Often, when we think of the Space Race, we think of the titanic battle between the two great superpowers, of Sputnik and Vanguard, of Gagarin and Glenn. But look beyond the cold war rivals and a whole other space race was taking place.
Almost as soon as the technology became available, many nations looked to extend their influence beyond the atmosphere. As of 2015, 10 countries have demonstrated the ability to launch their own satellite (Russia and Ukraine have also inherited the ability from the former Soviet Union). It’s a fairly exclusive club, but within it lurks an even more rarified and dubious honour, a distinction that only one country has ever earned…
To this day, the United Kingdom remains the only country ever to have developed a booster, orbited a satellite then walked away from the spacefaring top-table. It’s a classic British tale of ambition and retreat.
In the immediate post-war period, Britain was one of the nations quick to obtain technologies and personnel from the remains of the Nazi technology centres. A4 missiles were test-fired by the British, but it became very clear that, with the country almost bankrupt the resources to take this technology and develop it further simply weren’t there.
During the 1950s, although still cash-strapped, Britain remained determined to retain it’s international influence and importance pushing ahead with it’s own nuclear weapons programme. At the time Britain’s Nuclear deterrent was fielded by her V-Bomber fleet, comprising of 3 different types of subsonic aircraft, the Valiant, Vulcan and Victor.
As military technology advanced rapidly, prevailing military doctrine rapidly moved on from Baldwin’s assertion that “The bomber will always get through”. Advances in radar technology linked to effective Surface to Air Missile systems combined to create an environment in which manned bombers began to look extremely vulnerable.
Following discussions with the United States about missile developments, the United Kingdom decided to press ahead with an indigenous project, issuing an operational requirement for an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile in 1955. Drawing on technical data and engineering input from their American allies, two British manufacturers – de Havilland and Rolls-Royce, joined forces to design what became the Blue Streak. This name was the product of the ‘Rainbow Code’ system of naming defence projects employed in the UK at the time, whereby names were derived by picking a colour and matching it with an apparently random word (although Blue Streak sounds suspiciously non-random for a missile project!). De Havilland would create the main body of the missile, while Rolls-Royce would concentrate on the propulsion.
Blue Streak was to carry a 1-megaton warhead to targets within an approximate 2000 mile range. The design that emerged was for a 60ft long, 10ft diameter missile with thin-walled monocoque tank construction. In fact the missile as a whole gave the overall impression of being the Convair Atlas’s little brother. Fuelled by Kerosene and Liquid Oxygen, the power came from 2 Rolls-Royce RZ-2 engines. These engines were actually re-engineered versions of the Rocketdyne S-3D engine, used on the American Thor and Jupiter missiles.
By 1957, the initial design was complete and testing could begin. New facilities were created at Spadeadam, a remote location in the North of England. Here engine tests could take place followed by full integrated ground testing of the whole missile. Flight testing from the UK wasn’t going to be an option though, so a site was developed at the Long-Range Weapons Establishment at Woomera in the Australian Desert (the word woomera apparently translates roughly from Aboriginal as ‘spear-thrower’ so this location was pretty appropriate!).
As development on the Blue Streak continued, attention turned to the payload. Although the UK was developing a thermonuclear device, an effective warhead would be needed to ensure this could be survive atmospheric re-entry and be safely delivered to it’s target. To facilitate research into an effective ballistic re-entry vehicle a smaller rocket, Black Knight (yep, another ‘Rainbow Code’ name there!) was developed by Saunders Roe. First flown in 1958, the Black Knight successfully validated the basic warhead design clearing the way for development to continue.
As the end of the decade approached, Blue Streak was completing it’s ground tests and the engineers were ready to progress to flight testing the missile. But Blue Streak was about to face very different adversary from the one it had been designed for.
Concerns had been raised within government about the cost and practicality of the system. With an estimated final budget topping £1bn, Blue Streak represented a huge commitment for the UK. It’s survivability was also questioned – fuelling the missile would take hours and it couldn’t remain in that state for too long due to boil-off and freezing effects from the Liquid Oxygen. In an attempt to alleviate some of these concerns, British engineers developed the concept of the underground silo – probably the programmes one major enduring legacy as this was taken up by the United States for their Titan and Minuteman missiles – but the UK was short on suitable sites to locate these silos.
The writing was clearly on the wall for the Blue Streak as a weapons system. To add to it’s problems, behind the scenes politics were also at play as discussions on thermonuclear warhead development and delivery systems continued with the United States.
In 1960, the British government decided that the country would be better served by importing an American system; initially the air-launched Skybolt but after this was also cancelled, the submarine-launched Polaris missile. Blue Streak was cancelled as a weapon system, but it still retained some promise as a satellite launcher and this was the direction that the project now took.
A new name, a new role
There was a precedent to suggest this approach could work. In the Soviet Union, Korolev’s R7 had quickly proved an impractical weapon, but an excellent space launcher. The British government also had an incentive in making this new role work to try and save face and recoup some of the huge financial investment already made.
