best of British
The launch of Ariel 3 on 5 May 1967 was an historic day for the British space industry. As well as carrying UK experiments, Ariel 3 was the first spacecraft to be built entirely in Britain.
Manufactured by the British Aircraft Corporation (now part of Astrium Limited), the spacecraft was about half a metre high and weighed around 90 kg and laid the foundations for the present-day UK satellite industry.
Although the ground-based Blue Streak had been abandoned in favour of the submarine-launched US Polaris missile, work had been going on at the former Royal Aircraft Establishment in the UK to develop other rockets: Black Knight and Black Arrow.
Black Arrow was capable of putting a satellite in orbit but the project was running out of time. In July 1971, the Government decided to cancel the project and so the first launch was also the last.
On 28 October 1971, the Prospero satellite was blasted into orbit by a Black Arrow launch vehicle. It was the only time a British satellite has been launched on a British rocket.
Although many were saddened by the cancellation of Black Arrow, the legacy of the UK's space pioneers lives on. The technology of the rocket itself was reused in the European rocket programme - now flying as the Ariane series of launchers.
Britain also continues to lead the world in satellite design and the UK's space activities are considerable with scientists working on missions across our Solar System.
To hear more about the history of the UK in space, listen to our specially commissioned podcasts.