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Rocket’s Return: The UK Space Launch Industry Then and Now

Black Arrow with Prospero heads for Earth orbit in 1971                              Credit: ESA

Then

Back in the 1950’s all world leaders seemed to care about was getting ‘the bomb’: first the atomic and then, as that clearly wasn’t destructive enough, the hydrogen bomb. Fortunately, making one of these was incredibly costly, so very few countries were admitted to the exclusive club of nuclear powers which included the Soviet Union. Then there was the problem of delivery. Special long-range aircraft had to be developed to carry these rather heavy devices for thousands of miles. They formed the backbone of the US Strategic Air Command and the UK V-Force, maintaining world peace with the threat of Mutually-Assured Destruction (MAD). Unfortunately, both sides had access to Wernher von Braun’s German rocket technology and each devised missile defence systems capable of destroying the bombers before they got to their targets. It didn’t take long before the original V2 ballistic missile concept was extended to provide an intercontinental reach, taking on average just thirty minutes to get to the other side of the world. The ICBM was born.

Blue Streak

The UK didn’t need an ICBM, being that much closer to the Soviet Union than the USA. Instead, a medium-range missile was designed, an MRBM and it was called Blue Streak built by the aircraft company de Havilland. Following what was to become the usual procedure for British government large-scale high-tech projects, the design for Blue Streak was finalised by 1957 before the missile project was cancelled in 1960. But that wasn’t the end: there was a proposal to create a civilian satellite launcher by adding a modified Black Knight (see below) as a second stage. Called Black Prince, it never got beyond the drawing board. An Anglo-French-German-Italian consortium (ELDO) was then set up to build a three-stage satellite launcher based on Blue Streak as the first stage. Despite Blue Streak performing faultlessly each time, tests of Europa at the Woomera Test Range in Australia always ended in failure and eventually the whole project was abandoned in 1972. A little later the French began work on Ariane.

Black Knight

While Blue Streak was being developed, a small sub-orbital rocket called Black Knight was launching regularly from Woomera for the purpose of testing a ‘re-entry vehicle’. This was the housing protecting the nuclear warhead on its way down. Black Knight was so reliable, the Americans paid to use it for their own tests.

Black Arrow

In 1964 the Royal Aircraft Establishment came up with a design for a three-stage satellite launcher based on the experience gained from Black Knight. Saunders-Roe were given the contract to develop Black Arrow. Four launches from Woomera were attempted between 1969 and 1971, only the last successfully putting a satellite (Prospero) in orbit. Take a look at this modern simulation of Black Arrow from Nick Stevens:

The launch of Black Arrow in 1971 was the last gasp of the UK Space launch industry. The project had in fact been cancelled the month before, but because the rocket was already in transit to Australia, the launch was allowed to go ahead.

Remnants of Infrastructure

Many years ago, my family and I were holidaying on the Isle of Wight, staying in one of the old coastguard cottages near the Needles at the western end of the island. While walking across the headland near our cottage I tripped over something hidden in the grass. It turned out to be a bunch of cut-off coaxial cables emerging from the ground. I couldn’t see anything around that would account for this discovery until I approached the south side of the headland. Looking over the edge of the cliff I saw, part way down, large concrete structures and what looked like a bunker. I recognised them as the bases of rocket launching pads with deflectors for directing the engine blast out to sea. The guidebook for the nearby Needles gun battery contained a picture of a Black Knight rocket on one of the stands undergoing an engine test. It was the abandoned High Down test range that belonged to Saunders-Roe. Nowadays, the site has been cleaned up and has become a tourist attraction.

The Rocket Propulsion Establishment at Westcott was responsible for testing the various UK-built rocket engines. This site at least will see a partial return to its former glory: the UK government plans to re-open it as a new facility for space technology testing.

The really big test site for Blue Streak at Spadeadam in Cumberland still exists as a weapons test range. There’s a lot of pretty impressive old concrete there, but visiting is definitely by appointment only.

