British Rockets and Satellite Launchers.

The inspiration for this site comes from two sources : an interview with Professor James of Reading University, and a life long interest in the space program. Whilst being interviewed by Prof James when applying for his M.A. course, we got on to the subject of Dan Dare, and one of the points that he made was that it was inherently improbable that the Spacefleet of the future would have been based in the U.K. - as he puts it in his book, "Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century" [Oxford], "it gave a whole generation of British boys ... a totally false impression that Britain was going to dominate the space race." Similarly, many writers who have tried to establish a Dan Dare timeline have started a long way back. But I would submit that it was not inconceivable to Frank Hampson in 1949 to imagine that Britain, even it wouldn't "dominate the space race", would still be a considerable player.

Frank Hampson in the 1953 Space Annual mentions that it was the sight of the vapour trails of V2s that he glimpsed from the docks at Antwerp that first put the idea into his mind. Dan Dare was still to be a long way in the future. And the concept of a "space race" wouldn't come about until the launch of Sputnik in 1957, an event that galvanised the USA into action on many fronts, one of which was to culminate in the Apollo landings of 1969 - altho they have come to be seen as a dead end ... as has the Shuttle . Back in 1949, Frank went along with the prevalent British view that Britain was still a world power of considerable significance [which claimed to be one of the "Big Three" for some years to come], and altho space flight was very much beyond the foreseeable future, it would be reasonable for Britain to be playing a major role.

There are many reasons why, by the start of the 1970s, Britain had dropped out of the space program almost completely. But back in 1949, Britain was almost on a par technologically with the USA, and ahead of any other country. The USSR was never to match the level of Western technology, and relied for many of its successes on relatively unsophisticated equipment that relied on size rather than subtlety. Indeed, British designs of the 50s and 60s were to pop up in odd Cyrillic guises - the VC10 and Concorde being two examples. For a time in the 70s and 80s it looked as though Russian technology was becoming increasingly sophisticated - as in nuclear submarines, for example - but the collapse of Communism revealed the weaknesses of Soviet achievements.

The countries which were to dominate Europe and Asia in the second part of the twentieth century, Germany and Japan, were still in 1949 rebuilding after the disaster of the War. It is a matter for debate whether Germany and Japan put so much effort in rebuilding so as to compensate for their defeat, whereas Britain rested too much on the laurels of victory. Certainly both countries have outstripped the U.K. by most conventional economic indicators.

But the USA had benefitted enormously from the war. Factories had produced material for the US armed forces and for many other countries, and had benefitted from the massive influx of capitol from the UK, which was forced to liquidate too many of its assets to pay for war material. Not only did the US benefit economically, but it also absorbed a large number of emigre European scientists pre war and during the war. The decision was taken at the Churchill/Roosevelt level to share nuclear technology and to base it in the US for fear of invasion of the UK or of bomb damage. And where would the US space program have been without Wehrner von Braun after the war?

Jet technology was licenced to the US by the U.K. towards the end of the war, as was radar technology. In 1949 Britain was pushing ahead with the world's first jet airliner [and experiencing the trauma of being the first to discover the fatal effects of metal fatigue; an experience that was to ruin the Comet's chances of success. But the basic design of the airframe was so effective that a variant is still in service with the RAF in the form of the Nimrod aircraft - 50 years of design life is a considerable achievement.]. The landspeed/waterspeed records were to pass to and from the UK and US for the next ten years [and the landspeed record is now back with the UK]. The Fairey Delta was to take the record by a handsome margin. Despite the US reneging on its wartime committment to share nuclear technology [the MacMahon Act], Britain went ahead to build various nuclear reactors culminating in the AGRs [Advanced Gas Cooled Reactors], despite the Windscale fiasco [a botched design for a reactor. Plutonium had to be made in large quantities and quickly; too many corner were cut.].

In aircraft design, Britain was producing the Lightning fighter and the V bombers in the late 40s/early 50s, and would go on to produce the Harrier and the Concorde. The Canberra [some of which were still be used by Argentina in the Falklands in 1982, and indeed, in a photoreconnaissance role in Afghanistan in 2001] and the Hunter were genuine world best sellers. The TSR 2 was a technical success, would probably have been a military success, but was dubiously for Britain economically, and fell foul of the Wilson Government in 1965. This, as much as anything, showed that there were worrying signs as to the ability of the U.K. to keep up.

The US plane makers and airlines had always been privately owned, with all the commercial pressures that that entailed. Britain's airlines had been rationalised and nationalised by the Attlee Government, and it can be argued that BEA and BOAC, whilst highly effective, lacked those commercial pressures. And they were under pressure all the time to "Buy British". The temptation for the aircraft manufacturers was to produce aircraft tailored to the airline's specifications - but this was not a formula to guarantee world wide sales, and the British market was too small to achieve any economies of scale, even in the days when there was a residuum of Empire that needed linking.

