An Empire of Stars
August 30, 2012 10:41 AM   Subscribe

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 Space Programme.

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.
posted by garius (42 comments total) 115 users marked this as a favorite
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.

How fabulously British.

(Great post--fascinating story.)
posted by yoink at 10:48 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nice, thanks very much garius!
posted by carter at 11:01 AM on August 30, 2012

Amazing post. The arc of this story is close to my heart and it lands brilliantly in the end.
posted by Roger_Mexico at 11:07 AM on August 30, 2012

Wow. Great post.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:08 AM on August 30, 2012

This is an excellent post.
posted by WPW at 11:20 AM on August 30, 2012

Which one's Slothrop?
Neat post.
posted by adamvasco at 11:26 AM on August 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Such a great story, with such a disappointing ending. I was felt a pang of sadness in the last few paragraphs.

Great post.
posted by KGMoney at 11:30 AM on August 30, 2012

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.

Now, basically, the defense of Great Britain rests in the hands of our Sea-slugs. {...} Now I must admit here, that there is a very strong possibility that our Sea-slugs won't get through. The British Sea-slug is a ludicrously cumbersome vehicle depending as it does on a group of trained runners carrying it into enemey territory. Mind you, the boffins are working on this one day and night—thinking of fitting it out with some ingenious device—wings or something along those lines and turning it into some kind of flying machine, in which case it will be renamed "Greased Lightning."—Beyond the Fringe, "Civil War"
posted by Doktor Zed at 11:33 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Excellent post. Thanks. Great Britain has been talking for years about building an ISS module, but I don't know if anything has come of it. I've seen it on some assembly roadmaps, it was to be a wardroom type space for everyone to eat together and do other communal things. Basically, it would be an enter module of "wasted space" that would make being onboard much more pleasant.
posted by BeeDo at 11:36 AM on August 30, 2012

entire, not enter
posted by BeeDo at 11:37 AM on August 30, 2012

Beautiful post garius.
posted by hamandcheese at 11:38 AM on August 30, 2012

Slothrop didn't make it into the frame. He slipped and fell into the mud face first, just before the picture was taken.
posted by nikoniko at 11:45 AM on August 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

Wow, excellent post. I had no idea.
posted by pointless_incessant_barking at 12:02 PM on August 30, 2012

> Blue Streak was cancelled in favour of a cheaper, "off-the-shelf," American-built solution

Defence procurement policies of the Cold War were exceptionally murky. The US leaned very strongly on its allies to buy its systems and cancel domestic development like Blue Streak and TSR-2.
posted by scruss at 12:18 PM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

And here's the alt history tale if they kept going - Ministry of Space.
posted by PenDevil at 12:34 PM on August 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think the context is important: immediately after World War Two, the United States abandoned us. Lend Lease was cancelled the day the war ended. The broken British state was expected to start paying back our debts. The Americans refused to disclose any information on the nuclear bomb, even though we had shipped all our scientists and know-how over to you during the war freely and without reserve. Irish-Americans were at senior positions in the US government: Joe Kennedy had been wiring home from London that we were finished for a decade. The Americans simply wanted to pull troops out of Europe, job done, and leave us with twenty million Russian soldiers and nothing to stop them until they got to the Channel. Our Bolshevik enemies, the ones we had sent troops into Russia to fight during the Russian Civil War, were going to roll over Western Europe. Everything we had fought for - the traditional fight to prevent one Power controlling continental Europe, plus the peculiar horror of Nazi Germany - would be for nought.

So we HAD to have an independent nuclear arsenal. We would defend Europe even if the Americans again retreated into Isolationism, just as they did after the Great War. This wasn't a mad right-wing feeling. Socialist Foreign Secretary and ex-Docker Ernest Bevin:

"I do not want any other Foreign Secretary of this country to be talked at, or to, as I was [by the Americans]. We’ve got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs. We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it."

We thought we could use long-range bombers based in Arabia and India to target the Soviet Union. But of course we started running into problems almost immediately, because the local elites there didn't want us any more and we hadn't the manpower, money or stomach to keep them. So we lost India, Arabic, and other potential bases. So that means long-range nuclear missiles. Hence the Blue Streak program.

