The unseen role of British engineers in the Moon Landings

Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 rocket taking off to land the first humans on the surface of the moon. It was one of the greatest technical achievements of humankind and marked a step change in our exploration of space.

In the 21st century, the UK is home to a booming space industry. Recently ADS published figures showing the UK space sector had a turnover of £14.8bn in 2018, its world-leading satellite businesses and contributions to major space projects support more than 42,000 direct jobs. While the Apollo 11 mission was a landmark US success in the space race, it also drew on UK expertise and helped to lay the foundations for the UK’s successful space sector. In 1962 Britain became the world’s third space-faring nation with the Ariel 1 project in collaboration with NASA. This satellite development and the launch was the starting point for future close collaboration in space between the UK and the USA.

When then President John F. Kennedy announced in 1960 that the US would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade, the United States had yet to achieve the simpler step of sending a person into orbit. The challenges facing NASA to meet this deadline were huge, which forced them to look further afield to harness as much expertise from allies such as the UK.

At the time the UK had its own rocketry and space programmes with many British engineers who were world-leading experts in these fields. After successive British Governments scaled back the UK’s immediate space ambitions due to spiralling costs, many of these engineers were hired to lead on the Apollo programme at NASA.

One of the more prominent Brits involved in the Apollo 11 programme was engineer Francis Thomas Bacon. He was hired by NASA and Pratt and Whitney to develop the fuel cells used in the successful Apollo 11 launch. The development of these fuel cells by Bacon was so innovative and ground breaking that later US President Richard Nixon told him, “Without you Tom, we wouldn’t have gotten to the moon.”

There were many other British citizens that were critical to the mission’s success. British engineers were responsible for checking out the scientific packages before and during their installation in the Apollo lunar module, others were responsible for the management of the Lunar Landing Test Vehicle programme.

These early British space pioneers helped the UK become a key player on the space stage. In the years after the first lunar landing, UK space companies such as Inmarsat and Surrey Satellites were created, harnessing the lessons learnt from the early British NASA engineers.  These companies and the hundreds now based in the UK have helped Britain become a world leader in the creation of small satellites and from 2022 the UK will for the first time be able to launch its own satellites into orbit from UK territory.