Posts Tagged ‘Satellites’

Arthur C. Clarke Book on the Terraforming of Mars

March 18, 2017

Arthur C. Clarke – The Snows of Olympus: A Garden on Mars – The Illustrated History of Man’s Colonization of Mars (London: Victor Gollancz 1994).

A little while ago I put up a number of articles on the possible terraforming of various planets in our solar system. The prime candidate at the moment would be Mars, but people have also suggested ways to terraform Venus and the Moon. I’ve managed to dig out from my bookshelves a copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s book, The Snows of Olympus, which I bought way back in the 1990s. Clarke’s been called ‘The Space Prophet’ because of his article published in a radio hobbyists’ magazine shortly after the War predicting geostationary communications satellites. He has jokingly said in an article ‘How I Lost a Million Dollars in My Spare Time’ that he should have patented the concept, and so made himself a billionaire because of its immense value to the telecommunications industry. This book is no less prophetic in that it uses computer simulations to depict the gradual greening of the Red Planet over a thousand year period from the next few centuries to c. 3000.

The book has a prologue, in which Clarke gives the text of a speech he gave to future Martian colonists as part of the Planetary Society’s ‘Visions of Mars Project’. Launched by the late and much-missed astronomer and space visionary, Carl Sagan, this was a project to send the future colonists the gift of a collection of SF short stories about Mars aboard two probes due to land there. There’s then a short introduction in which Clarke lays out the aims of the book. The first chapter, ‘Prelude to Mars’, discusses the history of the exploration of the Red Planet by terrestrial astronomers and writers, such as Giovanni Schiaparelli, Percival Lowell, H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, C.S. Lewis in Out of the Silent Planet, and the controversy surrounding the supposed ‘face’ on Mars, made by Richard Hoagland and others.

Chapter 2 – ‘The Curtain Rises’ – is on the probes sent to explore Mars, such as the Mariner probes and discussion between himself, Sagan, Ray Bradbury and the JPL’s Bruce Murray at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the probes and their findings. He goes on to discuss Viking probes and the debate about American and Russian cooperative ventures in space research. This last ended for a time because of international tensions created by the Solidarity crisis in Poland.

Chapter 3 – ‘Going There’, describes the problems and suggested methods for reaching Mars, establishing crewed bases there, including various types of rocket from the conventional chemical to nuclear-thermal and atomic; solar sails and space elevators, George Bush seniors’ intention to launch a crewed mission to Mars by 2019, and the tasks that would immediately face the astronauts landing there.

Chapter 4- ‘Virtual Explorations’ is on the use of computers and VR to explore and map Mars, and particularly the Vistapro programme used in the generation of many of the images in the book.

Chapter 5 is on the artistic and computer depictions of Olympus Mons, the planet’s highest mountain and the gradual reclamation of its surface by vegetation, beginning with lichens, during the long centuries of terraforming. This culminates in the emergence of liquid water and creation of a sea surrounding the mountain.

Chapter 6 does the same for Eos Chasma, the ‘Chasm of the Dawn’, in the Valles Marineris.

Chapter 7 shows the same process as it would affect the Noctes Labyrinthes – the Labyrinth of Night. This forecasts the growth of forests in this part of Mars, beginning with pines but later including deciduous trees.

Chapter 8 – ‘The Longest Spring’ discusses the various methods that could be used to terraform Mars, such as coating the ice caps with carbon from Mars’ moon, Phobos, the use of orbiting mirrors to melt them, raising its temperature by turning Phobos into a miniature sun for about 40 days using ‘muon resonance’ – a form of nuclear reaction, and bombarding the planet with comets to cover it with water, and ‘Von Neumann’ machines that would gradually terraform the planet automatically.

‘Disneymars’ looks forward to a museum display and audiovisual presentation that would show the colonists what their planet would look like in the future as the terraforming progresses.

Chapter 9 – ‘Concerning Ends and Means’ discusses the moral dimension of terraforming, the immense historical importance of exploration and the need to continue this exploration to the Red Planet in order to preserve human civilisation and progress.

There are two appendices. The first is an extract from a speech, The Mars Project: Journeys beyond the Cold War, by US senator and WWII hero, Spark Matsunaga. The second, ‘So You’re Going to Mars’, is fictional advice given by the immigration authorities to people moving from Earth to Mars.

