Black Arrow was the radical British rocket that was doomed before it flew. But it flew anyway

As plans progress for a spaceport in Scotland, a look back to the first time Britain attempted to enter the space race – and the strange tale of its only rocket to launch a satellite.

By Alec Marsh
Published 24 Jun 2021, 06:07 BST, Updated 24 Jun 2021, 09:10 BST
The Black Arrow R3 lifts off from Woomera, Australia, October 28th 1971. The launch marked the ...

The Black Arrow R3 lifts off from Woomera, Australia, October 28th 1971. The launch marked the first flight of a British-built rocket and a British-built satellite. Due to the amount of peroxide in the fuel mixture, the exhaust was almost invisible.  

Photograph by Royal Aircraft Establishment, Mary Evans Picture Library

On 28 October, 1971, a British built space rocket loaded with enough kerosene to give it the best part of 80,000 lbs of thrust, blasted off from the Woomera rocket range in South Australia. The 13-metre tall craft, named Back Arrow, rose up perfectly, firing into fresh clear spring sky. 130 seconds later eight explosive bolts released the spent first stage of the rocket, which separated and fell back to earth.

The second stage engines fired up and burned for another 120 seconds taking the rocket into space before separating. Finally the third stage fired, and precisely 710.1 seconds after lift-off, the payload – a scientific test satellite named Prospero – floated away into space. Moments later successful orbit was confirmed when the space physics centre at Fairbanks in Alaska picked up a radio signal from Prospero.

Britain had just successfully launched its first ever vehicle into space on a domestically built launcher. In doing so it became the sixth nation to achieve such a feat – after the Soviet Union, the USA, France, Japan and China.

Prospero, shown inside the split 'lipstick' third-stage launch cone of the Black Arrow rocket. 

Photograph by Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

‘Black Arrow puts Britain in the satellite league,’ declared The Times the next day, its correspondent in Adelaide noting that Prospero was ‘expected to remain in orbit for about a month’.

But despite the moment of national success, which has its 50th anniversary in October 2021, there was a bitter postscript – as The Times made clear. This was both ‘the beginning and the end’ of the country’s activity as a satellite-launching nation: ‘Black Arrow was cancelled earlier this year by Mr Frederick Corfield, Minister for Aerospace on the ground that the rocketry business was too expensive,’ it reported. ‘Although Mr Corfield said of the launching: “This is splendid news,” Whitehall sources indicated that the success could not affect the cancellation of Black Arrow.’

After four launches, of which two were successful, Black Arrow – like Britain’s wider ambitions for space in the 1970s – was doomed.

A spare unit of the Prospero X-3, the first British satellite launched by a British rocket. Achieving orbit in 1971, its function was to report on the effects of space weather on communication satellites; it operated for two years, and remains in orbit to this day. 

Photograph by World History Archive, Alamy

However, given the timing of the decision in Parliament of July 1971, space engineers at Westland Aircraft on the Isle of Wight had already built the fifth launcher in the Black Arrow series, R4, with rocket engines supplied by Bristol Siddeley Engine, later part of Rolls-Royce. That rocket was never fired: instead it was put on display of the Science Museum in London and to this day dangles little noticed from one of its ceilings gathering dust.

Fifty years on, meanwhile, Prospero continues to gather dust of an altogether different kind: it’s still up there in low Earth orbit, lapping our planet every 90 minutes or so, and will likely keep going for another half century. (Related: space junk is a huge problem, and it's only getting worse.) 

Sadly, back on Earth, the government fudge-and-muddle that led to Black Arrow’s development in the first place would also lead to its ultimate demise.

Ballistic origins

The Black Arrow programme emerged out of work begun in the 1950s to develop a missile delivery system for Britain’s first generation of nuclear weapons. This led in 1955 to the development of Blue Streak, a ballistic missile, which in turn spawned the creation of the much smaller Black Knight, a test rocket designed to help British scientists understand what happened to missiles on re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere.

But when the Macmillan government cancelled Blue Streak in 1960 – partly on the basis that the Americans would sell us their long-range missiles instead – Black Knight got a new lease of life. Recognising that the rocket was somewhat underpowered, the Royal Aeronautical Establishment in Farnborough – the government’s aviation research centre – gave it a boost. In 1963 it conceived a plan for a ‘Small satellite launcher based on Black Knight Technology’, a project that was duly signed off in September 1964 by the government of prime minister Alec Douglas Home. Black Arrow was born.

It nearly didn’t progress much further. It survived a review by Harold Wilson’s government elected just weeks later, and fortunately the launcher found a persuasive champion in Tony Benn, Minister of Technology, who kept the flame for Black Arrow alive during the choppy fiscal waters of the 1960s Wilson government.

Considering how broke Britain was at this time, it’s something of a miracle that Black Arrow got as far as it did ­– just about long enough to push it all the way to Woomera in June 1968, where the first Black Arrow – the two-stage sub-orbital ‘R0’ – was launched.

Above Alum Bay and the famous 'Needles' off the coast of the Isle of Wight, the concrete foundations of the experimental rocket station can still be seen. 

Photograph by Philip Chapman, Alamy

Unfortunately, a suspected loose wire caused the rocket to spiral out of control within seconds of take-off. After a minute’s flight, ground control was obliged to self-destruct it when it began to fall back to Earth from 9,000 feet. It was a major setback but the project continued and in March 1969, another sub-orbital Black Arrow was once again waiting on the rocket launch base at Woomera. This time, the two-stage R1 lifted off as planned.

