Oops… Britain Launched A Satellite, But Who Remembers It?

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

The remains of the Black Arrow first and second stages, taken from the Skyrora promotional video.
The remains of the Black Arrow first and second stages, taken from the Skyrora promotional video.

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.

A surviving Blue Streak missile on display at the Deutsches Museum at Schleissheim, Munich. John McCullagh.Jmcc150 [Public domain].
A surviving Blue Streak missile on display at the Deutsches Museum at Schleissheim, Munich. John McCullagh.Jmcc150 [Public domain].
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?

The Black Arrow first two stages in the background with open payload fairing, in front of that the third stage, and in the foreground the Prospero flight spare. Andy Dingley [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Science Museum, London. The Black Arrow first two stages in the background with open payload fairing, in front of that the third stage, and in the foreground the Prospero flight spare. Andy Dingley [CC BY-SA 3.0]
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]

38 thoughts on “Oops… Britain Launched A Satellite, But Who Remembers It?

      1. What the site really needs is a link marked “correct” or something that will disappear three or so hours after posting so that comments like mine are unnecessary. An author cannot be a proof reader, that is why people have people that just do proof reading. Sure, you can say it isn’t important enough to bother but mistakes should be corrected.

      1. Size:
        0#-Dog Socks
        Paw width: 28mm, Feet length: 34mm, Grip width: 22mm, Socks length: 65mm
        1#-Dog Socks
        Paw width: 30mm, Feet length: 35mm, Grip width: 24mm, Socks length: 75mm
        2#-Dog Socks
        Paw width: 31mm, Feet length: 37mm, Grip width: 25mm, Socks length: 85mm
        3#-Dog Socks
        Paw width: 36mm, Feet length: 50mm, Grip width: 26mm, Socks length: 100mm
        4#-Dog Socks
        Paw width: 37mm, Feet length:54mm, Grip width: 32mm, Socks length:110mm
        5#-Dog Socks
        Paw width: 50mm, Feet length: 60mm, Grip width: 35mm, Socks length: 145mm
        6#-Dog Socks
        Paw width: 55mm, Feet length: 70mm, Grip width: 37mm, Socks length: 150mm

    1. as in scandal?
      as in cutting funds?
      as in going ahead with a launch even though the program was cut?
      as in trying to make a working rocket, instead of leaving it to the “Big Dogs”?

  1. There have been no sustainable projects using this liquid oxidizer because of its volatility. The problem has always been that any contaminates in the fuel system can set it off, like Mentos in Coke. Several navies have used it in submarines and torpedos and those vessels have all subsequently been lost due to accidents with the stuff.

  2. It is sad that UK doesn’t have its own space program anymore. I’m not British, but I think competition in space was very useful while it lasted, from both scientific and unfortunately military perspective.

    1. I sort of think that not having is one of the first steps to humans viewing themselves as human rather than British. It really is time we evolved past random land borders and thought of ourselves as one planet.

  3. Now that we’re leaving the EU, there are plans for the UK to leave the Earth next.
    Making deals with Martians is the easiest deal in (off?) the world.
    Why should we limit ourselves to only trading with humans?
    We can also import food from Jupiter and more pull more great ideas from Uranus.
    Dyson is already planning manufacturing facilities on Phobos, assuming he gets the bailout from the UK govt.
    And that Wetherspoons guy is opening pubs on Io as the orbit there is 42h, so the very nearly out of date beer he sells on Earth is well within date on Io. They also have easily exploitable employment laws.

    Goodbye and thanks for all natural resources, colonies and slaves! And to the EU for all the fish!

  4. India has a launch programme, North Korea has a launch programme, Iran has a launch programme but the U.K doesn’t, sometimes it’s not a failure of technology but a failure or imagination.

    1. India, Iran, and NK have launch programmes because they want to develop nuke ICBMs to threaten other nations with.
      We don’t do that shit anymore – in fact, it’s never really been the British way to do war to have doomsday machines. Plus if we wanted to, we’ve got US kit, which won’t be affected by Brexit.

  5. India has a launch programme, North Korea has a launch programme, Iran has a launch programme but the U.K doesn’t, sometimes it’s not a failure of technology but a failure of imagination.

  6. In 1967, I had just completed my second year of engineering and. over the Xmas vacation, had a job in Adelaide with Weapons Research Establishment (WRE), a government instrumentality, which was the city base, we might say, for the range at Woomera. At that time, the British were launching a series of Blue Streak rockets from Woomera. They gave the Aussies the last of the rockets in the series; WRE designed and built a small, sub-orbital satellite (“WRESAT”) and it was successfully launched in November 1967.
    My job two month job started In December 1967, and I was one of 200 undergraduates taken on with real projects to do, for 2 months. Of course, the place was hopping, rightfully very proud of itself. Fond memories of those days, of WRESAT and Blue Streak.

    1. WRESAT was actually launched on a US-built Redstone rocket. Prospero and WRESAT were the only Woomera Satellite launches. Over a hundred Skylark sounding rockets were launched from Woomera, however, and the bulk of these went well into space before falling back to ground.

  7. Half the ham radio satellites in orbit seem to be built by the University of Surrey, Guildford, UK, however presumably they aren’t technically LAUNCHED by Britain – they hitch a ride with someone like NASA or Roscosmos or presumably ESA (the obvious successor to any Brit space program, until Brexit)?

  8. This project gets a mention in “Backroom Boys” by Francis Spufford (excellent book BTW), his version suggests that America wouldn’t sell us their missiles until we’d proved we could do it ourselves anyway or some such political faffing about…

    A shame it got cancelled but the country was going to the dogs in those days, not like the strong & stable times in which we now live. Um.

Leave a Reply to Cyk Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.