National prestige and in(ter)dependence: British space research policy 1959-73

  • Stuart Butler

Student thesis: Phd


From 1960-4 the British government embarked on two large-scale space research programmes to develop satellite launchers. After first being cancelled as a military project in 1960, the Blue Streak missile was converted into the first stage of a British-led European collaborative project to build a three stage satellite launcher (through the European Launcher Development Organisation - ELDO). Born out of the Black Knight warhead re-entry testing vehicle, the independent Black Arrow project aimed to launch small satellites for scientific experimentation. With European collaborations, American scientific knowledge, and an Australian testing site, decisions affecting British space research had wide reaching diplomatic as well as domestic consequences. However, by 1973, both of these programmes had been cancelled.By examining the complex formation of British policy on these two space research projects, I will identify the alliances of actors involved focusing on understanding the role of civil servants, and the domestic, economic, and foreign policy priorities which directed their policy-making.This thesis seeks to address two contradictions raised by British policy on space research, and historical analysis of this period. Firstly, if we accept that Britain was not in decline in this period, the how can the history of two projects which is dominated by their cancellation be explained? Secondly, how British governments could reconcile their policy towards ELDO (threatening to withdraw almost yearly from 1966-73) with their stated aim to accede to the European Communities and their repeated rhetoric that the increased potential for scientific and technological collaboration was a key benefit of British accession? In order to address these contradictions I focus on decisions and decision-makers within government. By tracking policy arguments and options to their very beginnings I show throughout this thesis the way in which individuals frame, shape and direct policy. This thesis provides new insights into the foreign and domestic policy priorities of the four governments in this period by tracking the balance of priorities in policy making in two major space research projects. Close examination of ELDO and Black Arrow highlights that their cancellation is not a symbol of British decline, but instead represent active choices by decision-makers to engage in new areas of research. This supports the work of historians challenging the idea that Britain was in decline in this period, and suggests that cancelled projects should be re-examined.
Date of Award1 Aug 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJeff Hughes (Supervisor), Vladimir Jankovic (Supervisor) & Simone Turchetti (Supervisor)


  • Policy History
  • History of Science and Technology
  • Modern British History
  • Anglo-European Relations

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