The quality of the computer graphics is mixed. Many of them, which were without doubt absolutely astonishing for the time, now look rather crude and dated as the technology has improved. Others, however, still stand up very well even today. The quality of the computer simulations of the terraforming process can be seen from this image below of what Eos Chasma might look like in 2500 AD.

There are also plenty of illustrations of Mars, rendered using more traditional artistic methods such as painting, including photos of Percival Lowell’s own drawings of what he believed was the planet’s network of canals.

Although the computer tools may have been superseded and improved in the decades since the book’s publication, I think the science, and the social issues Clarke discusses, are still solidly relevant and contemporary. Certainly there is now a popular movement to send humans to the Red Planet at some point in the coming decades, and prospective future colonists have even come forward to volunteer a few years ago. There is, however, a greater awareness of the medical dangers from radiation and microgravity that would affect – and possibly destroy – a mission to Mars. The dream, however, is still there, as shown by the success of the film The Martian a few years ago.

Vox Political on Those, Who Believed Blair’s Lies about Iraq

July 5, 2016

Yesterday Gloria de Piero, one of the Blairites, published a piece in the Scum calling on ‘moderate’ Labour supporters to join the party to vote out Jeremy Corbyn. Mike over at Vox Political has put up a piece today quoting a piece by one of those, who has, and asking if the person, who wrote it is really as left-leaning as they seem, and do people want someone like that in the Labour party?

The author of the piece seems to have been taken in by all the vile Blairite spin and propaganda. Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters are racist, anti-Semitic and misogynistic, and have no interest in doing anything positive for the people of this country. They also state that they joined the party because they supported the invasion of Iraq and the consequent overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Curiously, they seem to believe that Iraq is now a genuinely functioning democracy. The invasion, they declare, is one of the UK’s finest achievements since World War II. And then they proudly announce that they’re deliberately rejoining the Labour party on the 4th July, stating that the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, should also be our aspiration.

Blairite Atlanticism and the Worship of the American Constitution

Looking at the piece, it’s so over the top that I genuinely wonder if whoever wrote really is an ordinary member of the public. Blair and his cronies, including Broon, Ed Balls and so on, were fervent supporters of America. Blair himself was a product of the Reaganite British-American Project for the Successor Generation, or BAP. This was set up by the Gipper in the 1980s to train the next generation of British politicians to support the Atlantic Alliance. Its alumni went on courses in America to study the country’s political traditions. Before Blair went on one of these jaunts, he was a supporter of CND. After he came back, he was very definitely in favour of Britain keeping its nuclear deterrence. Broon and Balls also studied at American universities. And in government, Blair was so keen to emulate JFK or Roosevelt, I forget quite which, that he and Mandelson called each other by the names of those politicos.

There are many people, who would like Britain to have a written constitution, so that we can hold our rulers to account when they break it, or traduce reasonable standards of democracy. But the idealisation of the American Constitution and the Declaration of Independence tends to be far more characteristic of the American Right, who love the idea of limited government, the defence of private property and gun rights. Cameron’s statement that he wants to repeal European human rights legislation and replace it with a British Bill of Rights looks like an attempt to introduce that aspect of American political culture over here. Especially as very many of the Conservatives also have business and political connections in America, and admire the American tradition of laissez-faire capitalism and minimal worker’s rights and welfare state.

The Undemocratic Invasion of Iraq

Then there’s that rubbish about Blair’s invasion of Iraq being the greatest of this country’s achievements since the Second World War. This is quite preposterous. I can think of many better achievements: the setting up of the welfare state, decolonisation and the transformation of the Empire into the Commonwealth (with caveats), the abolition of the death penalty and the launch of the Black Knight British-Australian space rocket, which put a British-built satellite in orbit in 1975. Other greater British achievements I would argue include Jodrell Bank, Jocelyn Bell-Purnell’s discovery of Pulsars, Crick and Watson’s discovery of the structure of DNA and the Mini. Oh yes, and the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and the sheer fact that Ozzie Osborne is still with us. In fact, just about everything peaceful Britain has done after World War II, which hasn’t involved us invading anyone or stealing their industries and resources.

Which is what happened in the invasion of Iraq.

Of course, there were and presumably still are people, who’ve been taken in by Blair’s lies. That he had weapons of mass destruction. Which he didn’t. That he was ready to invade at 45 minutes notice. He wasn’t. That he aided Osama bin Laden. A really grotesque lie – Hussein was a secular nationalist. Bin Laden hated his regime and everything it stood for.

