The death of former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher has prompted much debate regarding her achievements and mistakes. But what effect did the “Iron Lady” have on Britain’s space effort?
Thatcher’s record on space was mixed. As a chemistry graduate she was known to have an interest in science. However, she and her ministers refused to openly support a UK space programme, apart from a small contribution to the European Space Agency (ESA). Nevertheless, the Thatcher administration’s business- and enterprise-friendly macroeconomic policies allowed the space business to flourish, with UK expertise coming to the fore in satellite manufacture, satellite communications, scientific instrumentation, and in the space-related business areas of finance and space insurance.
Thatcher, of course, benefited from Skynet/SCOT satellite communications during victory in the Falklands War in 1982. And it emerged that others had been monitoring the conflict’s progress. According to the Flightglobal/Ascend database, in late April and early May there had been a burst of launches of Soviet electronic intelligence and reconnaissance satellites.
Satellite observations also affected some of Thatcher’s other policies. Observations taken by satellites later influenced her decision to push for a ban on CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) refrigerants.
Having no interest in getting Britain involved in manned spaceflight, the Thatcher government made sure it had nothing to do with the International Space Station. While this decision was decried by space supporters in the UK, this later turned out to be a wise choice when it became clear that it was becoming a major funding drain for all its participants.
Less wisely, having participated in the European Space Agency’s Ariane 1-4 rocket programmes, the UK government decided to withdraw from the development of the Ariane 5 expendable launch vehicle. This effectively ended large-scale rocket engineering in the UK (small-scale spacecraft propulsion research still exists). There was brief excitement as British Aerospace declared an interest in building an air-breathing rocket plane design called HOTOL. However, this came to nothing, leaving just a few of its engineers to keep the embers alive via the later and still-nascent Skylon* design.
Governments since the Thatcher-era have taken a more positive line on space research and have increased funding to UK space. Likewise, knowing that the glamorous side of spaceflight can increase the number of students wanting to study science and engineering, they have also taken the plunge into the NASA-led plans for manned exploration of the solar system via a contribution to the joint NASA/ESA Orion capsule programme.
*Note that the writer of this piece has a small shareholding in Reaction Engines Limited which is attempting to develop technologies for Skylon.