Operation Backfire

Francis Spufford

In November 1944 a group of men met in a London pub. In this fifth year of the war, the capital was dingy, dog-eared, clapped-out, frankly grimy. Though Britain had not shaken off its usual inefficiencies at mass production, it had converted its economy to the needs of the war more completely than any other combatant nation. For five years there had been no new prams, trams, lawnmowers, streetlamps, paint or wallpaper, and it showed. All over the city things leaked, flapped, wobbled and smelt of cabbage. It was the metropole that Orwell would project forward in time as the London of 1984.

These drinkers were not the kind of people to let an unpromising present determine the shape of things to come. They were the inner circle of the British Interplanetary Society, and in 1938 they had published a plan for reaching the Moon using two modules, one to orbit, one to descend to the lunar surface. The cost of the rocket – as much as a million pounds – was far more than they could raise, but they did have enough money to make a couple of instruments for it. ‘We were in the position of someone who could not afford a car, but had enough for the speedometer and the rear-view mirror,’ Arthur C. Clarke would remember. They constructed a ‘coelostat’, a device to stabilise the image of a spinning star-field. It was made from four mirrors and the motor of Clarke’s gramophone; it worked, and was proudly displayed in the Science Museum.

The Society had suspended itself for the duration of hostilities, and its members had scattered to work in radar and aeroplane design. Now they were meeting again to plan postwar activities. In particular they wanted to hear what one of them, Valentine Cleaver, had gleaned about the state of rocket research on his recent journey to America. He had been told that it was impossible, given current technology, to build a rocket of any size, and that the rumours of big German rockets were just propaganda. At about that moment, 300 kilometres to the east, a 12-tonne missile – designed by a former member of the BIS’s German sister society, the Verein für Raumschiffahrt – left the ground carrying a one-tonne high-explosive warhead. The party in the pub shook their heads over the technological defeatism of the Americans: the missile rose out of the earth’s atmosphere, steered by four graphite rudders in its slipstream. One hundred kilometres up, it reached the top of an are as neat as the illustration of a parabola in a geometry textbook.

You have to pause for a moment, there, as the rocket’s vertical movement paused, with the forces of lift and of gravity briefly equalised; and try to realise the strangeness of the place it was in, a human-made object hurled outside the sphere in which the whole of human history had taken place. The war, and all previous wars, and all previous peace, lay under the starlit cloud-systems that stretched away to the curve of the planet’s edge, where the glitter of tomorrow’s sunlight brightened the rim. Then the rocket accelerated down from space into the whorl of cloud over the Thames Estuary, to confirm London’s founder membership in the small club of cities which have been attacked by ballistic missiles. London, Paris, Antwerp, Tehran, Tel Aviv and Baghdad: that’s all. If the rocket had been loaded with the nuclear weapon that would justify the expense of the delivery system to military planners in the decades to come, it would have fried the city from Kensington to Bermondsey. As it was, it only flattened a street – not that that would have been much comfort to those beneath the roof it came through faster than the speed of sound.

The explosion shook the pub. Fine plaster dust settled onto heads and shoulders – the dandruff of air-raids. Unlike other people, though, Cleaver, Clarke and the rest knew immediately how to interpret the blast that had happened suddenly, without the sound of bombers overhead, and even more revealing, the strange rising boom afterwards, as air rushed in to fill the tube of vacuum the rocket had drilled down the sky. This was not the first V2 to hit London: the Government had been covering up the attacks with stories of exploding gas mains for a little while, and already scientists from the Royal Aircraft Establishment were secredy collecting twisted fragments of Wernher von Braun’s precision engineering, and trying to put the shattered jigsaw back together in a Farnborough hangar. But this was certainly the first V2 to be greeted at the receiving end with excitement.

The roots of the Space Age in weaponry are well known. So is the selective amorality of technologists, who judge the world with the same scruples as other men and women except in the area of their specialism. What isn’t familiar any more is the British embodiment of the Space Age. In the Eighties and Nineties, Britain has been so allergic to involvement in the European Space Agency that it’s hard to imagine that things were ever any different. But from the Fifties to 1971 Britain had a space programme – of a sort. In the geography of the Space Age, Cape Canaveral and the Baikonur Cosmodrome were joined for a while by the faint presence of Woomera, on the Nullarbor Plain in South Australia, with its concrete Anglican church (St Barbara’s), and its three messes for different grades of rocketmen. Big rocket motors were testfired at Spadeadam in Cumbria; polite MOD policemen would step out of the heath and turn you back if you tried to motor towards the installation on days when the ground was shaking. Smaller engines filled the air with the sound of ripping linen, titanically magnified, at a converted gun emplacement on the coast of the Isle of Wight. Men in tweed jackets with leather elbow patches sat in control rooms watching bakelite consoles. The countdown was delivered in regional accents.