By the 1970s it was pretty clear that the Americans had gotten over their anti-Imperialist feelings: we had lost our Empire, and the Americans had largely taken it over by proxy if not directly. It seemed a safer bet to buy American for our nukes. It's still a matter of debate: distrust of America runs deep on right and left, and the reliance on the Yanks for targeting and logistics for Trident is still disquieting. But Reagan supported us against the Argentinians, and the Americans are now weaker and more desirous of allied support than they were in the 1950s and 1960s, so relying on them for our "independent" nuclear force seems more reasonable.

Too long, didn't read: We had to have rockets/missiles to deliver nuclear weapons to defend our interests, because we couldn't trust the Americans to do so.
posted by alasdair at 12:39 PM on August 30, 2012 [12 favorites]

A last, lonely, piece of Empire, in a Super-powered sky.

What a lovely sentence. Thanks!
posted by cromagnon at 12:56 PM on August 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

Brilliant post!
posted by Bwithh at 1:14 PM on August 30, 2012

I think the context is important: immediately after World War Two, the United States abandoned us.

The UK was the largest recipient of Marshall Plan dollars, so I'd say it is a bit more complex than that. I would suggest that the Suez Crisis more clearly makes the point that US and UK interests would diverge.
posted by BeeDo at 1:23 PM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

alasdair, the turnaround in British foreign policy didn't wait until the '70s. It came in 1956, after the Suez crisis, when it became painfully apparent to both Britain and France that they had very little real freedom of action separately from the US. They came however to diametrically opposite conclusions: Gaullist France decided to get its own independent nuclear deterrent at any cost, and keep a clear distance from the Americans, whereas Britain chose to stick as close as possible to its "cousins". Economics had a lot to do with these choices: whereas decolonization and war debt held back Britain's economic recovery, France was in the middle of the "Glorious Thirty", its nearly thirty years of uninterrupted fast economic growth after WWII.
posted by Skeptic at 1:31 PM on August 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Bugger. There's a rather embarassing error in there. It should be "Korolev" not "Kolorov" - if a passing Mod could change that I'd be grateful.

Never stop to do your Fantasy Football team half way through writing about space programmes, apparently, or you're likely to claim that Manchester City's right-back played a key role in the Soviet space programme.

Defence procurement policies of the Cold War were exceptionally murky. The US leaned very strongly on its allies to buy its systems and cancel domestic development like Blue Streak and TSR-2.

God the TS2-2 was a work of art.

With regards to Blue Streak's cancellation, if I remember the basic problem was that it effectively found itself friendless.

The Treasury hated rocketry with an absolute passion, for reasons that no-one - then or now - can quite work out, which was basically what screwed the whole British space industry in the end. Indeed even the independent report which eventually recommended Black Arrow's cancellation didn't so much say "its a waste of money" as "why the hell have you been stiffing this project for cash for the last ten years?! It could have been useful but now it's too late!"

Indeed Blue Streak even lacked friends in the military - the RAF wanted Skybolt because it meant they got to carry on streaking across the sky shouting "Tally-Ho!" at each other, the Army hated it because it was money they desperately needed for conventional weapons, and the Navy hated anything that didn't float.

So Blue Streak got cancelled, and Skybolt ordered. Except the RAF had barely finished high-fiving each other before the Americans turned round and cancelled Skybolt.

To the RAFs horror, the Prime Minister (think it was MacMillan) then had to practically beg the US to sell us Polaris and we had to build a fleet of subs to carry it.

I'd have loved to have been in the Admiralty the day that got announced. I bet they couldn't believe their luck. They must have been pissing themselves!
posted by garius at 1:36 PM on August 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

Gaullist France decided to get its own independent nuclear deterrent at any cost, and keep a clear distance from the Americans, whereas Britain chose to stick as close as possible to its "cousins".

With regards to satellite launchers (and to a certain extent the deterrent) it's also worth remembering that the US was generally prepared to offer Britain a healthy discount whilst not offering France the same deal.

This - correctly to my mind - tended to alter the economics more, at least in theory, from the British perspective against going it all entirely alone. Right up until the 70s, for example, the US was offering to launch British satellites completely free of charge.

Of course the problem, as successive British Governments found later on to their cost, was that you should probably get that kind of thing in writing before you start cancelling your own schemes.

The free launch offer mentioned above, for example, disappeared from the table the moment it became apparent that satellites had much more potential beyond simple scientific or basic comms uses (recon, advanced comms, GPS etc). This made launch slots a precious commodity indeed.
posted by garius at 1:47 PM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Great post, will raise a glass to British space exploration and Prospero tonight. So sad that we're not a bigger part of space exploration these days.
posted by arcticseal at 2:40 PM on August 30, 2012

God, this kind of "what might have been" is always depressing enough without someone mentioning TSR-2 as well.

