The UK’s contributions to space exploration

Spaceflight is most commonly associated with NASA and the United States, and with good reason. Of the nearly 600 people who have been to space to date, over 60% have been American. That includes all 24 men who flew to the Moon during the Apollo programme of the 1960s and 1970s.

The next most common nationality of space-farers is Russian (~21%), followed then by Chinese and Japanese (~2% each).

Although the UK is quite some way down that list, it has nevertheless made several key contributions to spaceflight in other areas.

Here are five of them.

The Perseverance rover’s parachute

The most recent contribution to this list, NASA’s Perseverance Rover landed on the surface of Mars in February 2021. Imperative to its success was its 70.5-foot-wide parachute.

The fabric of the parachute was developed and produced by Heathcoat Fabrics, a textiles company based in Tiverton, Devon. They were approached by NASA to supply the material after displaying their work at a variety of industry events in the US.

The parachute had to slow Perseverance down from over 13,000 miles an hour, or 16 times the speed of sound. It worked perfectly. Perseverance will spend the next couple of Earth years scouting Mars for signs of past microbial life.

Perseverance’s parachute deploys during its landing | Credit: NASA

John hodge

Only 101 people in NASA’s history have held the position of ‘flight director’, stretching back to 1958. Essex-born John Hodge was the second ever.

Born in 1929, Hodge trained as an aerospace engineer and worked at Vickers-Armstrongs between 1950 and 1952 before moving to Canada to work with Avro on a prototype supersonic interceptor that was ultimately axed in 1959.

It was that same year that Hodge joined NASA, as assistant to the agency’s first flight director, Chris Kraft. In 1963 NASA needed a second flight director when it launched its first mission longer than 24 hours – Hodge stepped up to the plate.

Other significant moments that Hodge was on duty for include Gemini 8 (where Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott found themselves in a violent spin) and the fiery plugs-out test for Apollo 1 that led to the deaths of its three astronauts.

Hodge passed away in May 2021 at the age of 92.

RAF Fairford

RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire acted as a TransOceanic Abort Landing (TAL) site for the Space Shuttle between 1981 and 2011. It was one of only a handful of places in the UK with a runway long enough to accommodate the Shuttle.

TALs were locations dotted across Europe and Africa that acted as back-up landing sites for the Shuttle, should it have to abort its launch within a certain window or come back from space early. They had NASA-trained medical crews and firefighters on stand-by, ready to react if needs be.

None of the TALs were ever needed across the Shuttle programme’s 30-year lifespan, although Space Shuttle Enterprise – the first Shuttle orbiter, used for testing within Earth’s atmosphere – did pay RAF Fairford a visit in 1983 on the back of a jumbo jet on the way to the Paris Air Show.

Space Shuttle Enterprise at RAF Fairford | Credit: Gloucestershire Live

Jodrell Bank

Jodrell Bank Observatory is located in Cheshire. First established by eminent physicist and astronomer Bernard Lovell in 1945, it is home to the large Lovell Telescope which, at the time of its completion in 1957, was the largest telescope in the world. In 2021, it still ranks as the third largest.

The various telescopes at Jodrell Bank were used to track spacecraft including the Pioneer 5 probe on its way to Venus in 1960 (Jodrell Bank was home to the only telescope on Earth able to do so) and Apollo 11 on its way to the Moon in 1969. The Soviet Union even asked Jodrell Bank to track Luna 9, which became the first spacecraft to make a survivable landing on another celestial body when it touched down on the Moon in 1966.

Ariel 1

Ariel 1 was Britain’s first satellite. Its launch in April 1962 made the UK just the third country to put a satellite into orbit after the Soviet Union and the United States.

Perhaps more significantly, it was the first internationally-designed satellite. Named after the character from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Ariel 1 was the result of a partnership between the UK and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre.

It was launched from Cape Canaveral and carried onboard six experiments that primarily focused on solar radiation and its effect on the upper part of Earth’s atmosphere.

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