National Space Centre

National Space Centre, Leicester

Some Britons I've spoken to claim to be unaware that their country has a National Space Centre. Well, it does and it's in Leicester. I know this because Chris Williams took me there.

National Space Centre, Leicester

Admittedly, the NSC might have been better known had not Beagle 2 failed to reach Mars back in 2003 (or if it did get there, failed to report back): it was to be the control centre for the mission. It also hosts the UK's Near Earth Object Information Centre, the designated assembly point for angry British subjects to gather with flaming torches when the big one comes and they find out there's nothing we can do about it.

National Space Centre, Leicester

But the NSC is also a pretty decent space museum (and planetarium). Lots of spacesuits and simulators and model Mars rovers. This is a first-generation Soyuz, a Soyuz 7K-OK. It's a real spacecraft, though it obviously didn't actually go into space, since it's still in one piece (only the middle section would return to Earth). I guess it was a spare or training unit.

National Space Centre, Leicester

It would have been built between 1967 and 1971, so this is space race-era stuff.

National Space Centre, Leicester

And it's got this on the side, for the full-on Cold War nostalgia trip.

National Space Centre, Leicester

Speaking of nostalgia, who else watched Giotto fly-by of Halley's Comet live on TV? This one's a model, though, because the real Giotto is still out there, orbiting the Sun.

National Space Centre, Leicester

The NSC's pride and joy: a Blue Streak.

National Space Centre, Leicester

It's a medium-range ballistic missile, and a first-stage satellite launcher!

National Space Centre, Leicester

To be more precise, Blue Streak started out in 1955 as a carrier for Britain's independent nuclear deterrent. But as warning times decreased, the fact that it couldn't be launched in less than 15 minutes became a problem, and so it was cancelled. Cue Skybolt, Polaris, Trident ... no end of fun.

National Space Centre, Leicester

So Blue Streak was re-purposed as the first stage of a European satellite launcher, Europa. But it was the only part which worked reliably, and in 1972 that was cancelled too. And that was the end of Blue Streak.

This particular one was the last to be completed -- but again, not used. As most of the launches took place from Woomera, there are bits of Blue Streak a lot closer to me than Leicester, but to see a complete one was worth the trip.

National Space Centre, Leicester

But let's not forget the Thor, the United States' first ballistic missile (which can be better seen in the first photo in this post). You'd have to count Thor as more successful than Blue Streak, in that it did actually see operational deployment, and that it also led to a highly successful series of launch vehicles, the Deltas.

National Space Centre, Leicester

Finally, a whimsical exhibit which alludes to the fact that Saturn is less dense than water, and so if you could find a big enough bathtub it would float. Or alternatively, if you can find a small enough Saturn, that would float too.

(P.S. Leicester also has at least one decent pub, where Chris and I met Alun for a few. Chris also put me up for the night. Cheers!)

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10 thoughts on “National Space Centre

  1. Some Britons I’ve spoken to claim to be unaware that their country has a National Space Centre.

    Count me in on that.

    But from now on, 'space exploration' and 'Leicester' will be synonymous in my mind.

  2. Erik Lund

    "Now, let's burn the observatory, so this can never happen again!"
    Sorry. I'm a child of my times, and my times were the Simpsons.

  3. I was aware of it (and living in Nottingham) but the absence of (charred bits of) the real things, lack of wings and airscrews, and the need to travel across the county border to Leicester was enough to prevent a visit. Clearly Chris has shown us all that Leicester has one (two with the pub) things worth encouraging a visit instead of a day trip to Derby.

  4. A fellow called Greg Mott was head of the British submarine building program, inc the Polaris subs and Trident. He went to Footscray Tech, and was from a fairly impoversihed single parent family. After FT he went to Melb Uni. Here is a little excerpt from a short bio:

    'The nuclear submarine programme developed into a continuous programme of one submarine every 18 months and the Polaris Submarines were replaced by a larger class called Trident (12000 tons) which are now in service.

    The works at Barrow that was in two parts in 1975, employing some 14000 personnel, was nationalised as British Shipbuilders. I became General Manager of the Engineering Works which was building the FH70 mobile 155 mm gun for the Army in conjunction with German and Italian companies. Later I was moved back to the Shipbuilding company as General Manager and later as Managing Director of the joint companies. In this position I was in charge of the launch of the nuclear submarine TIRELESS.

    I was awarded the Commander of the British Empire (CBE) at an Investiture at Buckingham Palace, for services to shipbuilding in 1979. I was sounded out for promotion to the national organisation to look after all warship construction on the retirement of Bill Richardson, but I declined interest as I saw it as a non-job.'

    I can give you more info if you are interested.

  5. Chris Williams

    The Space Centre also has charred bits of Cluster (iteration #1) fresh from their high-speed trip to a South American swamp. Man, there were some long faces around the sciencey bits of Sheffield University that day, I can tell you. Given the subsequent fate of Beagle 2 (built where I work, with a control centre where I live), I worried that I was a space science Jonah, until Huygens got there in the end with an Open University team (newly poached from Kent. Hah!) leading the surface science.

    I can see that it's hell for Nottinghamites to admit that there's something that Leicester can do better (save perhaps violent death), but comparing us to Derby, even favorably, is surely below the belt.

  6. Sorry Chris, very mean of me. I'd claim it was a Rolls Royce thing, except I never even managed to get to the RR Heritage Centre in Derby either!

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