*Walks away grumbling.*
posted by milkb0at at 2:58 PM on August 30, 2012

My dad worked on the radar of the TSR-2, milkb0at ...
posted by scruss at 3:06 PM on August 30, 2012

My neighbour has one of the compressor fans from TSR-2. Was it Olympus engines? It's awesome to see and amazing tech for the time.
posted by milkb0at at 4:13 PM on August 30, 2012

One of my favourite stories from the world of aerospace engineering. There's a beautifully written account of the British space programme in Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford with loads of fascinating details about the men behind these machines:

'The first time John Scott-Scott experimented with HTP in rockets, he was a sixth-former in Doncaster. His girlfriend's father, a metalwork teacher, helped out with the engine chambers; he gingerly carried a darkened bottle of industrial peroxide home on the bus. The fuel injectors were made from the little plastic tubes inside biros. When he went for his interview at the Armstrong-Siddeley Rocket Department a few years later, they worried that there'd been a security leak.'

'Then, 303 miles high, as R3 floated across the top of its parabola, the solid Waxwing third stage lit and gave R3 its final boost into orbit; not a Spitfire impossibly aiming for outer space, or a rocket-ship piloted by Dan Dare against the Mekon; just an assembly of precision machinery from the Midlands and Home Counties boldly going where no precision machinery from the Midlands and Home Counties had gone before.'

Interestingly, hydrogen peroxide/HTP has had something of a resurgence as a propellant recently with the 'new space race'.
posted by emtanner at 4:18 PM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

When does this get incorporated into the Laundry Files by cstross?
posted by Chekhovian at 4:41 PM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Great post. Winner.
posted by awfurby at 5:32 PM on August 30, 2012

Flagged as fantastic.
posted by ersatz at 5:44 PM on August 30, 2012

Spectacular post. There is something undefinably British about the unit evaluating the V2 launch requirements being named SPOG; for no known reason that makes me smile.
posted by N-stoff at 6:38 PM on August 30, 2012

Put the tracking site on the bookmarks toolbar - I'll be giving a wave... :)
posted by Kronos_to_Earth at 6:50 PM on August 30, 2012

A further complication in the British space efforts of the 60s was Britain's involvement in the European Launcher Development Organisation and its Europa rocket. Britain originally contributed Blue Streak as a first stage for Europa. However, when it launched the Black Prince program, it withdrew from ELDO. The French promptly replaced Blue Streak with their own Diamant rocket as the first stage of Europa, but Europa was a complete dud. Forced to start from a clean slate, ELDO, which had merged with the European Space Research Organisation (which Britain had never left) to become the European Space Agency, then developed the somewhat more successful Ariane 1. Britain is not an Ariane shareholder, and does not participate in the ESA's manned space program either...
posted by Skeptic at 11:27 PM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

What a strange time, those last days of WWII and first days of peace. You've spent years ducking the enemy's ordnance and trying to outguess him, scientists and engineers and cryptoanalysts working at full steam. All the time new weapons, new countermeasures and again new weapons and the inevitable new countermeasures, like a never-ending game of rock-paper-scissors. Then suddenly peace, and you have his blueprints, production facilities and personell. But the other guys have them as well - the sense of peril must have been intense as both sides develop missiles and nukes within a few years.
posted by Harald74 at 12:09 AM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Skeptic, if I remember one of the other reasons Britain withdrew from ELDO (an organistion they'd effectively founded) was because they were hoping that Germany, France, Italy and the minor players would largely just follow Britain's lead. Basically Britain knew it could do rockets better than anyone else in Europe (which was true at the time) but wanted to be able to spread the cost.

Indeed its worth remembering that Britain had actually approached the Commonwealth countries first to try and build a Commonwealth Space Programme of some kind, but Canada wasn't interested (they were getting free launches from the US) and South Africa was already starting to become persona non-grata in some circles at that point. The only country genuinely interested was Australia, but footing the bill for Woomera was always going to represent the majority of their contribution.

This is why Australia, somewhat counter-intuitively, ended up being a founding member of ELDO - because they were already part of the little gang that Britain was trying to put together.

