A country’s first orbital satellite launch from home soil is a proud moment, even when as is the case with Virgin Orbit, it’s not from the soil itself but from a Boeing 747 in the stratosphere over the sea. The first launch of the under-wing rocket took place yesterday evening, and pretty much every British space enthusiast gathered round the stream to watch history being made somewhere over the Atlantic south of Ireland. Sadly for all of us, though the launch itself went well and the rocket reached space, it suffered an anomaly in its second stage and failed to reach orbit.
No doubt we will hear more over the coming days as we’re sure they have a ton of telemetry data to work through before they find a definitive answer as to what happened. Meanwhile it’s worth remembering that the first launch of a new platform is a test of a hugely complex set of systems, and this one is certainly not the first to experience problems. It’s the under-wing launch that’s the interesting bit here, and in that we’re glad to see that part of the mission as a success. We know there will be a secomd launch and then many more, as not just the UK’s but Europe’s first launch platform from native soil becomes a viable and hopefully lower-cost launch option than its competitors.
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.