Hampshire's Space Rockets
The ‘flights of fantasy’ stories of Jules Verne, H G Wells and other early science fiction writers fired the imaginations of many a young man. By the early 1930’s, space travel and rockets were the themes for many a comic and movie serial such as ‘Flash Gordon’.
A few countries, including Britain, Germany, the Soviet Union and United States, had, by the late 1920’s serious societies formed by likeminded young men dedicated to the science of space, and several were developing liquid-fuel rockets, with the first test flights being made by 1930.
Unlike Germany and the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent the United States, who all had official research funding to a greater or lesser degree, Britain’s rocket/space programme was not funded either by the State nor [as in the case of the United States] by private enterprise until the Second World War.
Research was mainly confined to the members of the British Interplanetary Society, who comprised serious writers and engineers, designing a variety of potential spacecraft and rockets, however these were purely theoretical drawings.
One of the members was a young Arthur C Clarke, later to become a famous science fiction writer – he was the first to conceive the theory of geostationary telecommunications satellites nearly 30 years before they were first launched.
The Second World War saw the Allied use of rockets as battlefield weapons [the Soviet ‘Katyusa’ rocket battery as an example], and to a lesser extent as assisted take off for laden aircraft, although the Soviet Union did try a couple of experimental rocket fighters which didn’t go into service.
Germany, however, with Army funding, fully embraced rocketry as a weapon system with the A4 [V2], the first true modern ballistic missile, the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet rocket fighter and as assisted take off units.
The victorious Allies, at the end of the war, scrabbled to obtain Germany’s technological secrets, designs, equipment and technicians, with the aims to use rocketry in a military manner, rather than for any peaceful space travel.
It was soon realised by the Allies that Germany was at least 10 years ahead technologically in both rocketry knowledge and jet technology and designs, with the A4/V2 so far advanced as a rocket that captured and copied missiles were the mainstay of research vehicles for the next few years by the US, Soviet Union and to a lesser extent Britain – indeed, the British were the first to test-fire captured A4’s post-war under the guise of ‘Operation Backfire’.
One of the earliest British proposals for a space vehicle was the 1946 idea put forward by two scientists to launch a two man crew in an extended A4 into a sub-orbital launch, called ‘Megaroc’.
The austerity government of the day rejected any funding of the project – it may seem rather haphazard today, and not a little dangerous to the crew, but many of the design ideas were very similar to the early US Mercury capsule plans.
Von Braun’s wartime A9/A10 designs for a suborbital space vehicle were, however, more sophisticated, although it was primarily designed as a weapon.
The majority of captured/defecting German rocket scientists went to the US, with a few going to the Soviet Union, and a lesser number to Britain.
The spy scandals of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, especially those in Britain who leaked US and British atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, not only caused mistrust of Britain’s security in the US, but the passing of various US Acts not only greatly restricted any two-way atomic cooperation between the countries, but had a knock on effect in aerospace research and especially the burgeoning space programme in Britain.
Britain therefore had to go it alone to develop their own launch system, not only to launch satellites, but also to be a vehicle able to carry a nuclear device – this was the Cold War after all.
Several designs were put forward, the first in 1955 was the Blue Streak – designed primarily as a military ICBM. The missile was home-grown – with the engines built by De Havilland Propellers and test fired 1955-1956 on the Needles Battery on the Isle of Wight.
The mounting costs for Britain and perceived vulnerability for the missile in a pre-emptive strike caused the military aspect of Blue Streak to be cancelled by 1960, however, it carried on as a proposed civilian satellite launch vehicle.
Although Britain’s home-grown nuclear ICBM deterrent was deemed too costly for the nation, ‘Project Emily’ involved the manning of 20 RAF Bomber Command Squadrons in the North and East of England with the United States supplied nuclear warhead armed Thor ICBM under the joint authority of the RAF and USAF from 1959-1963, at the height of the Cold War.
Launch vehicles continued to be designed and built in Britain, with locally, Saunders-Roe, along with the Royal Aircraft Establishment [RAE] formed the Rocket Development Division in 1956, with ground engine tests taking place at the Needles New Battery at Highdown on the Isle of Wight from 1957, and later at RAF Spadeadam in Cumbria.
This new division was responsible for the design, development and testing of the Black Knight rocket – with the first successful launch taking place at the remote launch site of Woomera, South Australia, in 1958.
Defence and other cuts to technology resulted in many of our bright young scientists leaving Britain in the late 1950’s to join NASA, and to work on the Mercury manned space programme amongst other space projects – indeed, many of the ground control staff at Cape Canaveral in the early years of the US space programme were British – let alone those who worked on space vehicles at Grumman, Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and other companies.
Based on the designs and technology developed for Blue Streak and Black Knight, a new satellite launch vehicle – Black Prince – was proposed in 1957, but like so many other projects, was cancelled due to funding issues in 1960, so Britain’s first satellite, Ariel 1, therefore had to be launched in 1962 atop an American rocket.
It wasn’t until 1971 that Britain launched a British satellite – Prospero X-3 - using a British rocket – the Black Arrow, which had been developed from the Black Knight. It was a swansong for Britain’s rocket industry, as the British government ceased all funding for Black Arrow, Blue Streak rockets, and no further government funded rocket projects were planned [initially] after 1972. Prospero performed well until it was discontinued in 1996.
Perhaps understandably, the enormous cost of a complete military/space programme for a nation the size of Britain would have been a step too far at the time, but given the resurgence of a UK Space Agency in recent years, and Britain’s construction of various satellites from the late 1980’s, we still have that technological knowledge and expertise much admired by other countries.