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The Cancellation of Black Arrow

Many cancellations of Government projects have been described as 'controversial'; the cancellation of Black Arrow is no exception. When decisions of this kind are made, then the reasons behind them may not always be fully explained. This can give rise to speculation from those not directly involved in the decision making process as to the 'real reasons', particularly people in the industry not privy to Government thinking, and these speculations can shade into what almost might be 'conspiracy theories'. The truth is more mundane.

There are three files in the National Archives at Kew which outline the reasons for the cancellation quite clearly.

The first two are AVIA 92/282 and AVIA 92/283, entitled 'Independent review of Black Arrow launcher by Lord Penny, Rector of Imperial College of Science and Technology, London'. (AVIA files refer to the Ministry of Aviation).

The third is PREM 16/235, 'European space programme and proposed postponement of European Space Conference: Black Arrow national space technology programme: science and technology in relation to Europe'. PREM files refer to the Prime Minister of the day - in this case, Edward Heath.

All the quotes in the remainder of this article come from these files.

These files give both an insight into the workings of Government, and show how, from the Government's point of view, the decision to cancel was quite rational.

But to put matters into context, we need to examine the capabilities and possible uses of Black Arrow. A satellite launcher is a means to an end: slightly tautologically, the launching of satellites. There are further questions. Did the U.K. have a requirement for launching satellites? If so, what was the best way of doing this?

First, the requirement. Black Arrow was intended partly as what might be called a 'technical demonstrator', to show that a small satellite launcher could be built using the HTP/kerosene technology developed for Black Knight. It would launch satellites that were intended to investigate space technologies, developed by R.A.E. Farnborough. A further question might be: what technologies would the R.A.E. investigate that commercial satellites hadn't? The answer was really very few: one of the main technologies would be ion engines, which R.A.E. showed great promise, although their commercial take up has been relatively slow. Its capability to launch scientific satellites was limited by its payload - not much more than 100kg. By the time the overheads of the satellite structure, power supplies, solar cells and so on have been accounted for, there was little left for experiments - particularly at a time when electronics was still relatively heavy and bulky (1970 predates the integrated circuit and microprocessor, which have done so much to revolutionise electronics). Furthermore, the requirement for scientific satellite was negligible: the expense of launching a satellite as a fraction of the U.K.'s science budget would make it hard to justify.

Commercial applications were non existent. Black Arrow, with its limited payload could no more have launched communications satellites than a microlight could be used to deliver mail across the Atlantic.

Another factor was the frequency of launches. A minimum of at least a launch a year was needed to make the project worthwhile. Launch teams need to be assembled, and once assembled, it makes sense to keep them assembled. Launching every eighteen months or two years means starting again from scratch. The launch site would have to be 'mothballed' between launches unless there was a reasonable frequency of launch. As the R.A.E.'s technology satellites: there was one more after Prospero (X3) - the X4 satellite, named Miranda, launched by a American Scout. The demise of the R.A.E. programme would have left Black Arrow with no prospect of any payload, and thus no purpose at all.

The issue then to be decided by Penney was whether it was worth keeping an indigenous capability, or instead, 'buy in' launches - presumably from America - whenever one was needed. 'Buying in' launches would have been cheaper. The arguments in favour of an indigenous capability were firstly the chauvinist one - the one that is still evoked today - and the more serious point, which was that once the capability has been lost, it would be very difficult to resurrect it.

Whatever the merits and demerits of these arguments, there is one thing that those involved in the project can be proud of: how many successful satellite launchers have been developed at a cost of 10 million?

But first, some background.

Black Arrow had been given the go ahead in the last days of the Conservative Government of 1964, against obvious Treasury opposition. The Treasury renewed its attack on the space programme in its brief to the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jim Callaghan, after the General Election of October that year. Compared with the seemingly intractable problem of ELDO, however, Black Arrow got little attention, and featured little in Cabinet discussion. Opposition did continue at the official level, and Space Department at RAE Farnborough was continually having to counter arguments from the short lived Department of Economic Affairs as to the viability of the project.

The project took the failure of R0 in its stride; any high risk programme such as a satellite launcher is allowed the occasional mishap. However, the failure of R2 on 2nd September 1970 led to a considerable degree of soul searching. The design was subject to rigorous technical review at Farnborough. But there were other concerns too, as the following memo, addressed Minister of State (Aviation) illustrates:

As I mentioned the other day, I feel there might be considerable advantage in arranging an impartial examination of the National Space Technology Programme in the light of the recent Black Arrow launch failure.

