The Geography of Space Exploration: Britain in the Pre-Space Age
In our book For All Humankind, Tanya Harrison and I interviewed people from around the world about their experiences watching the Apollo 11 landing. In doing research for the book we dug into the pre-space age histories of many of these countries. One of the more interesting cases was that of Britain. A near-global colonizing empire, by the dawn of the space age its history was intertwined with major components of space exploration.
Note: If you are looking for discussion on the U.K.’s potential claim to Third Country in Space, see my earlier article on the subject.
Today the UK is a part of the European Space Agency (ESA), a conglomeration of 22 European space agencies working together to pool resources and share space technology for the benefit of all humankind. Domestically, Britain also has its own space agency, the United Kingdom Space Agency (UKSA). The UKSA is relatively new, existing as a stand alone body since 2011. In fact, if you Google UKSA, your first result is most likely to be the United Kingdom Sailing Academy… To be fair, Britons have been sailing for a good few centuries longer than they’ve been jetting around space.
Nonetheless, Britain’s history with space, and space technology, is long. Be it through war, fiction, or another war, the ghosts of the once expansive British Empire linger in modern space exploration technologies and ideas.
Before we start. Some may expect discussion of famous British astronomers from the Victorian Era. However, like all my work, there is no astronomy to be found here. While the history of astronomy is intrinsically linked with the British Empire, astronomy just isn’t my bag. Sorry Billy Herschel.
Rockets Red Glare: Britain Vs. America Round 2
The exact invention of rockets is a blurry history. What is commonly accepted is that the earliest rockets were likely developed in either China or India sometime over one thousand years ago. Early rockets were made from bamboo and fueled by forms of gunpowder. The rockets were relatively crude projectiles by today’s standards, but if your objective is just to light things on fire and your metric for aiming is “in the general forward direction”, then surely these were incredibly destructive weapons to armies in centuries past.
Lo and behold, it was actually the British who were on the receiving end of the destructive capability of rockets early-ish in the technology's history, during the Anglo-Mysore Wars. By the Late 18th Century, the Mysorean people had advanced rocket technology considerably, and used them to strike significant damage in battles against the invading British East India Company.
As the 19th Century began, William Congreve (1772–1828), an English inventor, began to experiment with metal rockets, hoping that they would be much more predictable than earlier British attempts to mimic the Indian technology. The outcome, so-called Congreve Rockets, were a leap in destructive capability due to the distances they could cover and their accuracy; a valued asset in the British Army’s Victorian Era colonial expansions.
Come 1812, while already having their hands full with the Napoleonic Wars, Britain entered into war with America, the aptly named…War of 1812. In 1814, as part of a bold attack on the U.S. capital region, the British Army bombarded Fort McHenry (basically Baltimore today). The attack began with a barrage of ‘Congreve Rockets’ from the bow of the HMS Erebus sitting in a nearby bay. Though the aerial barrage wasn’t followed up by full landing party, or British taking of Fort McHenry, the event would live on through the words of Francis Scott Key.
Key, a soldier and poet, wrote a poem about his experience watching the attack while held prisoner onboard another British ship in the area. The poem would go on to serve as the lyrical basis for the Star Spangled Banner; the U.S. national anthem that recounts the attack on Fort McHenry.
Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
So, to this day, every sporting event in America is a reminder of Britain’s early engagement with rocket technology.
“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down”
Modern rocketry has its roots, unfortunately, in one event more so than any other: World War II. It was Nazi efforts to scale up British and Russian rocket designs that led to the dreaded V2 rocket. The V2 was essentially a long range bomb, the first of its kind. It was designed primarily by Nazi collaborator Wernher von Braun (1912–1977), who, in the early days of the Nazi reign, leaped at the opportunity to work with a regime keen on rocketry and experimental weapons.
A former engineering prodigy, von Braun’s interests were in designing rockets that could get to space, a laudable ambition to be sure. But in his pursuit of that dream he made terrible choices (of which he never showed much remorse). His place in history rests as a reminder to all space advocates to never let our ethics be overcome by our cosmic ambitions.
The V2 rockets von Braun designed for Hitler’s Third Reich terrorized London and the rest of the U.K. throughout 1944 and 1945. The exact number of deaths caused by V2s is unclear. Estimates range from 2000 to 9000, along with an unknown number of concentration camp slave laborers who died during their production (likely in the thousands given the millions of deaths at these camps across Europe).
