ELDO and Blue Streak
At the same time that the US and UK were initiating collaborative work in space science projects, co-operation between the UK and other European countries in space was also seen as worthwhile, with commentators in the BIS claiming that 'Europe would be able to compete on equal terms with the USA and USSR’ and highlighting 'a number of such co-operative projects in nuclear science and engineering’, which could form a model for European collaboration on spaceflight.75 This kind of multilateral co-operation led to the formation of two organisations in 1964; the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO), which was initially funded primarily by the UK government; and the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO). which eventually merged to form the European Space Agency (ESA) in 1975.76 The role of ELDO was to develop a European satellite launcher and the resultant hybrid rocket, named 'Europa’, consisted of multiple stages, each designed by teams in different European countries. So, while the primary booster rocket was developed from the UK’s 'Blue Streak’ missile, the second stage ‘Coralie’ was designed by the French, the third stage ‘Astris’ was German in design and satellite payloads were designed by the Italians. In total eleven launch tests of Europa were conducted, the first ten at Woomera and the final test at Kourou in French Guiana in 1971. This shift in launch sites came about due to Britain’s withdrawal from the project, as it sought instead to develop its own rival satellite launcher. Black Arrow.77
When faced with a possible choice of American or European co-operation in space, many of those in the nascent British space industry favoured allegiance to a European project. Vai Cleaver, one of the designers of Blue Streak and a central figure in British rocketry in this period, noted ‘the disadvantages of needing to thumb a lift’ on American space rockets, further suggesting that 'the absence of a European space programme would probably be the beginning of a downhill slide for our science, technology and industry’.78 Indeed, in later correspondence Cleaver explained that:
In this space crisis, over the past six years, I have definitely thought and behaved as a European first and an Englishman second.79
The BIS continued to support European collaboration throughout the 1960s, with a set of government recommendations submitted in 1965, calling for the UK to ‘actively support the development of an integrated Western European Space Programme [which] will eventually make collaborative European-US projects desirable and advantageous’.80 The acceptance that a move towards Europe would be beneficial for a British space programme reflected a more general trend in the 1960s of European co-operation and pro-Euopeanism in Britain that surrounded the formation of the European Economic Community in 1957 and the UK’s eventual accession to the group in 1973. John Krige has argued that the development of the Europa launcher was propelled for political rather than technical reasons, stating that it ‘only managed to take shape because of the very specific political situation prevailing in Europe at the time’, as the preparations for Britain’s entry into the European single market took place.81 Aware of this geopolitical situation, BIS members in the 1960s expressed a certain satisfaction with British contributions to ELDO and ESRO. but ultimately believed that Britain should be doing more:
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Britain is becoming involved in astronautics. Our aims are not coextensive with ELDO’s but far more extensive than those of ELDO and ESRO put together [...] Co-operation plus independent action equals maximum progress.82
Indeed, towards the end of the 1960s, the Europa programme came to be seen as ‘confused, unplanned and ineffectual’ by the BIS, who were cognisant of the fact that the rocket had failed to put a fully-functional satellite into orbit.83 Vai Cleaver had referred to the British space situation in a letter to Arthur C Clarke as ‘a tragi-comedy’, citing fears that France would soon overtake Britain as ‘the leading European technological nation’, as well as ‘doubts, delays and bureaucratic fumbles’ on the part of the UK government.84 In the end, although it established some of the groundwork for the later, more successful Ariane rockets, the Europa project was seen both as a political and a technical failure and funding was cancelled in the run-up to the final testing in 1971. It was, however, a remarkable symbol of international co-operation, a physical manifestation of the broader geopolitical project of European integration.
Britain’s response to leaving ELDO came in the form of the Black Arrow, which did succeed in placing the experimental satellite ‘Prospero’ into orbit in 1971. Like Europa, however. Black Arrow also had its funding withdrawn in the lead-up to this final launch, due to its unreliable performance record, and Prospero remains the only satellite Britain has built and launched in the Space Age, in some ways marking an end-point to a British space programme that began with Ariel 1 a decade earlier.85 After this, it became apparent that a more limited involvement in outer space was what was left for Britain, despite the substantial weight of optimism and international
The British space programme 105 goodwill that had characterised what Arthur C Clarke called ‘the heroic period of the space age [that] lay between 1935 and 1955’.86 Having sponsored European efforts to develop a satellite launcher system and through its alliance with the American space programme, we can see how, in this period, British outer-space initiatives were highly contingent on a range of geopolitical associations. This reflected and in many ways came to symbolise Britain’s sometimes uneasy international identity as Atlantic partners with the United States, Continental partners with European nations and Commonwealth partners with newly independent states of the former British Empire.