And the greatest lie of all: that the war was fought for democracy. This one, the worst of them all, had some plausibility because Hussein was indeed a brutal dictator. He gassed the Kurds when they rose up, and massacred the Shi’a minority. He was a brutal thug. And he had started out as our thug. He was on the American’s payroll to assassinate leading Iraqi politicians in the 1950s, but was never able to carry it off, and escaped back into Syria. See the book A Brutal Friendship on how bloody the relationship between Britain and the comprador elites in the Arab nations really is. The invasion of Iraq also formed part of a narrative in which Britain unselfishly sends her troops all over the world to give evil foreign dictators a good kicking and liberate their grateful peoples. That was the way Gladstone sold the Empire to us in the 19th century, even when members of his cabinet were writing ‘a love of empire is a love of war’. It was the rationale behind Britain sending troops to Bosnia and Kosovo to fight the Serbs and protect the local Muslim populations. Many liberals no doubt supported the invasion because they genuinely believed it was, for all its faults, another humanitarian police action. There was even a book, reviewed in Lobster, which aimed to present a Socialist case for the Neocons’ foreign policy.

But it was never about democracy. It was simply about oil. And Israel, and pure economic imperialism.

The Republicans in America and Israel’s Likud party had put together joint plans for the invasion of Iraq way back in the 1990s. Hussein was arming and supporting the Palestinians. The oil barons wanted him out the way, as his erratic policy on oil exports was causing massive fluctuations in price. And both the Americans and the Saudis wanted to get their mitts on the Iraqi oil industry and its reserves, which are the largest outside Saudi Arabia itself. And the Neocons wanted to privatise the Iraqi economy so that American multinationals could loot all the profitable Iraqi state enterprises, and they could play at real politicians by creating their low tax, free trade state.

The result has been sheer, unmitigated chaos. The results of the American economic policy has been that the Iraqi unemployment rate shot up to 60%. Community relations between the various tribes and sects in Iraq has been destroyed. There are peace walls – barricades – between the Sunni and Shi’a quarters of Baghdad, which didn’t exist before. Members of the American armed forces, who are supposed to be paragons and democratic virtue, instead behave as Nazis. The real-life soldier, who formed the basis for the hero in Clint Eastwood’s Sniper, was a racist butcher. The mess he ate and drank in was festooned with Nazi insignia, and the army, to the shock of one of Obama’s diplomats, is permeated with a deep, visceral hatred and contempt for the Iraqi people. This goes far beyond hating the remnants of Hussein’s army, or the Islamist terrorists that have expanded into the power vacuum. It includes ordinary Iraqi civilians. The Sniper mentioned above claims to have shot ordinary Iraqis. One very senior American officer in charge of the occupying forces provided American aid to Sunni death squads, which murdered and terrorised the Shi’a. American squaddies and private military contractors – what in the old days we called ‘mercenaries’ – have been found running everything from prostitution rings. They’ve even gone on shooting sprees, committing drive-by killings of ordinary Iraqis just for fun.

And the country is less than a functioning democracy. It is effectively a US client state. Much of it has been taken over by the ISIS’ thugs, while the Iranians are also seeking to expand their influence with the country’s Shi’a. Some of this mess comes from the fact that George W. Bush, Blair’s Best Friend and the rest of the Neocons had no clue about Arab and Middle Eastern politics and culture, beyond their own crappy ideology. And they believed the lies spouted by one Ahmed Chalabi, who claimed that he led the Iraqi resistance, and they would be welcomed as liberators when they invaded.

The invasion has not created a stable democracy. It has instead produced little beyond misery and carnage. It also amply demonstrates something Jacob Bronowski said in his blockbusting popular science series, The Ascent of Man. Clausewitz famously coined the phrase, ‘War is politics by other means’. Bronowski was a Fabian Socialist as well as a scientist, and had a much bleaker, colder view of armed conflict: ‘War is theft by other means’. In Iraq’s case, he was right.

A Blairite PR Piece?

Looking at the piece, it seems less to me to be a genuine statement by an ordinary member of the public, and more like another piece of PR guff from the Blairites. New Labour was notorious for spin and lies. After all, they ‘sexed up’ the ‘dodgy dossier’ with falsehoods in order to justify the invasion. And just because they’re out of power hasn’t stopped them carrying on. Jack Straw’s son’s PR outfit, Portland Communications, was behind the staged heckling of Jeremy Corbyn at a gay pride rally, and a T-shirt demanding the eradication of ‘Blairite vermin’ was the product of the fetid little mind of another Blairite, Anna Philips, and her pet ‘Creative Consultant and Media Guru’. One of Corbyn’s promises is that he intends to prosecute Blair for war crimes. Blair was on TV recently claiming he wasn’t worried, and trying to justify the debacle. But as this piece shows, clearly he and very many of his followers are worried.

