Ascension Island was discovered by the Portuguese seafarer João da Nova Castella in 1501, (although this visit apparently went unrecorded) and “found again” two years later on Ascension Day by Alphonse d’Albuquerque, who gave the island its name. Being dry and barren it was of little use to the East Indies fleets. It remained uninhabited until Emperor Napoleon I was incarcerated on St Helena in 1815 when a small British naval garrison was stationed on Ascension to deny it to the French. The island was designated “HMS Ascension”, a “Stone Sloop of War of the Smaller Class”.
By Napoleon’s death in 1821 Ascension had become a victualing station and sanatorium for ships engaged in the suppression of the slave trade around the West African coast. In 1823 the island was taken over by the Royal Marines. It remained under the supervision of the British Board of Admiralty until 1922, when it was made a Dependency of St Helena by Royal Letters Patent.
It ceased to be a military only island in 1899 when the Eastern Telegraph Company arrived. From 1922 until 1964 the island was managed by the Eastern Telegraph Company (renamed Cable and Wireless in 1934). In 1964, in view of plans to establish BBC and Composite Signals Organisation (CSO) stations, an Administrator was appointed by the UK Government. During the Second World War the St Helena Government was similarly represented on the island.
During the Second World War the United States Government, by arrangement with His Majesty’s Government, built Wideawake Airfield airstrip. From 1943 to 1945 over 25,000 US planes transited Ascension Island destined for the North African, Middle East and European theatres of war.
In 1957 a US presence was re-established, the airfield was enlarged and is now also the south east tracking station of the USAF Eastern Test Range. In 1967 a NASA tracking station was built and supported the Apollo lunar landing programme. Although this has since closed down NASA operations such as the Space Shuttle continued to be supported from Ascension by the USAF until it was taken out of service.
In 1982 the Island supported operations in the Falkland Islands and a RAF detachment continues to operate on the island in support of the Falklands garrison and the Falkland Islands bound South Atlantic Airbridge operation.