It is of the utmost importance that the next firing of Black Arrow, currently scheduled for May 1971, should be successful. We, RAE and Industry are already engaged in analysing the technical causes of the failure, but we have to recognise that there are also wider implications. Another failure, and our national technological competence as well as the future of the National Space Technology Programme would be in question. Examination of the programme as a whole by an outsider of suitable qualifications could be useful in ensuring that it develops from this point on in the best possible way.

The examination would have to take as a starting point of acceptance of our primary objective in space, which is to attain the capability in satellite technology enabling us to offer space hardware, internationally and on an industrial scale. The investigation should in addition not question the broad institutional framework of the Programme -- in other words it would be accepted that the effort was a joint Government and Industry one. Within these constraints, however, the investigation should be given the widest possible remit to examine the cause those we have employed to reach our objective.

The formal terms of reference might be on the following lines:-

"To assess the relevance and appropriateness of the Programme, in its present form, to the goal of establishing a significant national competence in satellite technology.

To study in particular the role of the national launcher (Black Arrow) in the programme; the level of effort needed to develop it into a dependable vehicle; and the cost of alternatives to it.

To report on the management of the Programme, with special reference to the launcher element. And to make recommendations."

I believe that an examination along these lines could be of a very real help to us, especially in providing the answer to two questions -- is the level of spend on the Black Arrow launcher programme a sensible one, or ought it to be increased very substantially in order to achieve real gains; and, whatever the level of sensible expenditure on a national launcher programme might be, would it be preferable and more economic to use an American launcher?

The difficulty, of course, is to find a man of sufficient managerial and technical qualification within the UK who was not already involved in the space programme. We are already separately engaged in the discussion of suitable names. My present purpose is therefore to seek your approval of the terms of reference set out above, on the basis of which we might approach a suitable candidate.

The question was who among what has been termed as 'the great and the good' would be willing and available, although one stumbling block was the requirement for some technical knowledge. In the event, an impeccably qualified candidate was identified and, on 1st October 1970, accepted the invitation to undertake the enquiry: William Penney.

William Penney is best known for his work on Britain's atomic weapons, although he had many other scientific accomplishments to his name. He won a scholarship to study at the University of London, winning the Governor's Prize for Mathematics and graduating with First Class Honours in 1929. In 1944 he joined the British mission to Los Alamos, working on the use of the atomic bomb and its effects. On his return to England, he was put in charge of the British atomic bomb project, and saw the project through to the test of the first bomb in 1952. At this point Penney was offered a Chair at the University of Oxford. Always more inclined toward the academic life, he was keen to accept this post, but he was persuaded that the "national interest" required him to continue as director of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston until 1959. From 1954 Penney served on the Board of the Atomic Energy Authority, becoming Chairman in 1964. He retired as Chairman in 1967, and then became Rector of Imperial College.

Given these achievements, it was unlikely that his findings would be disputed, and given his expertise in running demanding experimental programmes, he would have seemed to be the ideal man for the job. A briefing note for the Minister after Penney had submitted his report noted that:

Lord Penney's approach to his inquiry was informal. By meeting the people in industry and government concerned with Black Arrow, and discussing the project with them, he aimed to make a personal assessment of the management of the programme at the same time as briefing himself on the details of the project. He made two visits to industry, to see the major Black Arrow contractors - British Hovercraft Corporation on the Isle of Wight, and Rolls-Royce at Ansty, Coventry. He visited RAE Farnborough on two occasions, and had a number of discussions with the staff of space division and other headquarters divisions with an interest in Black Arrow. For details of the alternative launchers to Black Arrow he relied on information supplied by the department: he made no visits abroad in the course of the inquiry.

As might be expected, the report was thorough and comprehensive, stretching to twenty four pages and sixty eight sections. He fulfilled his brief admirably, looking at Black Arrow and its alternatives, then considering the viability of Black Arrow within the larger framework of British space policy. His conclusions and recommendations are worth quoting:

My conclusions are as follows:


The disappointing performance of Black Arrow launcher R2 in September 1970 was not due to poor project management, bad fundamental design, or low grade effort. We know we were taking a gamble in trying to make do with so few test launches, and the gamble went against us.

The cost of launching of the X3 satellite on the R3 vehicle is almost fully incurred, and the best policy would therefore be to launch X3 in July 1971 as planned. But in spite of all the work being done to follow up the R2 failure, we cannot be sure that the gamble will not go against us again on R3. The Ministry has neither the time nor the resources to build up greater confidence in Black Arrow before X3 is ready for launch.

