Geopolitical pivots: Americanism and Europeanism in British outer space

Recent analysis of the post-war period in outer-space culture has suggested that, while the early-post-war years witnessed an explosion in cultural expressions of outer space in Britain, through media such as comics, television and radio, in later years ‘the imaginary that had been building [became] limited by the realities of Sputnik and what followed into space’.61 If such a shift from an imaginative period of outer-space culture to a technocratic period did occur, it was certainly marked by the spectacular early achievements of the Space Age, with public audiences having been primed on the adventure of outer space actually able to witness television broadcasts of men on the Moon. Such achievements triggered urgent calls for the UK to become involved in outer space, with one Spaceflight article in 1960 stating that ‘British entry into space activities [...] has now become essential if we are to maintain our position in world technology’.62 However, while the

UK government gradually became more interested in outer-space projects, the reality was that Britain’s global status as a major economic power was receding and its approach to space exploration was largely contingent on a shifting set of international agreements. In this way, the geopolitics of outer space were indicative of Britain’s changing place in world affairs. Here, a sense of geopolitical decline was largely established by, or reflected in, the Suez crisis of 1956, where Britain’s global influence was effectively downgraded and replaced by that of the United States.63 For the remainder of this section, two case studies illustrate these themes, each connecting with broader geopolitical discourses relating to, first, the American sphere of influence and second, that of continental Europe.

Ariel 1 and Starfish Prime

Following the success of the early satellite programmes of the Soviet Union and the United States, the UK government, while not committing to a full national space programme, was willing to support a limited agenda of space exploration in collaboration with other allied nations. A first step was the establishment of the Skylark sounding-rocket programme in 1957 as part of the International Geophysical Year. This involved launching experimental rockets into the upper atmosphere from Woomera to measure some of the qualities of the little-known region on the borders of space, including the ionosphere and Van Allen radiation belts.64 Crucially, research in this area would also support the broader endeavour of ballistic missile development, which was becoming central to global defence agendas as the Cold War intensified. After the establishment of NASA in 1958, the United States was keen to encourage allied nations to establish their own space programmes, collaborating where possible. This new period of co-operation, formalised in treaties such as the 1958 US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement, helped to replace the prior atmosphere of secrecy that had surrounded US programmes in military science, particularly in atomic power and ballistic missile development. Following these initiatives, the Ariel satellite programme was conducted between 1962 and 1979, involving the launch of six satellites through British-American co-operation.65

Ariel 1 was successfully launched into orbit on the 26th April 1962 from Cape Canaveral on an American Thor-Delta rocket, carrying out a series of experiments on the upper atmosphere. Over and above its scientific significance, the initial success of Ariel lay in the spectacle and prestige of being Britain’s first satellite, as was similarly the case with other 'big science’ projects of the post-war period such as Jodrell Bank radio telescope.66 Indeed, a special publicity committee was established, involving the Foreign Office and Ministry of Science, which promoted Ariel in a series of television and radio programmes.67 The launch was reported in The Times, whose science correspondent noted 'strong signals from Ariel’ as it passed over Britain twice in one day.68 It was referred to in the press as both 'the Anglo-American satellite’ and ‘the first British satellite’, as while the instruments in its payload were designed by a British team, the satellite itself and the launch equipment were all American.69 The Ariel programme was led by a team of researchers and engineers from British universities, alongside the UK Science Research Council and NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center. Matthew Godwin has explained how the British authorities, as part of efforts to maintain a place at the ‘top table’ of international affairs, encouraged university researchers to pursue such studies on the near regions of outer space.70 This strategy seemed to be paying off as Ariel 1 was able to return data to monitoring stations around the world during its first few months of operation and Britain was thereby able to claim a status as a leading nation in outer-space technology. In this way, Ariel 1 took on a hybrid geopolitical agency, both as the first British satellite, but also as the world's first international satellite. However, as Godwin has noted, while the UK benefited from the prestige of claiming a stake in a joint space project, ‘in practice the nature of cooperation was controlled by the Americans’, who were in charge of the launch, the rocket and the satellite itself.71

Ariel 1 was a short-lived symbol of international collaboration and national prestige in space science, as on the 9th July 1962, the satellite was critically damaged by the US ‘Starfish Prime’ nuclear test. Through the overarching Project Fishbowl, the United States co-ordinated five hydrogen-bomb detonations up to altitudes of 250 miles over the Pacific Ocean, tests which occurred before the introduction of limited and comprehensive nuclear test ban treaties and the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Nuclear tests at this altitude, on the borders of space, released charged particles and radiation into the upper atmosphere, which then circulated around the Earth. In Britain, reaction to these tests included a series of strong interventions by Bernard Lovell, the director of Jodrell Bank. While not directly anticipating the effect on Ariel 1, Lovell commented that ‘scientists [...] will be filled with dismay at the American proposal to perform a nuclear explosion in [this] region of space’, given its likely interference with upperatmosphere radiation belts, while criticising the ‘presumption of moral right to interfere with the environment of the Earth’ in this way.72 While news of Ariel’s malfunction emerged in the days and weeks following the incident, the true cause of the damage was not relayed to the British authorities until a month afterwards and was ‘initially denied by the US authorities’.73 An article in Spaceflight by NASA’s Director of International Programmes the next year somewhat awkwardly glossed over the incident, noting that ‘Ariel is providing the first information combining certain aspects of solar radiation and events in the ionosphere’, while pointing towards the enhanced role British scientists would take in the subsequent Ariel satellites.74

Given the remoteness of these events to typical observers in Britain, the geopolitical discourse of Ariel 1 and its fate at the hands of the Starfish Prime nuclear test was mediated by government press releases and independentjournalism. In any case, this episode encapsulates a sense in which

The British space programme 103 there was a conflicting desire for the UK to remain as a leading power in outer space, but also having to negotiate and still be in line with the USA in its space projects. More broadly, it also illustrates how British hopes for a national or internationally-co-operative entry into outer-space activity became entirely conditional on the geopolitical atmosphere of the Cold War. All this notwithstanding, the Ariel programme was undoubtedly important in the development of British space science, with its legacy feeding into later expertise in the British satellite industry, activity which is picked up in Chapters 7 and 8.

 
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