Six months later, Britain’s space technicians were back in South Australia for the launch of the three-stage R2, and now Black Arrow was carrying a real cargo – Orba, a test satellite designed to monitor the effects of atmospheric density on orbital decay.

But Orba never made it orbit: while R2’s first stage fired perfectly, the second stage shut down 13 seconds early due to a fault. As a result, R2 lost all thrust and there’s simply wasn’t enough oomph in the third stage engine to get it the rest of the way. Orba splashed into the Gulf of Carpantaria off the coast of Northern Australia – and the news of another Black Arrow foul-up was splashed across the newspapers. ‘Another failure and our national technological competence as well as the future of the National Space Technology Programme would be in question,’ fumed an official memo in October 1970, noting that it was of the ‘utmost importance’ that the next launch should be successful.

And it was. But it was too late. The Ministry of Technology memo quoted above called for the establishment of an official inquiry into Black Arrow against the context of Britain’s ambitions for space. William Penney, the head of Britain’s first atomic bomb programme and a chairman of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, led the inquiry which was the death sentence of Black Arrow.

The Saunders-Roe experimental testing station at High Down, Isle of Wight was instrumental for the development of Britain's doomed entry into the missile – and later space – race. Here shown in 1958, the station was test-launching the 'Black Knight' rocket, the project that would eventually become Black Arrow. The installation was virtually identical to the launch site in Woomera, Australia. 

Photograph by Keystone Press, Alamy

Regarding the failed launch of R2, he said: ‘We knew were taking a gamble in so few test launches, and the gamble went against us.’ But more fundamentally he acknowledged the limitations of the programme in two important areas: first, since it took about a year to build each new rocket – the launches were simply not frequently enough to ‘establish the vehicle as a proven launcher in a reasonable timescale’. Then, as it took the team at RAE several years to build each new satellite, these yearly launches were in any event ‘too many to meet our requirements for satellite launches’. This led to a damning ‘mismatch’ between supply and demand, one solvable by paying for lifts on American rockets instead.

So all said and done, it was simpler and more cost-effective to instead focus on something else: the satellites. Penney alluded to this in his report, but it was also on the mind of the civil servants at the Ministry of Technology whose memo of 1970 urged the national space initiative to instead focus on ‘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.’

And as it stood, Black Arrow gobbled up ‘a disproportionate share of the resources available for that programme’. Something had to give.

‘The whole Black Arrow saga shows the confusion running through Britain’s space policy, and how a rather dubious decision taken in 1964 limped on for another seven years before being cancelled,’ writes C N Hill, author of A Vertical Empire: A History of the British Rocketry Programme. ‘Again one is tempted to say: do the thing properly or don’t do it properly at all.’

The good news is that Britain did go into satellites properly – and today is a global leader in satellite technology with international leaders in the field such as Surrey Satellite Technology Limited in Guildford and Astrium in Stevenage, both now owned by Airbus.

Dan Kendall, curator of the National Space Centre in Leicester, acknowledges this success in satellites but points out that Britain is uniquely the only country to have developed a launch system only to abandon it. ‘Had Britain retained its own launch capability, who’s to know the significant benefits this might have had on the country – with the knock-on impact it could have had on the economy, innovation, and Britain’s place in the space sector,’ he says. ‘It will always be a matter of debate, but I have never been able to shake the feeling that cancelling the British launch programme led to missed opportunity.’

Spent rocket stages of the successful Black Arrow R3 launch lie in the desert at the William Creek Memorial Park, South Australia. Recovered from the nearby Anna Creek Station, the rocket lay here for 50 years before being repatriated back to the UK by space innovation company SkyRora. The relic now stands in their head office in Edinburgh. 

Photograph by Nature Picture Library, Alamy

The Black Arrow rocket passes the Scottish Parliament on its way to the Skyrora offices on its recent return to the UK. 

Photograph by PA Images, Alamy

Former engineers Derek Mack (left) and Mike Kelloway, both from the Isle of Wight, view the remains of the Black Arrow at a storage facility in Penicuik, near Edinburgh.

Photograph by PA Images, Alamy

Not least because the future of satellites lay in increasingly smaller or ‘micro’ variants often in lower orbits – precisely the sort that Black Arrow, with its limited 135 kilo payload, was designed to transport.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence then that, 50 years on, the booming satellites business is spurring various companies into getting Britain back into space with one – Edinburgh-based Skyrora – targeting its maiden UK rocket launch at the end of 2022. Skyrora XL, its rocket, in fact has similar dimensions to Black Arrow and is even powered by the same sort of kerosene and hydrogen peroxide mix used back in 1971. (Related: why this remote Scottish region is set to be Britain's first spaceport.)

So not for nothing did the company arrange in 2018 for R3 to be brought back from the crash-landing site in South Australia – where it had lain for 48 years since that historic 710-second flight. The firm recently put it on display in its offices.

Skyrora’s head of engineering Dr Jack-James Marlow, who wrote his PHD on Black Arrow, hails the 1970s British launcher as ‘the Lotus sportscar of launch vehicles... a lightweight, no frills launch vehicle that achieved orbit in a cost-effective manner’. He also confirms that Skyrora was very much inspired by Black Arrow and explains: ‘This has fed directly into the technology development of our orbital launch vehicle. We use the same propellant combination as Black Arrow – a mixture of HTP (High Test Peroxide) and Kerosene. This combination has its heritage based in the United Kingdom and the Black Knight and Black Arrow programmes.’

So it looks like what was a missed opportunity is about to be rectified. Black Arrow, in a fashion, is being reborn. And if it’s successful the point will have been made anew: the British are back in space.

Alec Marsh is a journalist and author of the Drabble and Harris books.


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