So, where did it all go wrong?

When Von Braun was asked why he and his team of rocket scientists chose to surrender to the Americans at the end of World War II, he said they disliked the French, feared the Russians and the British couldn’t afford them. He was right. The UK had been completely bankrupted by the war effort and Its industry and infrastructure were still working but worn out. But, and it’s a big ‘but’, governments will always find the resources for military projects in wartime. One war had ended, but another had begun almost immediately: the Cold War. That’s how the UK independently developed its own nuclear weapons to be delivered at first by futuristic bomber aircraft and then later, by ballistic missiles. Those facilities at Spadeadam, Woomera and elsewhere were built to create the UK’s ballistic missile, Blue Streak. High Down was constructed to develop Black Knight, also part of the missile programme.

Space travel was definitely not on the agenda until it was realised that a UK-based ballistic missile was impractical. It’s often said that Blue Streak was no use as a retaliatory weapon because it would take too long to erect and fuel in the time allowed by the ‘Four-Minute Warning’ of an attack. This was true and it’s why plans had been drawn up for hardened underground silos on UK soil that could survive a near-miss and launch hours later (if there was any point in doing so). They even got as far as some preliminary excavation at Spadeadam before it dawned on the government that there were not enough remote locations in the British Isles to house the estimated (very expensive) sixty silos required. Unsurprisingly, nobody wanted a hydrogen bomb in their back-yard. The USA was another matter: they had the space and the money, so Titan II missiles ended up in British-designed silos. With the demise of Blue Streak in 1960, all serious UK government interest in space launchers ended. Along with most of the funding.

Cancellation of Blue Streak as a weapon was inevitable. But why couldn’t it be used as a civilian satellite launcher instead? After all, the Russians used their ICBM to put Sputnik into orbit and the US missiles Atlas and Titan could do the same. The UK rocket just wasn’t big enough, only being of medium, not intercontinental range. It needed more stages, but the government didn’t want to commit the necessary development funds, particularly as popular opinion at the time held that there was no market for artificial satellites in Earth orbit. However, abandonment would have meant that all the investment in facilities such as Spadeadam, High Down and Westcott would have been totally wasted. Hence the paper exercise of Black Prince and the half-hearted involvement with ELDO. Eventually, Saunders-Roe were given the go-ahead for Black Arrow on a shoe-string budget. The fourth prototype R3 put Prospero into orbit. The project had been cancelled weeks before: R4 was handed over to the London Science Museum (it’s still there), and most of the sites dismantled. Black Arrow was just too small, the potential payloads communication satellites weighing a lot more than its 100Kg capacity. The French and the European Space Agency went on to make a success of their Ariane rocket.

Spaceplanes

In 1982 the UK government funded the initial development of HOTOL, a horizontal take-off and landing ‘spaceplane’ featuring a hybrid jet/rocket engine. Various problems with the aerodynamics couldn’t be solved, but the development of the special engine called SABRE continues to this day. New test facilities for this engine are being prepared on the old RPE site at Westcott and there are plans to fly it in a new spaceplane called Skylon.

Skylon spaceplane with REL SABRE Engines                      Credit: GW_Simulations

Now

Are we on the verge of starting again, this time launching from home soil? Well, there’s lots of talk, many ideas and plenty of flashy websites featuring plans for rockets and possible locations for Spaceports.

UK Spaceports

The possibilities of spaceplanes such as Skylon and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo has led to a number of local airports around the UK seeking to become spaceports. An example is SpacePort Cornwall at Newquay which has a partnership with Virgin Orbit to launch small rockets into Earth orbit from a conventional aircraft.

Recently, some UK-based private companies have announced plans to build and launch conventional rockets to capitalise on the growing market for microsatellites and ‘nanosats’ including CubeSats. The search for suitable vertical-launch spaceport sites has suddenly switched to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Sites on the most northerly coasts of the UK are good for two reasons:

  • Safety: launches take place over the sea.
  • A launch northwards is ideal for the popular polar orbit.