Plans for a space launcher centred around taking Blue Streak as a first stage and mating this with a second stage derived from the already proven Black Knight to provide a system capable of placing modest payloads into Polar Orbit from Woomera. This new system was to be known as Black Prince (you’re getting the hang of Rainbow Code now). The British government hoped to offset the development costs of the new launcher by persuading their Commonwealth partners Canada and Australia to join in and share the burden, but this was not to be with both countries declining the invitation.
Without adequate funding, Black Prince stood no chance and in late 1960 it was also cancelled, but it wasn’t the end for the Blue Streak just yet. In 1961 Britain and France announced the intention to work on joint space projects and soon West Germany, Italy, Belgium and Australia also decided to join the venture which became known as the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO).
Australia’s contribution would be to continue provide Woomera as a launch location, while the other countries would each provide stages or other technical support for a new rocket to be known as Europa-1. Blue Streak was to be the first stage, with a French second stage and a German third stage.
Unfortunately, and slightly predictably the mix of engineering from a number of countries failed to come together as hoped. From 1964 a number of Europa-1 test launches took place from Woomera. Initially things looked promising – the Blue Streak worked exactly as designed, but unfortunately as the test series progressed, problems with the reliability of the upper stages began to take their toll. By 1970 after a tenth flight had failed to successfully orbit a satellite Britain and Italy chose to leave ELDO and Europa-1 was cancelled. the remaining partners chose to continue the venture with a redesigned Europa-2, but launch operations now moved to Kourou in French Guiana to allow the rocket access to the more lucrative Geosynchronous Orbit.
And one final try…
But Britain wasn’t quite ready to surrender just yet. Although Blue Streak and Black Prince were now consigned to history, Saunders Roe had been developing a smaller launcher known as Black Arrow since 1964. Building on their experience from the Black Knight, Saunders Roe initially envisioned the possibility that Black Arrow could function as the upper stages for Blue Streak to make a more powerful launcher, but when it became apparent that this idea was a non-starter it was pressed into service as a stand-alone launcher.
The project ran on a relative shoestring, with the British Government uninterested in any further large-scale investments. Final fabrication and testing took place on the Isle of Wight off the South coast of England, before the finished rockets were shipped off to the launch site in Woomera. The first Black Arrow launch took place in June 1969, less than a month before the first man was to set foot on the moon. Unfortunately this flight met a less successful end with the rocket being destroyed by the Range Safety Officer following a problem with engine gimballing in the first stage. A second launch was more successful leading to an attempt to orbit a satellite on the third launch in September 1970. Sadly this attempt failed due to pressurisation problems in the second stage.
In July 1971 patience and funding finally ran out, Black Arrow met the same fate as all of the previous British rocket projects, but in this case cancellation did not mean an immediate end to the project. As the forth Black Arrow was already en-route to Woomera, the British Government granted permission for one last attempt to take place. And so it was that on October 28th 1971 that Britain orbited it’s first satellite Prospero, ironically named for the wizard from Shakespeare’s The Tempest who chooses to give up his powers.
With this last gasp success, Britain bowed out of the rocket business. It marked just another questionable decision from a British government where technology was concerned. Having already walked away from supersonic research by cancelling the promising Miles M.52 and effectively surrendering the commercial aviation market as a result of the initial problems with the De Havilland Comet, then the failure to invest sufficiently and support it’s successors, the British government had also largely walked away from military aviation, cancelling projects such as the TSR2 just as it entered it’s air trials.
Again with the rocket programme, the initial investment and the engineering had all been done. The system showed promise, but the financial and political limitations won out in the end. The already beleaguered aviation industry took yet another big hit.
Moving to the present day, the UK is a member of the European Space Agency (ESA), although it’s contribution is modest compared to other partner nations. Many British academic institutions and private companies remain active in the space industry and new initiatives such as the SKYLON Single Stage to Orbit spaceplane continue to be created, but there remains no appetite on the part of successive governments to make the kind of large scale investment that would be needed to develop large space projects.
After all this time, Prospero continues to chart it’s lonely cause in Polar Orbit safe in the knowledge it will remain a unique token of the UK’s former ambitions.
Footnote: Pyramid Power
Another project worth mentioning in conjunction with Blue Streak is the Armstrong Whitworth Pyramid, an early British spaceplane project that was to use the homegrown booster to lift it into space. The Pyramid was the brainchild of aerodynamicist Terence Nonweiler who, through his research had devised the concept of flat based delta winged craft that could re-enter by ‘riding’ on the high-pressure shock wave created as it hit the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. The slightly elongated three-sided pyramid craft would feature small fins and control surfaces at the rear and would carry a crew of two. To allow the craft to ride into orbit on the Blue Streak without deflecting the trajectory with it’s lift, the pyramid would have an aerodynamic double fixed to it during ascent, forming a diamond shape. This would be discarded along with the booster once beyond the atmosphere.
Although initial wind tunnel tests were conducted, it was clear that although the waverider concept showed promise, the materials technology and more importantly the budget just weren’t going to be available to take the project further.