But the area in which the UK failed to enter in any meaningful way was semiconductor electronics, and this was left entirely to the US and to Japan. If there was any one great postwar failure, this must rank as a very strong candidate. It is also impossible to point to any one event or decision that excluded the U.K - it was more a simple matter of failing to become engaged, and of firms being too slow on their feet to keep up. Attempts were made by Government to spur on the electronics industry, notably with INMOS and the Transputer, but they were shortlived. More interesting have been the infatuations the British population has had with computing from time to time, particularly with home computers in the 1980s.

And the atmosphere of postwar British technological development was dominated by Whitehall, by civil servants, often with no scientific education, and various Government advisers. The Government scientific advisers were academics to a man, and the effect of having someone with axes to grind in a position of authority can be seen in the often baleful effect Lindemann had on Churchill. There were none of the American entreprenereul academics such as the founders of Hewlett Packard, or a generation later, Microsoft. British academic tradition was not so much hostile to as oblivious of the commercial effects of its work. No British scientist has become a millionaire, with the possible exception of Clive Sinclair, who is perhaps the closest the UK has produced to a Bill Gates. But Clive Sinclair was considered an oddball at the time, and has had little or no long term effect. An example of Whitehall direction of research came when Miles Aircraft were forbidden to continue with work on a supersonic aircraft because the Government's chief scientist considered it too dangerous.

All of which is a roundabout way of coming to Britain's efforts in rocket technology. A successful program that ran for many years was Skylark, originally designed to investigate the upper atmosphere for meteorological purposes. This was powered by solid fuel boosters, was simple and effective in design, and highly successful. In addition, work had been carried on postwar on the use of High Test Peroxide - HTP - highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide - as an oxidant, following on from the Messcherschmidt work on its rocket aircraft, the Me163. The HTP was decomposed to steam and oxygen on a platinum catalyst, and burnt with a fuel. The Germans used hydrazine, the British were to use kerosene. The work was to be done by Sanders Roe in Cowes on the Isle of Wight, and the test beds can still be clearly seen on High Down as you sail out past the Needles lighthouse. The rocket engines were to find various uses - the SR53 hybrid jet/rocket interceptor and the Blue Steel stand off bomb being two examples, but in the mid 50s, the technology was to power Britain's first liquid fuelled ballistic rocket, Black Knight. And this would prove to be an almost completely indigenous design.

To understand the need for Black Knight, we have to take a step back. By 1951, the US, UK, and USSR were all nuclear powers. In the 40s, these weapons would have been delivered by aircraft, but these long range bombers were becoming increasingly vulnerable with the improvements in radar and in missile technology. At the end of the war, Germany had operational versions of the V1 and V2 missiles. There were various plans for anti aircraft missiles, but all of these systems were lacked sophisticated guided systems, and often relied on sheer numbers. But control technology was constantly improving, with radio controlled, radar guided, or infra heat seeking systems all becoming possible. Indeed, the success of such missiles enabled the USSR to down an American spyplane in 1961, giving Krushchev an enormous propaganda coup. And Britain, as America's unsinkable aircraft carrier, was highly vulnerable to atomic attack. The British Bloodhound missile of the 50s, designed to protect the V bomber bases, was one such response. And the increasing sophistication of control systems meant that it now possible to lob nuclear warheads ballistically for thousands of miles. If Britain was still to be one of the "Big Three", it had to have that option too.

So the decision was taken to build an indigenous MRBM [Medium Range Ballistic Missile], Blue Streak. The design was to be very conventional - it was to burn LOX [liquid oxygen] and kerosene. The technology for all of this was not new although much further developed - it could be seen as an advanced V2 - but the difficulty would lie in the warhead guidance, and the ballistic nature of the weapon. To reach such a distance, the warhead would have to be accelerated to suborbital velocities, clear of the atmosphere. This meant re-entry at hypersonic speeds, with the consequent shockwaves and kinetic frictional heating. It was for research into this latter aspect that Black Knight was concerned.

And this was, in one of the contemporary cliches, certainly cutting edge technology : if the US and USSR had successfully analysed the problems, then the UK wasn't to be far behind. However, the UK did have one geographical problem : the lack of any large empty spaces to fire such vehicles and recover the re-entry vehicle.