Stephen Hawking on Why British Science Needs the EU

June 1, 2016

One of the many piece Mike put up on his site yesterday reported on Stephen Hawking’s statement that British science would be put at risk if we left the EU. Hawking was speaking as a guest on the show Good Morning Britain, and stated that the EU was good for British science for two reasons. Firstly, it allowed scientists and students from different countries to travel, thus sharing their skills, knowledge and experience. Without this exchange of personnel and ideas, Britain would be come isolated and remote from the centres of scientific endeavour. He also stated that British science benefited from generous funding from the European Union.

Another EU personality clash: Stephen Hawking vs Michael Gove. Who do YOU think should win?

Hawking’s views here are, unsurprisingly, exactly right. In fact, British intellectual culture has benefited from the exchange of staff and ideas from across the continent. Many, perhaps the majority, of unis today have teaching staff and students from elsewhere in the EU and the wider world. In the archaeology department at Bristol University four years ago, when I was studying for my postgraduate degree, there were staff from Greece, Portugal and Germany. There were also speakers at the regular postgraduate seminars from countries such as Austria and Belgium, apart from those from the other parts of the Anglophone world. These archaeologists reported on excavations they had carried out not only in their home countries, but also in places like Turkey, Egypt, Romania and the former USSR. Well some of this is no doubt possible without the umbrella of the EU, it’s made much easier with it.

And Britain does benefit from the international contacts the EU brings at a corporate and financial level. ESA, the European Space Agency, operates a system of a juste retour. Under this system, the countries that contribute the most funding to a European space project get the most contracts for it. And we’ve missed out on the benefits of closer cooperation with the European Space Agency in the past. For example, we could have been much more involved with the Ariane satellite launcher. This was developed by France from the remains of the ESRO project to build a European launch vehicle. We developed our own launcher too, Black Knight, which successfully launched a British satellite in the 1970s, but was cancelled after its first mission. We could have had a place, or many more places for our satellites, aboard Ariane. Instead, some Whitehall mandarin decided that we should instead throw in our lot with the Americans’ space shuttle. Well, we suffered there, not just because of the horrific engineering problems with that space vessel, which resulted in the deaths of the crew of the Challenger and more recent fatalities. We also suffered because the launch of our satellites depended on whether there was space left over after the Americans had filled it with the experiments they wanted for their missions. Meanwhile, Ariane, quietly and successfully, carried other countries’ experiments and satellites into orbit, while we waited for the goodwill of the Americans.

And Ariane itself, the rocket launcher, is excellent value for money. It costs the same as the Space Shuttle to launch a satellite, but that’s only because the Space Shuttle was heavily subsidised by the US government. If you’re looking for something that justifies itself according to free market ideology, then it’s probably Ariane you’d go for.

Much of the cutting-edge, gosh-wow science that science educators love, because it captures young minds, like space, atomic physics and so on, is very expensive. I doubt whether the UK on its own could bear the cost of building a particle accelerator the size of CERN, or its rivals in America. So CERN was the result of collaboration between different European nations. And the importance of international contacts and intellectual mobility between countries is also underscored by the initial post-War success of American atomic physics. The Americans were able to build such huge nuclear reactors and accelerators, not just because they had the vast financial resources to afford them, but also because they benefited from the influx of all the scientists and engineers the Nazis had chased out of Central Europe.

Mike, following one of his esteemed commenters, asks who people should believe about science and Brexit, Stephen Hawking, or Michael Gove? Really, you don’t have to have read A Brief History of Time or understand the intricacies of N-dimensional String Theory to know the answer to that one. It’s definitely going to be Hawking.

Why I Believe Leaving the EU Will Be Particularly Bad for Bristol, Gloucestershire and Somerset

February 22, 2016

Since David Cameron raised the issue of the EU referendum last week, there’s been a flood of posts about the subject. I’ve blogged about the dangers to British workers and the middle class if we leave Europe, and the human and workers’ rights legislation contained in the EU constitution and treaties. The Lovely Wibbley Wobbley Old Lady has put up her piece explaining the issues involved in Britain leaving the EU, as have a number of others. In this piece I won’t discuss the general issues, just give some of my thought on why it would be disastrous for Bristol, Somerset, Gloucestershire, and areas like them elsewhere in Britain if the country decides to leave.

