Tim Peake and British Space Rockets

The big news in science this week as far as this country goes, was Tim Peake’s blast-off yesterday to join the crew of the International Space Station. He’s the first Brit to travel into space for nearly twenty years. Helen Sharman in the 1990s was the first Briton to go into space in a privately-funded mission in Russia. Unfortunately, the private funding didn’t appear, and she only flew thanks to the generosity of the Russian government. Towards the end of the decade, Tim Foale also flew aboard the Space Shuttle. He was not, however, technically British, as in order to participate in American shuttle programme, he’d had to take American nationality.

The launch was covered by the Beeb in their Stargazing Live programme, and there was a countdown to the launch, featuring various Beeb celebs and personalities. Down here in Bristol, even the local news programme, Points West, got in on the act. Their anchor David Garmston interviewed an Asian lady, an astrophysicist working as the education director for the @Bristol Science Centre. She had joined the competition to become the first British astronaut for over a decade, and had reached the final six before sadly being rejected. She graciously said that the better person had won, and wished Peake all the best.

In fact, long before Helen Sharman, Foale and Peake voyaged into the Final Frontier, from the 1950s to the 1970s Britain was manufacturing and experimenting with space vehicles as easily the third space power apart from America and the USSR. The rockets launched by Britain, many of them from the Woomera launch city in Australia, were the Skylark, Skua and Jaguar sounding rockets, the Blue Streak missile, Black Arrow and Black Knight. There was also a projected larger launcher, Black Prince.

Skylark

Skylark Rocket

These rockets were developed at the suggestion of the Gassiot Committee of the Royal Society, which in the 1950s became interested in using rockets to study Earth’s upper atmosphere. The committee invited members of the Ministry of Supply to their 1953 conference on the subject, and the result was that they were contacted by the British government to see if there would be any interest in developing such a vehicle. And from this came the Skylark programme.

These rockets were 25 feet long and 17.4 inches in diameter. They were built by the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough and the Rocket Propulsion Establishment, Westcott, which made the Raven solid rocket motor which powered it. The first Skylark rocket was launched from Woomera in 1957. By 1965 over 100 such rockets had been launched. The rocket was modified, and the Raven motor replaced by the more efficient Cuckoo, so that it could lift a payload of 330 pounds 136 miles into space.

The rocket has been used to study wind, the temperature of the upper atmosphere, the ionosphere, radiation and micro-meteorites.

Skua

Skua Rocket

This is another sounding rocket used to study the atmosphere. It was 8 feet long, 80 pounds in weight, but could carry a payload of 11 pound 46 miles into the atmosphere. Like today’s hobby rockets, it was re-usable, coming back to Earth via parachute, so that it could be given another load of charge and used again. A second variant of the rocket, Skua 2, could take the same payload up to 62 miles. The rocket was built by Bristol Aerojet, and was launched from a 32 foot long tube mounted on a Bedford truck.

Jaguar

This was developed to research the problems of aerodynamics and heating in hypersonic flight. It was a three stage rocket developed by the Aerodynamics Department of the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, and the Aerodynamics Division of the Weapons Research Establishment in Australia. The rocket motors for the vehicle were produced by the Rocket Propulsion Establishment at Westcott.

The first stage was powered by a Rook motor, which takes the rocket to 80,000 ft. The second stage Gosling motor is fired, which increases the rocket’s speed from 3,000 ft/s to 5,500 ft/s. After this is used up, the final stage Lobster motor accelerates the rocket to 10,000 ft/s. It was capable of taking 20 pounds to an altitude of 500-600 miles.

Black Knight

Black Knight Rockets

This was developed as the test vehicle for Blue Streak, an independent nuclear missile launcher. Blue Streak was abandoned in 1960, partly because they wouldn’t be anywhere in Britain suitable to launch it from in the event of a nuclear attack. Black Knight, however, continued to be developed as rocket for scientific research. It was used for a further five years to study problems in re-entry, the upper atmosphere and carry experiments later incorporated into UK and US joint scientific satellites.

The rocket came in single and two-stage versions. The single stage version was powered by a Gamma 201 liquid rocket motor burning a mixture of High Test Peroxide and Kerosene. It was 32 ft 10 in. in length, and three feet in diameter. The rocket could reach a maximum height of 147 missiles. The rocket motor was produced by Armstrong Siddeley, and based on an existing Gamma motor developed by the RPD at Westcott.

The two-stage version of the rocket were flown from August 1964 to 25th November 1965. It was 38 ft 8 in. in length. The first stage rocket motor was powered by a Gamma 301 engine, and then by a Gamma 304, developed by Bristol Siddeley. The second stage was powered by a version of the Skylark’s Cuckoo motor, and was three feet long and 1.4 feet in diameter. It was fire back into the atmosphere so that the effect of the re-entry speeds could be studied.

