A cold autumn day was dawning as the German soldiers of the Altenwalde Versuchskommando
prepared their V2 rocket for launch. They'd done this a hundred times before, but when the V2 finally roared up into the sky over the North Sea, the men of the AVKO couldn't help but smile and cheer. Soon the rest of the soldiers and officers around the launchpad were cheering as well. British
officers and soldiers. Because this was Operation Backfire
, the beginning of something that most people don't even know existed - the British
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 the British suffered at the hands of Operation Paperclip
just as much as the Russians (The extensive blueprints and documents Von Braun had hidden during his surrender were "liberated" from the British sector, for example, not the Russian).
Faced with a lack of rockets and rocket scientists, the British quickly realised that the men who'd been launching
the V2s on a daily basis probably knew as much as the scientists themselves and thus Operation Backfire was born. Prisoner camps were combed for soldiers from V2 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) V2 rockets really highlight how strange a relationship it must have been.
As with the Space Programmes in the US and USSR, it was military need (and money) that initially drove the British space efforts forward. With the Iron Curtain descending, Britain was keen to retain an independent Nuclear deterrent and rocketry seemed the answer. The grandiose efforts that Korolev (who had actually witnessed the Backfire launches) and Von Braun would drive forward abroad were out of the range of the British. Luckily though, Backfire had left the British unchallenged masters of High Test Peroxide (HTP) and so it was to this that they now turned as they attempted to engage in rocketry on the cheap.
The first real result of the British Rocketry efforts was Blue Steel
, a nuclear ballistic missile designed to be launched from Britain's V Bomber squadrons. It was not entirely
successful. The discovery that HTP and aircraft de-icer tended to get explodey if they came into contact meant that the Aviation authority placed strict rules on its operation. In fact, for a significant portion of its life this key piece of Britain's nuclear deterrent was allowed to carry fuel or
a warhead, but not both at the same time.
The first real leap forward in Britain's space programme, however, came in 1953 with the birth of Blue Streak
, a silo-launchable MRBM. Tested on giant gantries at RAF Spadeadam
in the wooded heart of Cumbria (what British launch sites lacked in size they made up for in outstanding natural beauty
) Blue Streak proved to be very reliable indeed.
With Blue Streak looking promising, Black Knight
soon followed. Designed for orbital testing and experiments rather than to carry a warhead (hence it being "Black" rather than "Blue"), Black Knight was housed and tested
in something straight out of a 60s Sci-Fi novel: A bunker complex on the Isle of Wight
. Unlike Spadeadam, you can now visit it today
. As with Blue Streak, Black Knight proved to be a highly reliable piece of rocketry indeed.
All the key components were thus now in place for a genuine British space shot, a fact that was not lost on both the rocket manufacturers themselves and various civilian agencies. Their chance finally came in the Sixties when Blue Streak was cancelled in favour of a cheaper, "off-the-shelf," American-built solution. Fearing a backlash from press and public over wasted cost and effort, the Government swiftly announced that Britain's efforts would now be civilian
. British rockets would put a satellite in space.
The Black Arrow Launcher
, Britain's first genuine satellite launcher, based on both Blue Streak and Black Knight technology, was born.
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 succesful laid the groundwork for a better rocket beyond - Black Prince
. A rocket that could achieve the Holy Grail - putting payloads in geostationary orbit.
By 1968 the plans and rockets were in place. With limited funds, only five Black Arrows could be built and two satellites. The Black Arrow team would, almost literally, only get one shot at their launch. They would all be launched from the joint British/Australian space town/launch site of Woomera
, a strange place where both military and civilian rocket scientists lived and mixed.
With money tight, and the Treasury already reviewing the project's future, Black Arrow 1 launched from Woomera in 1969...
...and the first stage failed.
The Black Arrow 2 launch in March 1970 was successful, and hopes were lifted....
...only to come crashing down again when the second stage of Black Arrow 3 failed, dumping the first of the team's two precious satellites into the Australian desert.
At this point, with morale seemingly at its lowest, the Government finally stuck in the knife. In June 1970 Britain's independent satellite launcher programme was officially cancelled.
The Black Arrow team, however, had one final card to play.
When the cancellation came, Black Arrow 4 was already en route to Australia. As was the last of the project's satellites - a basic sound-broadcasting satellite which, with a certain amount of black humour, the team now christened Prospero
With permission from the Treasury (it would have cost more to bring it back) the Black Arrow team decided to have one last throw of the dice - they would try and launch Black Arrow 4, and Prospero with it.
And so, on 28 October 1971, with seemingly the whole of British rocketry at Woomera watching, the countdown was started. At 03:50 GMT, Black Arrow's first stage, powered by HTP systems that the men of the AVKO would have recognised, roared into life. At 04:00 on a cloud of superheated steam, Black Arrow leapt into the air. It was soon out of sight. Three minutes later the first stage seperated perfectly, and right on time the second stage fired. Then the third stage fired right on time! This was a perfect launch!
...And then, right at the end, a tiny hiccup - as Prospero emerged out into space that final third stage, Waxwing, knocked it.
The Control Room waited...
..and then Prospero sang (mp3)
From Backfire to the Outback, on 28 October 1971 Britain joined a very small and exclusive club of countries who had independently launched a satellite. On the very same day, it also became the first country to officially leave it.
There was no reversal of Government policy, no change of heart. Black Arrow 5 never flew - you can now see her in the Science Museum in London
. The scientists and engineers all moved on to different jobs.
What of Prospero?
She's still up there and you can track her online
. Her tape recorder broke a few years after launch, but her solar batteries still work. For years, the tracking station at RAF Lasham used to fire her up (semi-officially) on her "birthday," but Lasham closed down almost twenty years ago and when UCL tried to wake her up for her anniversary last year
it turned out her activation codes have now been lost. Prospero, it seems, will never sing again.
Keep an eye on her tracking though, and when she passes over, she probably deserves a wave. A last, lonely, piece of Empire, in a Super-powered sky.