When ELDO was founded though, the French - rather than just nodding through Britain's launcher plans - pointed out that building Europa was arguably aiming too low (pun intended), and that they should just cut the bullshit and start working on a more powerful launcher from the start (or at least do that as well as Europa). They were absolutely and totally correct in this regard, but that put various British noses out of joint and (shock! horror!) the Treasury refused to countenance any changes that would lead to extra funding overheads.

The trouble was, the Foreign Office were adamant Britain couldn't withdraw from ELDO as it would leave a lot of bad blood and might jeopardise the chances of future European joint ventures. So instead it was decided to "work to rule" - i.e. do the absolute minimum stipulated in the original agreements and very little else.

So suddenly the British representatives on ELDO constantly found themselves in the rather embarrasing position of effectively having to try to stop their own government from sabotaging an organisation that the British had helped persuade everyone to join in the first place.

The end result, when ELDO fell apart and Britain finally left, was that not only did the FO's fears about it causing bad blood come to pass anyway, but that in addition both Germany and France believed for years that Britain couldn't be trusted to stay the distance even if you were stupid enough to join them in a joint venture.

There aren't enough Picard Facepalm gifs in the world...
posted by garius at 1:28 AM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Actually, garius, what seems to have precipitated Britain's departure from ELDO (which didn't actually dissolve, but instead lived on, was merged into the ESA and turned into what is now Arianespace) wasn't so much French insistence on developing a more powerful launcher (after all, Britain was still developing its own Black Arrow and Black Prince), but rather the abandonment of the Blue Streak program, coupled with ELDO's adoption of the Kourou launch range in French Guyana. I can see how a few eyebrows may have been raised in Whitehall at the idea of the French getting too close a look of Britain's own abandoned ballistic missile, at a time as the French were themselves busy developing their "force de frappe"...
posted by Skeptic at 3:22 AM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

I always thought dropping Blue Streak was more a sympton than a cause - i.e. made total sense from the ELDO perspective that if one of your partners is on the way out of the organisation you don't really want to be utterly reliant on their technology.

Was the Kourou decision really that decisive from the British perspective? If you want to go geostationary you really need an equatorial launch site and Britain didn't have any decent alternatives. Can't imagine they didn't know that.
posted by garius at 3:44 AM on August 31, 2012

Tested on giant gantries at RAF Spadeadam in the wooded heart of Cumbria

Third picture is totally an AT-AT docking platform.

I love the British "Rainbow code" code names - they had two lists, of colours and objects, and would randomly combine two for each new project, giving you awesome names like Blue Streak, Black Arrow, Yellow Anvil, and Indigo Hammer (and, brilliantly, Green Cheese*).

*"The project was cancelled in 1956 due in part to cost over-runs, at which point it had a reached a stage called Cockburn Cheese". Um.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:52 AM on August 31, 2012

Don't forget Yellow Sun - the rainbow code for the first proper British Nuke. Always thought it was just a bit of a give-away that one.

And Skybolt (if it hadn't been cancelled) was going to get the ominously named Red Snow warhead.

Basically in the 50s and 60s techies were mostly giving jaunty names to Nukes. Today, we give them to Ubuntu releases.

Whatever problems the world still has, that's definitely progress.
posted by garius at 4:15 AM on August 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

I always thought dropping Blue Streak was more a sympton than a cause - i.e. made total sense from the ELDO perspective that if one of your partners is on the way out of the organisation you don't really want to be utterly reliant on their technology.

Oh, I didn't meant the abandonment of Blue Streak by ELDO (this seems to have taken place after Britain left the organisation), but the previous abandonment of Blue Streak as a military program by Britain. As for the Kourou factor, I can see how, if the Treasury already balked at the idea of funding a British ICBM, they may have choked on their G&Ts contemplating the possibility of ending up having funded the development of a French ICBM.
posted by Skeptic at 5:06 AM on August 31, 2012

the ominously named Red Snow warhead.

Not quite as ominous as the name of its replacement, Red Beard. At least once you work out that, in Italian, the original Red Beard was known as Barbarossa.

Somebody in the naming committee either was spectacularly clueless, or had a surprisingly dark sense of humour...
posted by Skeptic at 5:34 AM on August 31, 2012

Oh, and reading that Wikipedia article, I learn that "Red Beard" was designated a "Target Marking Bomb". Surprisingly dark sense of humour, then...
posted by Skeptic at 5:36 AM on August 31, 2012

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