Australia had provided a testbed for such British research since the end of the war, with the UK atom tests, and then the weapons/guided missile work, which was centered on Woomera in South Australia. Black Knight was designed to fire re-entry vehicles back into the atmosphere at high speeds. The first stage was to be HTP/kerosene powered, with a solid fuel booster as a second stage. This could either be fired upward to an even greater altitude, or fired downwards as the system began to fall back to Earth; both techniques having the purpose of increasing the velocity with which the dummy warhead re-entry vehicle met the atmosphere. The vehicle's success meant that Britain achieved a single stage rocket altitude record in 1958, after the launching of both Sputnik and Explorer - quite a considerable achievement.

At this time, the UK Government was not interested in satellite technology. Sputnik seemed to be an interesting experiment, and certainly scared the US rigid, but didn't appear to have much significant application. Instead, the much more limited objective was to provide a atom bomb delivery system - and in those Cold war days, it had to have the range to reach Moscow if it was to be credible. However, the chosen design, Blue Streak, was to have an Achilles' heel of considerable proportions.

Given Britain's geographical location, it would have just 4 minutes warning by radar that a launch of an ICBM from Russia had occurred. Given the US's position, it had considerably longer - perhaps 15 minutes. In addition, launch sites in the US could be scattered around in remote areas. Britain was far too small for that. And given Britain's size, it would be possible for the USSR to inflict immense damage in a nuclear attack with relatively few warheads. So what was really needed was a missiles that could be protected and could be launched in less than 4 minutes. A cryogenic liquid oxygen system was one of the worst possible options from this point of view, as it could not be kept permanently fuelled. A system was devised so that LOX could be blown into the tanks under pressure in a space of a minute or so, but it was born of desperation. America recognised the problem, and built the Titan missile, powered by dinitrogen tetroxide (N2O4) and UDMH [Unsymmetrical DiMethyl Hydrazine, NH2.N(CH3)2], which had the added advantage of being hypergolic [they ignite spontaneously on contact], and the Minuteman, which was solid fuel powered.

So in addition to the cost of the missiles and the warheads came the cost of the silos, deep underground re-inforced launch sites; and silos which were difficult to defend, would be prime atom bomb targets yet next to large centres of population, housing a missile which might not be launched in time. It was all too much. Blue Streak was cancelled. But something had to replace it. The MacMillan Government arranged to buy Skybolt from the US, an air launched stand off missile, so called because it could be fired from many miles away. But that was cancelled by the US Secretary of Defense, Macnamara. Eventually Macmillan persuaded Kennedy to sell the UK the Polaris missile. The submarine was to be the best option for a strategic nuclear delivery system. Although the missiles were to be American, the submarine itself and the warheads were to be British [ a minor scandal erupted when it was disclosed that the Callaghan government spent close on a thousand million pounds on Chevaline, a programme designed to overwhelm the Moscow ABM system, without informing Parliament].

So what was to be done with the work so far carried out with Black Knight and Blue Streak? Black Knight had fulfilled its brief admirably, with hardly a hitch in any of its 22 launches. All the design work for Blue Streak had been done, prototypes had been built, so what now? One logical idea was to use the completed system to make a satellite launcher. This could be developed in various ways - add Black Knight on top of Blue Streak [Black Prince - see later]. Black Knight itself could be developed further - and was, to Black Arrow, which lead to the U.K.'s only satellite launched with a British launcher. But the Government turned to Europe, for two reasons. One was political, to show ourselves "good Europeans", and joint ventures - Euratom, the Jaguar aircraft, Concorde - were in vogue. The other was to share the cost. So the European Launcher Development Organisation - ELDO - was born. The launcher was to be Blue Streak, with a French second stage and a German third stage. Eleven Blue Streaks were launched with varying configurations. The Blue Streak part of the launcher was almost uniformly successful. No satellites were launched, due to failure elsewhere. Then the organisation collapsed and the Blue Streak rocket with it.

What of the Black Knight development? The Black Arrow project was put into hand. Prototypes were built. Then this too was cancelled. A satellite was launched in 1971 with the hardware left over. British Government involvement in space research came effectively to an end at that point. There was to be a Services satellite communication system, Skynet, that relied on US launchers, but that was it.

There are several infuriating aspects to all of this. To produce a missile, and then realise it was the wrong missile. To convert it to a satellite launcher, one that looked to be highly successful, and then to cancel again. And the cancellation took place in the late 60s, when the uses of satellites in TV [the Tokyo Olympics of '64 were the first to be transmitted by satellite], telephone communications, weather observation were becoming apparent and obvious. But the 60s were the time when many advanced British projects were cancelled in the post imperial decline. And Britain was to lose from there on any real pretensions to technological innovation; in space, in electronics, and in too many other areas...

The topics above are covered in much greater detail in my book, A Vertical Empire.

Nicholas Hill.

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