A larger version of Black Knight using Gamma 303/4 motors in a vehicle 54 in. in diameter was under development in Bristol in 1963. There was also a plan to build a three stage rocket, Black Prince. This was to use Blue Streak as its first stage, a 54 inch Black Knight as the second stage and then a small, solid rocket third stage. The rocket would be 97 ft 10 in. tall, and be able to send 1,750 pound satellite into polar orbit 300 miles above the Earth.

Between September 1958 and November 1965 22 Black Knight rockets were launched from Woomera. Saunders Roe on the Isle of Wight were responsible for the rocket’s overall design, construction and testing. Armstrong Siddeley of Ansty, near Coventry, were responsible for the rocket engine, and De Havilland of Hatfield were to supply the test team at Woomera. The rockets were subjected to systems checks at Highdown on the Isle of Wight, before being flown or shipped out to Woomera.

BK 10, the spare for the rocket BK 11, was returned to Britain, and donated to the Science Museum, while High Down is now the property the National Trust.

Blue Streak

Blue Streak Rocket

Although it was cancelled as an independent nuclear weapon, there was an attempt to salvage it by using it as the proposed first stage for the proposed European rocket launcher, Europa 1. It was built by Hawker-Siddeley Dynamics and Rolls Royce. It had a Rolls Royce RZ-2 engine, burning a mixture of kerosene and liquid oxygen to produce 300,000 pounds of thrust. Unfortunately, this also came to nothing as the European rocket launcher project was cancelled due to the failures of our European partners to produce effective, functioning second and third stages.

Black Arrow

Black Arrow Rocket

After the cancellation of the Black Knight programme, Britain continued developing its own independent satellite launcher. This was Black Arrow, a three stage rocket standing 42 feet 9 inches tall. The main contractor for the spacecraft was Westland Aircraft, which was famous in the West Country for manufacturing helicopters. The first stage was powered by a Rolls-Royce Gamma Type 8 engine, burning hydrogen peroxide and kerosene. The second used a Rolls-Royce Gamma Type 2 engine, while the third was powered by a solid propellant rocket, Waxwing, made by Bristol Aerojet. Sadly, the project was cancelled after it successfully launched the 220 pound Prospero satellite into a 300 mile polar orbit in November 1971.

And Now the Politics Bit

These projects were cancelled and the accumulated knowledge effectively thrown away, because the mandarins at the British Civil Service saw no value in them. They were considered too expensive, and it was believed that using American rocket launchers would be a cheaper and more cost-effective option. In fact Britain has lost out because, at least in the 1990s, it looked as if there was going to be an international market in space vehicles. Even the Indians were developing them. The launch of British satellites by the Americans meant that Britain depended on their goodwill and available space aboard their rockets.

The French, who I believe were responsible for the second stage of Europa I, the European rocket launcher, forged ahead to produce the cheap and successful Ariane, launched from their site in Kourou, French Guiana. The French rocket is actually cheaper, and more economical, than the Space Shuttle. The Shuttle, however, had the advantage in that it was heavily subsidised by the American government.

It’s therefore ironic that David Cameron should try to show the world how keenly he is supporting a British astronaut, when this is precisely what British governments have failed to do since the 1970s. Maggie Thatcher was all for Helen Sharman’s voyage into space, as that was supposed to be managed by private enterprise. Until private enterprise wasn’t able to do the job. Cameron’s government has carried on this daft and destructive policy of closing down Britain’s manufacturing base, and preferring to buy in from outside rather than develop our own industries. Way back in the 1960s Harold Wilson made a speech about Britain benefiting from the ‘white heat of technology’. Those in power never listened to him, and despite Cameron mugging on Twitter, they still aren’t. You can see that from the way they’ve sold off our industries, including the defence contractors that were able to create such magnificent machines as Black Arrow. And our country is much the poorer.

Further Reading

The Encyclopaedia of Space (Hamlyn: 1968)

John Becklake, ‘British Rocket Experiments in the Late 1950s/Early 1960s in John Becklake, ed., History of Rocketry and Astronautics (San Diego: American Astronautical Society 1995) 153-64.

John Becklake, ‘The British Black Knight Rocket’, op. cit. 165-81.

T.M. Wilding-White, Janes Pocket Book : Space Exploration.

In this clip below, Alice Roberts from the Beeb’s Coast TV series, interviews members of the Black Arrow team on the Isle of Wight. One of them tells her how he was told to tell the rest of the team the project was cancelled and they were sacked immediately after the launch. Hansard, the parliamentary newspaper, records that the mandarin, who made the decision did so because he could see absolutely no future in the development of satellite launchers.

