There is no humbler reminder of Britain’s diminished place in the Universe than the sight of hostile aliens from Mars choosing to commence their assault on Planet Earth in New York City – rather than at the strategically vital Surrey towns of Dorking or Woking, as H G Wells had originally conceived it in The War of the Worlds.
For another example, look no further than the exceptional 1996 B-movie, Independence Day, where there is but a fleeting British moment when the all-conquering megalithic flying saucers of the invading extra-terrestrials obliterate the Houses of Parliament. For the rest of the time it’s the yanks that feel the heat.
Welcome as that is in some respects, it is perhaps not surprising. After all, it’s now four decades since Britain turned its back on space in a meaningful way, when the far-sighted government of Edward Heath cancelled our successfully demonstrated orbital rocket launcher, Black Arrow. That was in 1971.
Not since the Ming Dynasty ordered the burning of its own fleet in 1433, thereby condemning China to centuries of inward-looking decline, has there been such a gross piece of wilful national self-harming. The next time you visit the Science Museum I urge you to check on our Black Arrow; she’s there, gathering dust – but not of the space variety. And while our last remnant of serious space ambition resides in South Kensington, poorer countries continue to do space properly – most notably Russia, albeit with vastly inferior governmental resources than ours. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
As Britain prepares to leave the European Union – freeing up a handy £9 billion a year – is it worth reconsidering our role in space? Don’t scoff too fast: £9 billion is more than the Russian and the European Space Agency budgets combined. It’s a thought, isn’t it? Could Brexit not only allow Britain to become more open to the rest of the world, but also afford (quite literally) us the opportunity to become more open to the rest of the solar system, too? Next consider this, Britain is one of the leaders in aviation and satellite manufacture - both highly aligned and frankly relevant industries. So it's not as if we're starting from zero. Of course, there will be other demands on the £9 billion Brexit ‘peace’ dividend. Ministers may well wish to retain some of that dosh for affordable houses, new grammar schools and so on.
The good news is that there’s another £80 billion for us out there too if we want it – enough to bankroll a space programme the size of Russia’s for 20 years, I should add. It’s currently earmarked for High Speed 2, the government’s increasingly criticised plan to drive a 250mph-coach-and-horses through the countryside from London to Manchester by 2036.
Instead of expending all that cash and aggravation on shaving half an hour off the length of a journey from Euston to Birmingham Curzon Street – what the Adam Smith Institute has just called ‘a reckless waste of £80 billion’ – why don’t we invest it in kick-starting a meaningful British manned space programme? Instead of getting to Manchester by 2036, we could have Brits in Space by 2036 – and on the Moon by 2040. And then what – Mars? Who knows? We could have a red post box on the red planet by 2050.
One thing is for sure. It’s time we rebuilt the fleet and got back into spacefaring. It’s time that Britain began to think bigger about space. We have so much knowledge and expertise here; think of the jobs and prosperity a proper British space programme would create. Think of the learning and knowledge it would foster – think of the new Elizabethan age of discovery we could celebrate. No longer would it be difficult to get children to study maths, physics and chemistry: they’ll be falling over themselves to be astronauts.
And as space and its satellites become ever increasingly important to our everyday lives (how else will Amazon deliver your shopping?), it’s also incumbent upon us to help shape the future of space, too. Because if we don’t, others will control space as they see fit and we may not like it.
We know we have the money. We also have the expertise. The question is whether we have the political will. Instead of rovers – world-leading that they are – or HS2, we could and should be putting men and women into space, and on the Moon or Mars. If mankind’s destiny lies in the stars then Brits should be there, too. It’s time to put Dorking and Woking back on the map of the Universe.