Oct. 28, 1971: Homegrown Launcher Orbits UK Satellite

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WASHINGTON —On a fall day in the Australian desert nearly 40 years ago the United Kingdom joined a very elite club of nations capable of sending objects into space on their own. That successful launch of the Prospero satellite on a UK-built Black Arrow rocket from Woomera Test Range in Australia was destined to be a short-lived milestone.

While the launch made the UK the sixth nation capable of launching its own satellites, the country had already abandoned the program a few months earlier.

While the UK already had sent up some of its own satellites on U.S. launch systems, the Black Arrow was developed as a national small-satellite launch vehicle to test satellite prototypes in space, according to the Web site for the London-based Science Museum.

Officially given the go ahead to start development by the British government in the fall of 1964, the Black Arrow program originated with the development of a medium-range missile by the British government.

The UK’s Blue Streak was a ground-based Intermediate-range ballistic missile. The Black Knight rocket was developed as a platform to test out warhead designs for Blue Streak.

When the Blue Streak missile was abandoned from military plans in favor of using U.S. missiles in April 1960, the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), the UK’s defense research center, proposed using Blue Streak and Black Knight as a homegrown orbital launch vehicle.

While neither alone was powerful enough to reach orbit, combining the two with a small third stage could. But without Blue Streak’s previous defense monies and strapped by economic woes, the British government looked to France to help it develop the new orbital launch vehicle, dubbed Black Prince, the Science Museum Web site said.

With a Blue Streak first stage, a Black Knight second stage and a PR-38 rocket engine for the third stage, Black Prince was a joint effort between the RAE, Saunders Roe Ltd. and Bristol Siddeley Ltd.

Although initially reluctant, eventually the French government agreed to help the United Kingdom develop the rocket. But in the negotiation process the European Launcher Development Organisation was formed, which then brought other western European nations into the fold.

The launch vehicle then was split between the different countries, leaving Blue Streak as the only British part of the never-developed Europa rocket.

Great Britain, however, did not scrap its plans for a homemade orbital launch vehicle entirely. Instead it developed a smaller version of Black Knight, Black Arrow, to test small satellite prototypes by placing them in low Earth orbit.

The 13 meter-tall rocket used high-concentration hydrogen peroxide, or high-test peroxide, as an oxidizer. Its first and second stages both used liquid fuel. The third stage, a Waxwing rocket engine, used solid rocket fuel.

Almost from the beginning, the program was beset with problems, according to the Science Museum Web site. The government was unduly thrifty in developing its new orbital rocket program, cutting the number of test flights from five to three.

The first two Black Arrow test flights were two-stage sounding rockets. The first test in June 1969, oscillated unpredictably and exploded on command before it could crash to the ground.

The second test, which repeated the first test, proved successful in March 1970.

During the final test in September 1970, the second stage stopped firing too early and failed to reach orbit.

The problems did not prove difficult to fix but foundering funds and labor difficulties exacerbated delays, according to the Science Museum Web site. By the time Black Arrow was ready to take the X3 (renamed Prospero up on its successful launch) satellite into orbit, the program had been canceled on July 29.

Built by the British Aircraft Corp. and Marconi, according to the British Broadcasting Company News Web site, the 66-kilogram Prospero primarily was used to test equipment for future satellites in space.

Like Blue Streak, the British government had chosen to go with U.S. capability over its own. The United Kingdom would launch its next satellite X4 on a U.S. Scout rocket in 1974.

Despite accomplishing what few nations had, the British government saw the commercial viability of its orbital launch system dwindling by the time it sent a rocket into space and killed it before it really started.