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Last Updated: Monday, 12 January 2004, 12:30 GMT
Britain's first space pioneers
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online Magazine

Prospero satellite
The Prospero satellite is still in orbit
It has been quite a month for fans of space exploration. The US's decision to launch a manned mission to Mars - and a colony on the Moon - has generated a level of excitement more typical of the 1960s, and the heyday of the Apollo programme.

Although millions of Brits have been disappointed at the apparent failure of the Beagle 2 mission to Mars, the expedition has proved that the UK may also have a part to play, however small.

It was not always like this.

For a brief time in the 1960s, it looked as if Britain could be more than just a footnote in the annals of space history.

The UK was third only to the United States and USSR in the field of rocket technology. It had a viable satellite launch programme and even plans for manned missions.

The story of how it all came apart contains valuable lessons for today's space pioneers.


At 0409 GMT on 28 October 1971, Britain officially entered the space race.

It was a low-key, almost apologetic entry, with little of the fanfare associated with the American space programme, or even last year's Beagle 2 mission to Mars.

A Black Arrow rocket left its launch pad at Woomera, in the Australian desert, the eight liquid fuel rocket motors of its first stage spewing out an impressive ball of flame.

Black Arrow
Black Arrow is prepared for launch
Within minutes, it had successfully placed a Prospero satellite, manufactured by the British Aircraft Corporation and Marconi, in a polar orbit.

The launch was a triumph for scientists from the Royal Aircraft Establishment, who had been working on the British space programme since the late 1950s.

Three earlier attempts to launch the Isle of Wight-built Black Arrow from Woomera had ended in failure.

But the scientists' joy was tinged with regret, because the Black Arrow project had been cancelled by the government three months earlier, with ministers reluctantly agreeing to one final launch attempt.

"There was pride in getting it away and making sure it worked, but there was also a lot of regret, because the project had been cancelled. People were upset," says Roy Dommett, a rocket scientist who remembers waiting anxiously for news of the launch at mission control in Farnborough.


In contrast to the media circus surrounding Beagle 2, the Prospero launch was remarkably low-profile affair.

"Although the project had been cancelled, funding was still there for that year and the team were already in Australia. I think they decided just to go ahead with it. Australia was so far away, so it was almost out of sight out of mind.

"There was a determination to get on and finish the job," says Richard Tremayne-Smith, of the National Space Centre, who helped build the Prospero satellite.

News of the launch took two days to filter back to the UK, Mr Tremayne-Smith recalls, but even then it was not front page news.

"It wasn't really thought of as being significant at the time. The feeling was 'I am sure we will do something else.'"

Dubious distinction

But as the 1970s wore on it became increasingly clear that "something else" was not going to happen.

The French, who regarded their space programme as a matter of national prestige, took the lead in developing the Ariane series of rockets, which despite some high profile failures, went on to become one of the world's most commercially successful launchers.

Britain continued to enjoy the dubious distinction of being the only spacefaring nation with a single launch to its name.

Meanwhile, the Prospero satellite continued to circle the Earth. The tape recorders it carried stopped working in 1973.


But the tiny 66-kg device, which had been designed to test systems for future launches and only carried a single scientific experiment, continued to transmit a signal.

The ideas and the engineering were there, but everybody was squabbling over the pennies
Roy Dommett
In the end, the Defence Research Establishment decided to switch Prospero off, when its tracking station at Lasham was closed, nearly 10 years ago.

But amateur satellite trackers continued to detect a signal from Prospero, and it was last heard in 2000.

The satellite is solar powered and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that it had been re-activated, says Mr Tremayne-Smith.

Active or not, it will continue to orbit the Earth for another 100 years.

The cancellation of the Blue Streak ballistic missile programme, in 1960, meant the project was starved of funds.

Final twist

The government, which was struggling to keep up with the nuclear arms race, decided the US-built, submarine-launched Polaris system would be less vulnerable to attack than the land-based Blue Streak.

The idea was to develop Blue Streak into a civilian satellite launcher instead. The RAF even did a feasibility study into using the rocket as the basis for manned missions.

Colin Pillinger
Beagle 2 has sparked new interest in space exploration
But without a defence programme to help defer the cost, the programme constantly teetered on the brink of cancellation.

According to Roy Dommett, the authorities were aware of the commercial potential of satellite launches, but there were constant disagreements over who would pay the development costs.

"The ideas and the engineering were there, but everybody was squabbling over the pennies."

Concorde was also eating up funds that would have gone to the space programme.

"The Treasury certainly saw both projects as very expensive and they would have like to have got rid of both of them," says space historian Dave Wright.

In the end, Concorde won out. It was seen as having more commercial potential, and the British space programme was relegated to the status of a museum piece.

A mock-up of Prospero and the Black Arrow launcher are on display in the Science Museum, in London. While the Black Knight and Blue Streak rockets can be seen at the Scottish National Aviation museum, at East Fortune Airfield, East Lothian.

Although, in a final twist to the tale, there are plans to put them into storage - to make space for Concorde.

