An Empire of Stars

How Britain beat the odds to independently achieve space flight, and then abandoned it on the very same day.

John Bull
John Bull
Jun 16, 2015 · 11 min read
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Operation Paperclip

When most people think of the scramble for German rocketry in the chaotic final days of the war in Europe, they think of it as a two-horse race between the US and the USSR. In reality though, Great Britain was just as involved. Indeed arguably more than any other nation, the British knew just what this new age of rocketry would usher in. Thanks to the V-2, London had become the founding member of a club whose total membership can still today be counted entirely on one hand — it remains one of the few cities in the world ever to be bombarded by ballistic missiles.

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Von Braun (with broken arm) after his surrender.

Operation Backfire

Prisoner camps were combed for soldiers from V-2 units and the AKVO was formed. It was a curious arrangement — the men who had launched the world’s first ballistic missile attack on London were now working with soldiers and scientists who’d often been on the receiving end of it. The photos of the Frank Micklethwaite Collection, which show British and German soldiers chatting around (and sometimes sitting on) V-2 rockets really highlight how strange a relationship it must have been.

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British soldiers sitting on a V-2, from the Frank Micklethwaite Collection

Singing the blues

The first real result of these British rocketry efforts was Blue Steel, a nuclear ballistic missile designed to be launched from Britain’s V Bomber squadrons. It is safe to say that it was not without issues. Working with HTP was still a new art, and it was only after the missile was commissioned that it was discovered that HTP and aircraft de-icer tended to get somewhat explosive if they came into contact.

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Testing Blue Streak at Spadeadam
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A control room at Spadeadam
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Remains of a test rig at Spadeadam
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Testing on the Isle of Wight

Black Arrow

Black Arrow was a masterpiece of engineering on a budget. The project’s scientists and engineers were determined to prove that Britain could not only get into space, but could stay there. They cannibalised the knowledge and technology developed for Blue Streak and Black Knight and produced a rocket that, if launched from the right place, could put a satellite in polar orbit. It pushed the technology to the absolute limit, but if successful laid the groundwork for a better rocket beyond — Black Prince. Black Arrow would be able to launch small satellites but Black Prince would be better. More importantly, it would be the rocket that could achieve the engineering holy grail — putting payloads in geostationary orbit.

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A Black Arrow launch

The Launch Site

That launch would happen at the joint British and Australian space town of Woomera, a strange place where both military and civilian rocket scientists lived and mixed. It hadn’t been the first choice of the British when it came to launching rockets. Initially they’d hoped to launch from somewhere on mainland Britain itself, firing out over the North Sea in case anything went wrong. That plan, however, was swiftly abandoned as the North Sea oil industry began to develop and it was realised that, however small the chance was, a collision between a failed rocket and an oil rig would be a rather bad idea indeed. Luckily, Australia had all the open space that a rocket launch site could ever need and Woomera would become host to many launches of all nationalities over the coming decades.

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A launch site at Woomera

The Launches

By 1969, the first of their five Black Arrow was ready to launch. As ever money was tight and worse, the Treasury had begun to review the project’s future. The Black Arrow team put this to the back of their minds, however, and in June launched the first of their precious Black Arrows.

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The Puck satellite, later renamed Prospero

Cancellation

Morale was low. With just two rockets and one satellite left the chances of success were getting awfully slim. Then disaster happened. On the 29th July Frederick Corfield, the Minister of State for Trade and Industry, announced in the House of Commons that Britain’s independent satellite launcher programme was officially cancelled.

All or nothing

When news of the project’s cancellation came, the fourth Black Arrow launcher was already en route to Australia. With it was the last of the project’s satellites — a basic sound-broadcasting satellite device which had been christened “Puck.”

A Lonely end

There is no Hollywood payoff to this story. There was no reversal of Government policy, no change of heart.

Lapsed Historian

Because history is fun. Honest.

John Bull

Written by

John Bull

Writer and historian (military & transport). Editor of London Reconnections and Lapsed Historian. I focus on ordinary people who did extraordinary things.

Lapsed Historian

Because history is fun. Honest.

John Bull

Written by

John Bull

Writer and historian (military & transport). Editor of London Reconnections and Lapsed Historian. I focus on ordinary people who did extraordinary things.

Lapsed Historian

Because history is fun. Honest.

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