This video from Orbex illustrates these two points in the context of the proposed Sutherland spaceport on the A’Mhoine peninsula:

Proposed Sutherland Spaceport                                                         Credit: HIE

New Rockets

Rocket Lab’s launch site in Mahia, New Zealand looks like the model for Sutherland, but it’s up and running now with their Electron rocket proving to be a successful launcher. There are even plans for a reusable version like the SpaceX Falcon 9. Although they plan to use a helicopter to capture it as it parachutes down. It may be that the first rocket to launch in Scotland will be an Electron.

Orbex have announced that their Prime rocket will operate from the Sutherland spaceport. The Prime contains a lot of innovative ideas to reduce carbon emissions, avoid adding to orbiting space debris and reuse the booster stage.

Skyora also have an orbital launch vehicle design, Skyora-XL, with aspects of the engine design harking back to the Gamma units of Black Arrow. It uses the same combination of Kerosene (fuel) and High-Test Peroxide (oxidizer) as those early British rockets. HTP is a highly concentrated (over 85%) solution of Hydrogen Peroxide. It’s the same stuff used to dye hair ‘peroxide blonde’, only vastly more concentrated. Most liquid fuel rockets tend to use liquid oxygen (LOX), often with liquid hydrogen as a fuel. This is the most efficient combination, but handling and storage of these cryogenic chemicals is really difficult. Kerosene is just jet fuel and relatively harmless; HTP can ignite by itself if it gets onto your clothing for example, but is otherwise reasonably stable, and like Kerosene, can be stored at room temperature. Another useful feature of HTP is that it gives you a hypergolic engine, one that needs no separate ignition source. Pass the HTP through a catalytic grid into the combustion chamber and it breaks down into oxygen gas and ferociously hot steam. Add the Kerosene and woosh – ignition, we have lift-off! Not quite the power of cryogenic fuel, but a whole lot safer for a low-budget launcher.

Finally, B2Space based in Bristol are offering another variation – the rockoon. Yes, you guessed it, carrying a rocket up to the edge of Space using a helium balloon and launching it from there. Doesn’t sound like it would be good for precision launches though.

A New Beginning?

There are a number of obstacles to be overcome before the UK government can realise its ambition to capture 10% of the commercial launch market. Finding a suitable launch site is the least of them. Far more pressing is the need to re-establish development and test sites like Spadeadam or High Down – in other words infrastructure. Most important of all, the engineering skills and knowledge that have been lost must be recovered. The infrastructure created by NASA for the Apollo programme was not abandoned; new generations of rocket engineers were trained and both now support private sector ventures such as SpaceX.

The new rocketeers will have the benefit of new technologies: microelectronics, carbon-fibre for casings and 3D-Printing for cheaper, precision manufacturing of engine components.

There is a remnant of infrastructure still working – just – on the island of South Uist in the Scottish Western Isles. It’s the Hebrides Missile Test Range and in October 2015 a US two-stage Terrier-Orion rocket was launched into Space pretending to be an incoming ICBM in a military exercise. It was the first ever launch of its type from Scotland.

References

De Havilland Blue Streak – an illustrated history by Charles H. Martin is a ‘must-have’ book for those interested in the engineering aspects of Blue Streak and Europa. Not only is there almost enough detail to have a go at building one, but also it shows that the installations at Spadeadam, Westcott, Hatfield and Stevenage in the UK together with Woomera in Australia, while not as impressive as those of NASA, were nevertheless pretty awesome!

A Vertical Empire by C.N.Hill is a detailed history of the entire British rocket programme to 1971, including all the politics.

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Engineer, PhD, lecturer, freelance technical writer, blogger & tweeter interested in robots, AI, planetary explorers and all things electronic. STEM ambassador. Designed, built and programmed my first microcomputer in 1976. Still learning, still building, still coding today.

13 Aug 2019, 7:42