Britain has never really bought in to the space club. Successive governments from the 1950s onwards have held back from pursuing a dedicated national space programme. This is not to say that Britain has been inexperienced in space. With the exception of astronautics it has first-hand experience in the designing, launching and operating of most types of launch vehicles and spacecraft. It has also participated in, and helped create, many international space programmes.
But if a ticket for the space club necessitates the formation of a national space agency with a dedicated and significant budget at its disposal then Britain has repeatedly said no. Instead, many of the space projects it has followed have been financed from existing ‘terrestrial' government departments. In other words, ‘space' has had to bid against ‘Earth', with any funds secured inevitably diminished. This is not an unusual situation when compared to other space-faring nations (besides the big hitters such as the USA, Russia, France and Japan). Many observers feel that this means Britain has adopted an inconsistent space policy and so has always under-achieved in space. A glance at one aspect of British space history may help to explain why.
At the end of the 1950s the USA and the Soviet Union were launching one spacecraft after another onto a cosmic stage for the Cold War. There was only one other nation with the technological capability to do similar: Britain. Only Britain had the type of large ballistic missile that could be converted into a space launch vehicle, as the USA and USSR had done. It was called Blue Streak and had been designed to carry Britain's strategic nuclear weapon. But in 1959 the government of Harold Macmillan decided such a conversion would cost too much. Nevertheless, some years later Blue Streak was indeed pressed into space service as part of a pan-European project to build a satellite launch vehicle called Europa. By 1962 it seemed that Britain was setting the pace in Europe as the third-largest space power in the world.
But the project failed, overwhelmed by cost, the complexities and frustrations of international bureaucracies and an associated hostility from the 1960s administrations of Harold Wilson. A feeling grew that Britain was becoming an unenthusiastic space player. But this was to misunderstand the real reasons for Britain's offering Blue Streak in the first place. It is instructive to look more closely at the wider political landscape that faced Prime Minster Macmillan when he offered Blue Streak for collaborative development as a space launch vehicle.
Blue Streak was cancelled as a weapons system in April 1960. The decision was not unexpected but still meant that a massive government technological investment had failed. It would therefore be politically wise to try and salvage as much from the programme as was possible. The fast-developing space field provided a handy solution. Further, if Blue Streak could be weaved into a European project then costs might be shared and, perhaps most importantly, Britain's prospective European credentials demonstrated dramatically – one of Macmillan's main political objectives was to get Britain into the European Common Market.
So when Britain led the way in the formative years of the European space programme it was doing so for reasons of political expediency as much as for any real desire to join the space club. It is this misreading of Britain's real intentions that has coloured people's perceptions of British space activity ever since. Britain may indeed have underachieved in the field, if technological capability is the measure of a country's space potential, but successive governments have actually pursued a consistent policy with respect to space exploration – one established by the Macmillan government in 1959: space activity is fine, even to be encouraged, but not necessarily as an end in itself.