Ticket to the Moon: Great Britain in 60-year History of Lunar Exploration

7th Apr 2022
Ticket to the Moon: Great Britain in 60-year History of Lunar Exploration

Flights into space paved the way for humanity to explore other planets. The first station, predictably, was the Moon, the only natural satellite of the Earth and its closest celestial body. While the Moon and the Earth are separated by only 384 thousand km, the distance to the next nearest planet, Mars, is hundreds of times greater – from 55 to 400 million km. Why such a gap? The fact is that the remoteness of the Earth and Mars is not a constant value. Both planets revolve around the Sun, and only once every 26 months they approach as close as possible. But even so, a human flight to Mars at today’s speeds would take about 300 days, whereas a trip to the Moon is only 9-12 hours.

Since the late 1950s, dozens of spacecraft and astronauts have visited the Moon. Space exploration moon missions were a key destination in the great space race between the US and the USSR. Lunar exploration module tech made it possible for the scientists to explore the Moon, search for useful resources, and, at some point, even sell areas on the Moon. Today, 60 years later, the leading space powers, including the UK, are uniting to finally colonise the Moon and make it a waypoint for flights to Mars.

Orbital Today looks 60 years back to tell a fascinating story of lunar exploration missions and the UK contribution to the lunar exploration timeline.

What do we know about the Moon?

The data obtained during numerous missions made it possible to add up a fairly detailed idea of the Earth’s natural satellite. The Moon appeared about 4.5 billion years ago, a little later than the Earth. According to one of the most common hypotheses, the astronomical object was formed from fragments caused by the collision of the Earth and Theia, a planet similar in size to Mars. There is practically no hydrosphere on the Moon, and the atmosphere is extremely rarefied, which leads to a high-temperature difference, from -173 ° C at night to +127 ° C during the day. However, there is no day on the Moon to speak of, as the sky is always black and starry, even when the Sun is above the horizon. The force of gravity on the Moon surface is six times weaker than those of the Earth, and the surface itself is covered with regolith – a mixture of fine dust and rocky debris formed from meteorite falls. Due to the constant “bombing”, the landscape of the Moon is replete with craters of various sizes, the largest of which are called “lunar seas” and occupy about 16% of the total area.

In addition to meteorites, the Moon is subject to tectonic and thermal moonquakes, the amplitude of which can reach 5.5 points. Furthermore, they last five times longer than on Earth (up to 10 minutes), which can be a significant problem for future lunar missions.

But there is water on the Moon or, more precisely, water ice that lies at the bottom of craters. According to experts in moon exploration, the extraction of water from ice will be a significant help to future colonists since hydrogen and oxygen used in the production of rocket fuel can be obtained from water. Thus, LOX/LH2 propellant can be obtained directly on the Moon and not delivered from Earth. This should help reduce the cost of colonising the Moon and subsequent travel to Mars and exploration of other planets, bringing the lunar exploration timeline closer to reality.

First moon exploration mission

The first lunar exploration vehicle was the Soviet automatic interplanetary station “Luna-1” in 1959. The Vostok-L rocket put the lunar exploration vehicle on a rendezvous trajectory without using a launch from orbit. However, as a result of an error in the calculation of the parameter in elevation by 2 degrees, Luna-1 simply missed the Moon. The lunar exploration vehicle passed the surface of the Moon at a 6 thousand km distance and entered a heliocentric orbit, becoming a satellite of the Sun. The Luna 2 mission, conducted the same year, proved to be more accurate, marking an important milestone in first moon exploration. For the first time in the world, the station reached the surface of the Moon in the region of the Sea of Rains and left a pennant with the Soviet coat of arms on the Moon surface. The Russians sent space probes to the Moon a few more times and even landed a moon rover in 1970, but they never got to landing astronauts. But the USA succeeded in the astronaut Moon landing, and British scientists and engineers played an important role in the first moon exploration.

“Without you Tom, we wouldn’t have gotten to the moon”

In July 1969, the whole world was watching with bated breath as Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the surface of the Moon, with the American astronauts landed on the Moon five more times. The Lunar exploration program Apollo turned the tide of the space race and made the United States a space leader when it came to space exploration moon missions.

The UK was the third country after the USA and the USSR to launch its own satellite, and by the end of the 60s was developing its own Black Arrow rocket programme at full speed. However, successive British governments have greatly moderated the country’s space exploration ambitions due to soaring costs, and many British space scientists and engineers have moved into the Apollo program. Thomas Bacon was one of the most famous examples when it comes to space exploration moon missions.

In 1932, Bacon developed the alkaline fuel cell, which the Americans successfully used to generate electricity for satellites and space capsules in the Apollo exploration program. After the successful lunar landing, US President Richard Nixon welcomed Bacon to the White House and told him: “Without you, Tom, we wouldn’t have gone to the moon.”

There were other British citizens who played a critical role in the success of the exploration mission. Some of them were responsible for checking science packages before and during their installation in the Apollo lunar exploration module, others were responsible for managing the Lunar Landing Test Vehicle program.

“Guildford, we landed”

In 1980, the UK joined the European Space Agency and became a key participant in many space exploration projects in cooperation with other leading European countries. This gave the UK Space Industry a second chance and shifted the direction of its development towards the production of small satellites. Jumping ahead, the UK has been very successful in this area, and today Glasgow, Scotland, supplies more small satellites than all of Europe.

The main British satellite manufacturer is Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), based out of the University of Surrey, Guildford, in 1985. The company has received numerous awards for technological achievement and is included in the top 100 companies, according to the Sunday Times. Not surprisingly, in February 2020, ESA and NASA entrusted SSTL with the development of a telecommunications spacecraft called the Lunar Pathfinder exploration mission. It will be completed in 2024 and will be used to transmit data to Earth as part of the lunar exploration mission.

Lunar Pathfinder will operate in a stable elliptical orbit to provide daily visibility of the southern lunar hemisphere and maximise the ability to transmit and receive data between the Earth and the lunar surface. The British company is confident that the next time people set foot on the Moon, the speakers will sound not “Houston, we landed,” but “Guildford…”.

From the Moon to Mars

In the autumn of 2020, NASA, the UK Space Agency, and many space agencies from other countries signed a historic agreement on the principles of using space as part of the Artemis lunar exploration program. Essentially a successor to the Apollo exploration program, Artemis lunar exploration program envisions landing two astronauts, a man and a woman, on the Moon in 2024, as well as building a permanent base on the Moon after 2028, which will later be used as a staging post for flights to Mars. The space exploration agreement covers areas such as the use of resources, the extraction of ice for drinking water and the production of rocket fuel, as well as common standards for operational safety and emergency assistance within the Artemis lunar exploration program.

Artemis lunar exploration timeline is divided into several stages up to 2032. The UK will play a key role in the construction of the service and habitation lunar exploration module of the Lunar Gateway lunar orbital station. The Government, supported by business, has already provided over £16 million for the first phase of designing the Gateway exploration elements.


Deep space exploration began with the Moon, and it gave people a chance to explore other planets. Today, with the colonisation of the Moon and a new lunar exploration mission in a matter of years to come, the next destination is Mars. But this is a bigger story than moon exploration, and, hopefully, Great Britain will play a part in it.

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