It is probable that with the present launch rate of one Black Arrow a year, we will still not be fully confident of its reliability by 1974 when we are planning to launch X4, the second major technological satellite. Even if the Ministry agreed to fund an increase in the launch rate, only one or two extra Black Arrows could be built and launched by 1974.

There is a three-year gap between X3 and X4, but Black Arrows are being built at the rate of one a year. This mismatch between the production rates of launchers and worthwhile satellites may well continue beyond X4, and cannot easily be remedied by adjustments to the launcher programme which is already running at about the minimum level for efficiency.

The current programme gives us too few Black Arrow to establish the vehicle as a proven launcher in a reasonable timescale, and too many to meet our requirements for satellite launches. It is therefore not a viable programme at present, and there is no easy way out of the dilemma.

And on the subject of alternative launchers, he notes:

Black Arrow has no alternative use, and the nation would have much to gain and little to lose if it were cancelled in favour of American launchers. We would be abandoning a certain political independence and a guarantee of commercial security payments, but on these two points satisfactory safeguards should be available from the US authorities.

Unless a formal approach is made quickly to the inhabitants on the availability of Scouts and other launchers for our technological satellite programme, further commitments will have to be made on Black Arrow vehicles as an insurance move.

As soon as we are satisfied that we can get the launchers we need from the Americans on acceptable terms, the Black Arrow programme be brought to a close as soon as possible. However, the launching of X3 on the R3 vehicle should proceed, and there may be a need for a further launch if problems arise with X3/R3.

And then:

I therefore recommend that:

The Ministry should make a formal approach to the US authorities as soon as possible about the availability of launchers for X4 and subsequent satellites in the National Space Technology Programme, and terms on which they can be provided.

Commitments on R5 and subsequent Black Arrow vehicles should be kept the minimum possible level while the Americans are being approached, and all work on them should be stopped as soon as satisfactory arrangements have been made for the supply of US launchers.

The X3 satellite should be launched as planned on the R3 Black Arrow vehicle in July 1971; the R4 vehicle should be completed in all major respects and used as a reserve for R3 up to the launch. If X3 goes into orbit successfully and functions as planned, the Black Arrow launcher programme should be brought to a close without further launches.

If X3 fails to go into orbit successfully or fails to work in orbit, the Ministry will have to decide whether to bring the launcher programme to a close at that point or repeat the X3 experiments by launching the X3R on the R4 vehicle. Unless they are sure that the R4 vehicle has a better chance of success than the R3, and it is worth spending 1 million to repeat the satellite experiment, a further launch should not be sanctioned.

The X4 satellite should be launched on Scout; and Scout or Thor Deltas should be bought as necessary for later satellites in the series.

The Ministry should determine at a high level the views of British industry on the value of a technological satellite programme. If no such value can be identified the programme should be brought to a stop. If it is established that the programme is worthwhile, a plan should be drawn up for a series of future satellites so organised as to give the maximum benefit to British firms in their attempts to win contracts in the international market.

It is difficult to argue with his conclusions, nor, indeed, with his recommendations.

The report was submitted to the Minister in January 1971, and made its way up the government hierarchy, culminating in a meeting held in the Prime Minister's room at the House of Commons at 5:15 pm on Monday 6th July, 1971.

Those present were the Prime Minister (Edward Heath), the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Geoffrey Rippon), the Lord Privy Seal (Lord Jellicoe), the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (John Davies), the Minister for Aerospace (Frederick Corfield), the Chief Secretary, Treasury , and Sir Alan Cottrell, Chief Scientific Adviser (Maurice Macmillan). An excerpt from the minutes of the meeting reads:

The Lord Privy Seal recalled that on 24 May the Ministerial Committee on Science and Technology had approved the proposals by the Minister of Aerospace that the Black Arrow programme should be stopped, that we should support the full development of the X4 satellite and that for the launching of small satellites we should in the future rely on the American Scout launcher. The Prime Minister had been doubtful about the impact of this decision on future European collaboration in science and technology, particularly as the French were developing their own launcher the Diamant. Since then however the political difficulties have largely dissolved. The Diamant programme had now been deferred and the French were themselves using the Scout launcher this year.

The Prime Minister and the other Ministers present, agreed that the proposals originally approved by the Science and Technology Committee in May should now be implemented, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said he did not think that the cancellation of Black Arrow would be deemed inconsistent with anything the government had said when in opposition; there had been no commitment to back any project which was not successful.

The Minister for Aerospace said he thought that the announcement of the decision would not cause great surprise and could be done by an Answer to an arranged Written Question.

The Prime Minister agreed to this and suggested that the announcement should be as late as possible.

The rest, as they say, is history.

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