UK Rockets in British National Space Programme & Industry

13th May 2021

UK Rocket History

The history of the UK’s space industry begins back in 1952 when the first official British Space Programme was initiated. In 1959, they launched the Ariel satellite programme. While nominally, it was considered British, the mission was backed by the USA. The first satellite, Ariel 1, was launched in 1962 on an American rocket and from an American spaceport. The UK had neither British rockets nor its own spaceports, which was an issue that needed to be reprimanded.

Black Arrow – the First but not the Last

Seven years later, in 1969, the first British rocket Black Arrow was created, and in 1971, it launched the British satellite Prospero. This was the first and last time a British satellite was launched into space with a British rocket.

Since then, the UK has manufactured many satellites, but not a single UK rocket. The UK government decided that rocket and space industry development is too costly and curtailed the Black Arrow programme, focusing mainly on earth observation and military satellite missions.

British National Space Programme Development Stages

An attempt to revive the national space program was made in 1982, when the British government funded the Hotol reusable space jet project. But this British rocket project was soon closed, classifying the development as highly secret.


In 1985, the British National Space Centre (BNSC) was established. It focused exclusively on space science, Earth observation, satellite communications, and global navigation. At the same time, the UK continued to ignore manned space programmes and the ISS project, even though it was the third-largest financial contributor to the ESA initiatives.

UK Space Agency

The creation of the UK Space Agency in 2010 became the turning point in British space policy and UK rocket development. The UK returned to the idea of spacecraft building, proposing the concept of a manned Skylon aircraft. The project was similar to Hotol, but this time, it received wide support not only from the government and the UKSA but also from the ESA, which allocated €1 million to develop SABER jet engines.

Commercial Spaceports

The final vector of the British National Space Programme became clear after 2014 when the country announced its intention to build the first commercial spaceport in the history of the UK. This idea opened up great prospects for the UK space industry and British rocket development. At that time, private space was already in full swing, and private aerospace companies led by SpaceX were actively involved in the commercial launch market.

The UK was already a leader when it came to satellite and CubeSat production. The only thing lacking to offer was end-to-end payload delivery services due to the UK’s own spaceport infrastructure.

So, 45 years later, the UK came back to the idea of creating their own British rockets, and one of the main British National Space Programme goals was to support private British aerospace companies creating UK rockets for small satellite launches.

The New UK Rockets

Today, three companies in the UK get the most attention: Orbex, Skyrora, and Virgin Orbit. The latter is technically American, but is part of the Virgin Group owned by British businessman Richard Branson. Virgin Orbit already operates its LauncherOne horizontal rocket and wants to launch it from British spaceports that support air-launch technology. One such site is Cornwall Spaceport, which will be built on the basis of Prestwick airport.

Orbex and Skyrora are currently preparing for their first launches in 2022, and also intend to carry them out from British spaceports. The Orbex Prime and Skyrora XL rockets run on less toxic fuel and use rapid deployment technology, which makes them highly adaptable to future spaceport geographic locations in Shetland, Sutherland and Cornwall.

The British government expects that launches from British sites will create new jobs and associated infrastructure, which could bring billions of pounds to the state budget and building UK rockets could make the country one of the leading space powers.

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