Here’s a British newsreel report on the Blue Streak programme from 1964. It shows the rocket being tested at Spadeadam in Scotland, and its launch in Woomera. It talks about the European Rocket Launcher programme, and some of the dignitaries attending the launch, such as the French general in charge of the European project. It also shows what a thriving community Woomera was back then, and follows Mrs Lawrence, a housewife with a part-time job as a camera operator tracking the rocket on its launch, as she goes on her 300 mile commute each day from home to the launch site.

It recalls the era as one of optimism, of a time when Australia itself, its rugged landscape and sheer vastness, were a source of fascination and wonder to Brits, long before the arrival of soap and pop stars like Kylie Minogue.

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9 Responses to “Tim Peake and British Space Rockets”

  1. Tim Peake and British Space Rockets | Beastrabban’s Weblog | sdbast Says:

    […] https://beastrabban.wordpress.com/2015/12/17/tim-peake-and-british-space-rockets/ […]

  2. Ulysses Says:

    Etonians. They know the price of everything and the value of nowt.

    Merry Christmas, beast, BTW

  3. James *Jason* Wentworth Says:

    You forgot one other British sounding rocket–Petrel, which was wider and longer than the Skua, had six fins, and was designed to use the same tube launchers as the Skua. The Petrel also utilized multiple Chick booster motors to accelerate it at launch, as it–like the Skua–was powered by a low-thrust, long-burn motor with an end-burning (also called “cigarette-burning”) propellant grain. In addition to being used as a sounding rocket, the Petrel was also used as a ballistic target by the Royal Navy (and possibly also by other nations’ navies), serving as a mock enemy ballistic missile arriving on a shallow trajectory, against which defensive missiles and their launch crews could be exercised; it was used in this role until at least the 1980s or 1990s.

  4. James *Jason* Wentworth Says:

    Regarding the Skua, it was partly reusable. The main rocket itself (the end-burning Bantam sustainer motor, with its rear fin assembly) was never, to my knowledge, recovered and reused, but the Chick booster motors (which fell quite close to the launcher, and–in some multi-Chick booster variants–were lowered gently to the ground via parachute) were sometimes recovered and reused. The payloads could potentially have been reused if they descended under parachutes (which many did [under metallized parachutes], to permit radar tracking of high-altitude winds and–perhaps as a “bonus”–to prolong their on-board temperature-sensing instruments’ data-collecting time in those regions), but I’m not aware of any being recovered and reused, and:

    Since most Skuas were fired from coastal launch sites, their payloads usually landed in the sea, from which recovery (and then refurbishment) of the payloads would probably have been more costly and troublesome than launching a new payload. Having been manufactured in some quantity like weather balloon radiosonde payloads, the Skua meteorological rocket payloads (other, special-purpose science payloads were sometimes flown instead, including by other countries; the Petrel also did this type of work both in and outside of Great Britain) had a fairly low unit cost.

  5. Beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for the info, James *Jason* Wentworth. I’m afraid my information on the sounding rockets is rather limited, coming from books published very many years ago. So thanks for adding these further details on these great rockets.

  6. James *Jason* Wentworth Says:

    You’re most welcome. I’m a published space flight historian in Fairbanks, Alaska in the USA (I was the volunteer historian for the Poker Flat Research Range, a sounding rocket launch site 30 miles north of town), and I’ve been trading information with other space historians for many years. Sounding rockets–and British ones in particular–are relatively obscure, and this, plus the fact that they make excellent scale modeling subjects in model rocketry, makes them interesting and attractive to folks like us. Also:

    I’m saddened that Great Britain, a nautical nation, engaged in only brief exploration–in the ^orbital^ sense (using domestically-manufactured space hardware)–of “This New Ocean,” as President Kennedy referred to space, despite having so many highly-talented and enthusiastic engineers and scientists. No other nation has launched only *one* satellite and then abandoned that capability, but hopefully this state of affairs in Britain will change. The clean yet powerful HTP (High Test Peroxide)/kerosene rocket technology that was pioneered by Black Knight and Black Arrow (an excellent smallsat launcher, if revived and updated) would be ideal for today’s small and large satellite launch needs.

    — Jason

  7. Stephanie Lawton Says:

    Hi I work as a volunteer Exhibition Officer at the Solway Aviation Museum,Carlisle, Cumbria (Registered Charity). I would like to ask if you would grant me permission to use the image of the Blue Steak on low loader, as part of a display I am putting together. .
    I would acknowledge copyright etc
    Thanking you in anticipation.

    • beastrabban Says:

      I’d be glad to, but it’s not my piccie, unfortunately. I took it from one of the books I read on spacecraft a few years ago. If you like, I’ll go and see if I can find it, and put the publishers details up so that you can contact them.:)

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