When the Allies took control of formerly German occupied territory, intact, mostly working, V2s were discovered in some locations (despite Nazi efforts to destroy them). By late 1945, in the town of Cuxhaven, Germany, the British and American armies began experimenting with the V2s. While it’s difficult to track down the original records, reproductions show at least 3 UK-led efforts to launch leftover V2s. It is possible that at least 2 of these rockets got up to altitudes of 90 kilometres, nearly up to the von Karman line at 100 km; one of the commonly accepted definitions of where space “starts” (though, this archived reproduction lists a max altitude of 80 kms).
This project of launching leftover V2s, called Operation Backfire, carried on throughout the aftermath of the Second World War and for the rest of the decade. At the same time, the Soviets had their own V2 recovery attempts as all three of the allied powers were savvy to the nature of Nazi tech-advancements. Typical accounts paint a picture of passive aggressive early Cold War competition between the Americans, British, and Soviets as all sides scrambled to secure Nazi personnel and technology before the others. (for a dramatic recreation of this, see the first episode of the BBC mini-series ‘Space Race’ entitled ‘Race for Rockets’).
Ultimately, von Braun would go to America via Operation Paperclip, and Britain would salvage much less from the V2 program as the Soviets and Americans. However, the V2 did continue its place in discussions among the British space community. In the Early 1950s, a proposal was put forward by members of the British Interplanetary Society to modify a V2 into a crewed vehicle. The design was never taken up by the British government, but it has been argued that in this brief post-WWII period, as the two Cold War super powers began their space programs, the U.K. actually had a lead, if not a head start, given their own history of rocket development.
Who knows…with the presence of just one space-obsessed Member of Parliament, the U.K. could have been the first country to put a person in space.
Arthur C. Clarke’s Tropical Outer Space
Born in Somerset County, England, Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) is one of the most well known science fiction writers of all time. A significant component of his style and vision was that he came of age in the overlap between space exploration as fiction and space exploration as reality. His fascination by this transition was clear, as he wrote in a 1993 intro to his book The Snows of Olympus:
“It is impossible for anyone born since the opening of the Space Age to understand what mystery and magic the very word ‘Mars’ once evoked. Yet both these qualities, I am happy to say, still remain in ample measure; though the canals have evaporated and Deja Thoris, Princess of Helium, has joined H.G. Wells’ tentacled monstrosities in some alternate universe, the real Mars has proved to be almost as wonderful as the imaginary versions. And I have no doubt that the biggest surprises are yet to come.”
And while Mars has never lived up to the mind-expanding fiction of early 20th century (surely it cant), Clarke’s own stories of space travel aimed to blur the line between fantasy and fiction, the same way Sputnik and Apollo blurred science fiction with very real front page headlines. Clarke is well known for his foreseeing of the value of geostationary orbit, a distance from the Earth in which a satellite’s orbital speed matches the speed of the Earth’s rotation. This results in a satellite that appears stationary above a particular location on Earth, valuable for both imaging and communications.
But Clarke's contribution to early space exploration is beyond foreseeing future technologies. His imagination of space as an exotic place of conquering remains a prominent discourse in modern space exploration. Geographer Oliver Dunnett has argued that much of Clarke’s outer space imaginations were imbued with his identity as a subject of the British Empire. As Dunnett (2019, 16) argues:
“The geographies of Ceylon/Sri Lanka [are] significant because of the effect they had on Clarke’s vision of space exploration, and the influential nature of Clarke’s oeuvre on dominant outer space cultures in the twentieth century. In considering the relationship between geopolitical narratives of outer space and the spaces of Clarke’s life and works in Ceylon/Sri Lanka, conceptions of tropicality and empire [are] central, interwoven through Clarke’s works in various ways, and pointing to a latent vision of western superiority in outer space technologies in the twentieth century.”
Indeed, much of the imperialist tinge to space exploration narratives during, and since, the Cold War can be likened to Clarke’s own views on empire and remote “untouched” topicality that he often conjured from his home in Sri Lanka.
To leave off, it is worth noting that as we move forward with space exploration in a modern post-colonially lensed world, our ideas don’t have to contain the imperial topicality of yesteryear. As Dunnett concludes:
“It is hoped that, in recognising the colonialist basis of much of today’s outer space cultures, alternative or resistive cultures shall form part of a more diverse engagement with outer space in the years to come”.
Danny Bednar, PhD is a Space Geographer and educator. He teachers Space Exploration at Western University in London, ON, Canada. He is the co-author of the book For All Humankind: The Untold Stories of How the Moon Landing Inspired the World, and is also an analyst at the Canadian Space Agency. All views are his own.