Here are some of your comments so far:

This is why I left England five years ago to design new launch concepts in America. Perhaps now is the time for the government to recognise the shortcomings of BNSC (the little-known focus of British space research) and restructure our space program into something more fitting for a major economic power.
Kevin Parkin, UK/USA

While on one hand it would be nice to have a glorious space programme, you can only spend money once. I would rather have a quality NHS, a better deal for students, armed services that aren't overstretched, a national pensions scheme, a working transport network and an ozone layer rather than a tin can for 3 on an express trip to Mars looking for microbes and water. I for one am glad that we didn't have to queue for bread and potatoes while Sputnik 1 raced overhead.
Tom Goff, UK

I remember seeing details in an electronics magazine of a UK design for 'Daedalus' (a fission-powered spacecraft - thus probably unmanned!) back in the late '70s. Once in space, small atomic explosions would produce huge amounts of thrust that would get it anyway in the Solar System. I've read nothing of the idea since - but then atomic power is not very fashionable these days!
Richard Mallett, UK

The saddest fact, which you do not bring out in your article was that at the time Blue Streak was the most efficient launcher ever developed and had been very reliable up to the time that the first Prospero launch failed. Similarly, even ESA admitted that the way to go in space was to go for the British HOTOL space plane instead of the now forgotten Hermes space shuttle as a manned launcher.
Mark Kidger, Tenerife/UK

Successive British governments from the 1950s onwards have never considered big space programmes as worth investing in. No British government has ever had top level policies either for, 'a viable satellite launch programme' or 'manned missions'. Black Arrow was an acknowledged technology research venture only. Having said that, it is misleading to interpret a successful space programme purely with such lavish spending: this country has a distinguished record of space endeavour across a range of subjects working both on its own and particularly with other agencies and especially the European Space Agency, of which it is a founding member, and NASA. Incidentally, a Black Knight and Blue Streak rocket can also be seen at Liverpool Museum and the Leicester National Space Centre respectively.
Doug Millard, Curator of Space Technology, Science Museum, London, UK

The inhabitants of the future United Kingdom will look at how all the planets and the moon have been colonised by the US, Russia and China and ask themselves, "Why aren't we there?". We have always had the technical know-how. Just not the budgets. We had the concept for HOTOL, a plane-like space craft that would have out shuttled the Americans, before the space shuttle was ever built. But no, our government prefers to keep money back for tax cuts before elections, rather than actually planning for the long term. Beagle 2 should in no way be considered a failure. That a dedicated scientist and his team managed so much with no government involvement as far as I can tell, should surely be an indication of how much we want to get ourselves into space. By ourselves. Not by begging lifts from USA, Russia or Europe.
Fraser Hotchkiss, UK

This article says it all about the successive British governments and their attitudes to our scientific achievements. No wonder British brains go abroad or are frustrated by lack of funding, commitment and imagination. Rule Britannia......
Bruce, UK

So Concorde claims another victim. First it sent the UK's aviation industry on the wrong route by producing a supersonic executive toy while the US caught the wave of mass travel with the jumbo jet. Now it turns out it also stuffed the UK's space programme. But the story also shows that space exploration is entirely the child of military spending. It'll always be a cash-gobbling hobby until somebody makes it as cheap to move goods from earth to 100 miles up as it is to send them by ferry from the UK to France.
Des, London, UK

I for one admire what the UK has done over many decades in scientific endeavours with minimal resources. As an American, I am only too accustomed to seeing huge (i.e. wasteful and expensive) and well-publicized projects. Now we have the politically motivated Bush speech about returning humans to the moon and Mars. In fact, it is the relatively low cost robotic missions which provide a far greater yield in terms of science and intrinsic benefits. Beagle 2 may be viewed as a disappointment by many, but I say hats off to the team that put it all together. Their intentions were in the right place.
John, USA

Black Arrow put a satellite into orbit on a shoestring budget (about 10 million pounds in at the time). Beagle 2 showed a lander can be made without spending hundreds of millions of pounds. They both show that space can be achieved without breaking the bank if you really desire it. The future of the british space space industry has to be private companies such as those competing for the x-prize daring to provide designs for space vehicles at an efficient price and not assuming it will cost billions and giving up before they start. This country has always achieved amazing technical achievements on tight bugets by daring to belive that it can be done! why stop now???
Rob, Newcastle

Of course, the UK does still has a launcher program - Starchaser Industries. No government involvement, and funded entirely by donations, they are attempting to win the XPrize for the first non-governmental man in space, with a long term view to satelite launches and space tourism. It's strange that this article doesnt mention these dedicated people, who need as much advertising as they can get in order to raise the funding. Come on BBC - we have at least one thing to shout about - lets shout about it!!
James Hughes, UK

Britain can't even seem to get man from Surrey to Waterloo every morning without problems. Lets leave the Space Programme alone until we've sorted things out a little closer to home.
Harry, UK

The British could also have been the first to build an aircraft to break the sound barrier. The programme was canceled with the aircraft partially built. The American engineers were handed all of the novel design features which they used to construct the near identical x-plane (which subsequently flew at super-sonic speeds). The British engineers finally managed to construct a scale model, years later, which proved that their aircraft would certainly have been successful.
Dave, UK

The British space effort isn't entirely defunct. While the edge represented by Black Arrow may have been lost, take a look at the Starchaser programme (www.starchaser.co.uk), a British effort that is on the way to putting humans into orbit and bringing them back safely - and doing so on a commercial basis. And it's developing some interesting propellant technology along the way! Ruari McCallion - nothing to do with Starchaser, BTW!
Ruari McCallion, UK

Although I know that Brits like to bemoan their underdog status, from where I sit the UK is by no means a "footnote in the annals of space history." I left America and came to the UK in 1985 to become a satellite engineer. Since then I have participated in 21 satellite missions--designed, conceived and executed in the UK for customers from around the world. Furthermore, UK scientists and engineers have played pivotal roles in all of Europe's space successes. It's not the size of your rocket that determines whether you're an influential player in space.
Jeff Ward, UK

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