Firstly, Bristol is a port city. It’s not so much now, after the docks in Bristol have been closed to industry, and the port itself moved to better deep water facilities over in Avonmouth. Nevertheless, a sizable amount of trade goes through port facilities. The EU is Britain’s major trading partner, and my fear is that if Britain leaves Europe, trade will be hit, and the income and jobs generated by that trade will plummet. This will, of course, hit British industry generally, but it’ll also affect the ports as the centres of the import/export trade.

Bristol furthermore has a proud tradition of aerospace research through BAE and Rolls Royce at Filton. Further south in Somerset there is the former Westland helicopter firm, while in the Golden Mile in Gloucestershire there are engineering firms, such as Dowty, that specialise in aircraft instrumentation and control systems. The sheer cost of developing and manufacturing modern high-performance civil and military aircraft means that many of these projects are joint ventures between aviation companies across Europe. Airbus is one of the most obvious examples, as is the Eurofighter. And then, back in the 1970s, there was Concorde, which was a joint project between Britain and France. Hence the name. Parts of the aircraft were built in France, but the wings and a other components were manufactured here in Bristol.

The same is true of space exploration, and the satellites and probes sent up to the High Frontier. Several of these, or parts of them, have also been manufactured by British Aerospace at Filton. I’ve got a feeling the Giotto probe that was sent to investigate Halley’s Comet in 1986 was also partly made in Bristol. Again, like aviation, space travel can be enormously expensive. The costs are literally astronomical. So many of the space projects are joint ventures across Europe, between aerospace firms and contractors in Britain, France and Italy, for example. This was always the case going back to ESRO in the 1950s and ’60s. This was a joint European attempt to create a rocket launcher, involving Britain, France, Italy and Germany. Unfortunately the project collapsed, as the only section of the rocket that actually worked was the British first stage. Nevertheless, the French persevered, and out of its ashes came Ariane, launched from their base in Kourou in French Guyana.

ESA, the European Space Agency, operates under a system of ‘juste retour’. Under this system, the country that supplies the most funding for a particular project, gets most of the contracts to make it. Despite various noises about the importance of space exploration and innovation in science and technology by various administrations over the years, space research by and large has not been well-served by the British government and mandarins at Whitehall. It has a very low priority. Opportunities for British firms to benefit from European space research have been harmed by the British government’s reluctance to spend money in this area. I can remember one of Thatcher’s ministers proudly informing the great British public that they weren’t going to spend money just to put Frenchmen into space. It’s partly because of this attitude that it’s taken so long to put a British astronaut into space with Tim Foale. Those of us of a certain age can remember Helen Sharman’s trip into space with the Russians in the 1980s. This was supposed to be a privately funded joint venture with the Russians. It nearly didn’t happen because the monies that were supposed to come from British capitalism didn’t materialise, and in fact the Soviets took Sharman to the High Frontier largely as a favour.

The aerospace industry in Bristol and the West Country has contracted massively in the past few decades, as the aviation industry throughout Britain has declined along with the rest of our industrial base. I’m very much afraid that if we leave Europe, we will lose out on further commercial aerospace opportunities, and that part of Britain’s scientific, technological and industrial heritage will just die out. We were, for example, invited to take part in the development of Ariane, but the mandarins at Whitehall didn’t want to. Rather than invest in the French rocket, they thought we’d be better off hitching rides with the Americans. The problem with that is that the Americans naturally put their own interests first, and so tended to carry British satellites only when there was a suitable gap in the cargo. It also meant that British satellite launches were limited to the times the Space Shuttle was flying. These were curtailed after the Challenger explosion. If we’d have stuck with the French, we could possibly have had far more success putting our probes into space.

I’m sure there are very many other ways Bristol and the West Country could also be harmed by the decision to leave the EU. It’s just what occurs to me, as someone with an interest in space exploration, from a city that was a centre of the aeroplane, rocket and satellite industries. I also decided to post this, because I know that Bristol’s not unique in its position. There are other working ports and centres of the aerospace industry across the country, that will also suffer if we leave Europe. And so I firmly believe we should remain in.

Tim Peake and British Space Rockets

December 17, 2015

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 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 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.


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.