Did you know Britain launched its first satellite after the program had already been given the axe? Me neither, until some stories of my dad’s involvement in aerospace efforts came out and I dug a little deeper into the story.
I grew up on a small farm with a workshop next to the house, that housed my dad’s blacksmith business. In front of the workshop was a yard with a greenhouse beyond it, along one edge of which there lay a long gas cylinder about a foot (300mm) in diameter. To us kids it looked like a torpedo, and I remember my dad describing the scene when a similar cylinder fell off the side of a truck and fractured its valve, setting off at speed under the force of ejected liquid across a former WW2 airfield as its pressurised contents escaped.
Everybody’s parents have a past from before their children arrived, and after leaving the RAF my dad had spent a considerable part of the 1950s as a technician, a very small cog in the huge state-financed machine working on the UK’s rocket programme for nuclear and space launches. There were other tales, of long overnight drives to the test range in the north of England, and of narrowly averted industrial accidents that seem horrific from our health-and-safety obsessed viewpoint. Sometimes they came out of the blue, such as the one about a lake of highly dangerous liquid oxidiser-fuel mix ejected from an engine that failed to ignite and which was quietly left to evaporate, which he told me about after dealing with a cylinder spewing liquid propane when somebody reversed a tractor into a grain dryer.
Bringing Home A Piece Of History
My dad’s tales from his youth came to mind recently with the news that a privately-owned Scottish space launch company is bringing back to the UK the remains of the rocket that made the first British satellite launch from where they had lain in Australia since crashing to earth in 1971. What makes this news special is that not only was it the first successful such launch, it was also the only one. Because here in good old Blighty we hold the dubious honour of being the only country in the world to have developed a space launch capability of our own before promptly abandoning it. Behind that launch lies a fascinating succession of forgotten projects that deserve a run-through of their own, they provide a window into both the technological and geopolitical history of that period of the Cold War.
The timeline to that wreckage in the Australian Outback in 1971 starts like the American and Russian space programmes in the aftermath of the war in Europe, each of the victorious forces carried away their own subset of German rocket technology and engineers to begin their own missile work. All starting with what were essentially clones of the German V2, by the early 1950s both British and American teams had evolved their own parallel designs which were the subject of a technology sharing agreement between the two powers in the early 1950s. The engines worked on by my dad’s employer on that WW2 airfield in Buckinghamshire were thus a British development of those used in an American missile, and the British medium-range ballistic missile to which they would be fitted was called Blue Streak.
If you are a follower of British government-funded programmes you might find what followed to be familiar; initial cost estimates of only £50m ballooned by 1960 beyond £500m and headed for £1bn, and the Government pulled the plug following a political scandal. Eventually we bought the American Polaris missile for our Royal Navy submarines, and while it’s tempting for Brits playing what-if to decry that decision, the truth was that launchers such as Blue Streak had become obsolete. Fixed launch sites and relatively long on-the-ground preparation time left the missile vulnerable to Soviet pre-emptive strikes by the early 1960s, and the relative stealthiness of the submarine-launched replacement better matched its opposition. The Blue Streak story wasn’t over as it was recycled into the first stage of the nascent ELDO European co-operative launch effort, but with its initial cancellation died British pretensions toward developing military long-rage ballistic missile carrying rockets.
So We Can’t Make Missiles, Can We Make Spacecraft?
As a spin-off from the Blue Streak programme another smaller rocket had been developed in parallel through the late 1950s to study the properties of re-entry craft. Black Knight had been a success and had demonstrated the potential for civilian uses, and in the period following the demise of Blue Streak it and the expertise derived from the missile were used as justification for a new programme which would re-use their components. Black Arrow would be a three-stage launcher designed to put payloads into orbit, and though its scope was reduced following a change of Government it was ready for launch from Australia’s Woomera test range. Three launches had been completed, two suborbital tests of which one had been unsuccessful and an orbital insertion attempt which had suffered a second stage failure, before its cancellation was announced by the Government in July 1971. Though the lower price of NASA launches had prompted the decision, the fourth Black Arrow and its Prospero satellite payload had already been shipped to Australia, so the final launch was authorised even though the plug had been pulled from the programme. On the 28th of October 1971 the fourth launch was successful, and the satellite’s scientific payload began its mission. Almost immediately the entire programme was dismantled, and unlike the first launches of other countries the episode was not celebrated. We’d launched a satellite, and promptly proceeded to forget about it.
Black Arrow was only one of a number of UK Government funded programmes that were cancelled in that era, as the economic realities of pursuing superpower technology on minor power budgets in a decade of economic uncertainties became apparent. The future for non-superpowers would lie in collaborative efforts across multiple fields. Launchers such as Black Arrow would be supplanted by the European Ariane platform, military aircraft such as the ill-fated TSR-2 would see their role taken by the Panavia Tornado, and the success of the BAC-Aérospatiale Concorde supersonic airliner would herald the enormously successful Airbus collaboration. Could we have continued with Black Arrow and gone on to become a major launch provider through the 1970s? Probably, but with the inevitable penalty of more cost over-run scandals through which only the strongest-willed Prime Ministers would have retained it.
What Remains Today
Today Black Arrow and Prospero remain only as a footnote in space exploration history. You will soon be able to view the remains of the first two stages for the cost of a trip to Scotland, but there is more evidence to be found for the curious tourist. The Science Museum in London holds the never-flown fifth Black Arrow and the Prospero flight spare, the Westcott research establishment in Buckinghamshire is now an industrial park, and the High Down rocket test site on the Isle of Wight lies on a public access National Trust property. Meanwhile at the Woomera launch site in Australia there is a park exhibiting a Black Arrow mock-up as well as other pieces of rocketry associated with the range. Perhaps most intriguing is Prospero itself which is still in orbit and which was contacted regularly by the Defence Research Establishment in the years following its launch. It was reported as being still capable of activity in the last decade, and given that its 50th anniversary in 2021 is looming perhaps there are readers who might like to have a look for it on 137.560 MHz. Go on, you know you want to hear that curious piece of space history!
Header image: Geni [CC BY-SA 4.0]