The BIS assumed, in 1944, that the technological resources which were helping Britain win the war would be directed, in due course, towards rockets and space. The Great Power military-industrial complex that had produced radar and the Spitfire would carry through the BIS’s dreams, into earth orbit and beyond. Nothing happened for a while after the war. The British Army evaluated a few captured V2s in a test code-named Operation Backfire. ‘For the sake of their very existence, Britain and the United States must be masters of this weapon of the future,’ concluded the officer in charge, Major-General A.M. Cameron. But by the criteria of conventional artillery, the V2s were found to be hopelessly inaccurate. The invention of the A-bomb, and then in 1952 of the H-bomb, transformed rocket research. The first delivery system commissioned for the British deterrent was the RAF’s ‘V’ family of jet bombers – strange revenants when you see one now in an aircraft museum, the delta-winged shape familiar in modern stealth aircraft filled out with Fifties materials and pre-transistor avionics; coarsely, prodigally powerful, like an adding machine wired to a nuclear power station. Gradually, it was decided that the V bomber’s successor should be all-missile. In 1954, Britain signed an agreement with the US to start a joint programme of missile research. At this point, there was no technology gap – the hugely different resources of the two countries had not yet begun to produce their hugely different results. The Eisenhower Administration was eager to spread the costs of rocketry; the Conservative Government in its pre-Suez mindset still assumed that Britain would play a large role in the world’s future.

Britain’s share in the Nato arsenal was to be an IRBM – an intermediate range ballistic missile – named Blue Streak. Rocketdyne of the United States passed the specifications of their Atlas rocket motor to Rolls Royce, where a group of engineers under Val Cleaver of the BIS set to work modifying and refining it. The job of constructing Blue Streak’s body went to the De Havilland aircraft company of Stevenage. They created a shining stainless steel fuselage, attractively ridged fore and aft: they had, after all, a reputation for beautiful aeroplanes to maintain, and if someone commissioned a nuclear missile from De Havilland, they would get one obeying the minimalist aesthetics of a Shaker armchair. They would not, however, get it very quickly. By the spring of 1960, £60 million had been spent, a further £240 million was needed to complete the design and £200 million on top of that actually to produce the missiles and to install them in their deep silos in East Anglia. The Russians had put Sputnik into orbit, but there was no suggestion that Blue Streak represented an investment in the possibilities of space. Like all ballistic missiles since the V2, it was designed to loop out of the earth’s atmosphere on its way to the target. There was only the acknowledgment that one day rockets might be good for other things.

More pressing were the strategic problems that were becoming apparent with Blue Streak. When it was planned, liquid fuelling was the only option in mainstream rocket design. Since then, both the Americans and the Soviet Union had developed solid fuel for rockets, a mixture which set like toffee inside missile casings, allowing them to remain in their silos ready for quick launching. Blue Streak had to be laboriously pumped up with kerosene and liquid oxygen refrigerated to −183° centigrade. Extreme measures were proposed to make Blue Streak ‘survivable’ – a credible threat even after a direct hit on its silo by one of Russia’s nippier nukes: the silos could have 75-ton concrete lids, with gigantic hoses to wash away the charred debris of Suffolk that would have fallen on top of them. But the truth was that, in the new world of the four-minute warning, the seven-minute Blue Streak had become a weapon that could only be used for a first strike. It offered a terrible combination of vulnerability and destabilising menace.

In April 1960, to jeers from the Labour Party about wasted money, the Macmillan Government cancelled Blue Streak and went on to buy Polaris from America instead. Britain had, however, become the European leader in rocket engineering, and policymakers were not yet ready to give that up. Now the civil exploitation of space got its chance. Despite an offer by Nasa to launch British scientific payloads free, Britain persuaded France, Italy and West Germany to join it in the European Launcher Development Organisation, or Eldo, an attempt to build a European satellite launcher using Blue Streak as a first stage. Eldo was driven by Macmillan’s pro-European policy and British negotiators mistook De Gaulle’s enthusiasm about sharing military high tech for support for Britain’s application to join the Common Market. After De Gaulle blocked it, Eldo was condemned to a slow death by waning British commitment.

It was around this time that an encounter took place between two outlooks almost equally marginal to the spirit of the times in Britain. Arthur C. Clarke, by now a well-established science fiction writer as well as the author of the pioneering paper on satellite communications, had been growing increasingly irritated by the theological science fiction of C.S. Lewis, who saw space travel as a sinful attempt by fallen humanity to overstep its God-given place. In Reflections on the Psalms (1958), for example, Lewis had described it as learning ‘(which God forbid) to … distribute upon new worlds the vomit of our own corruption’. Clarke contacted Lewis and they arranged to meet in the Eastgate Tavern, Oxford. Clarke brought Val Cleaver as his second; Lewis brought along Tolkien. They saw the world so differently that even argument was scarcely possible. Clarke and Cleaver could not see any darkness in technology, while Lewis and Tolkien could not see the ways in which a new tool genuinely transforms the possibilities of human awareness. For them, machines were at best a purely instrumental source of pipe tobacco and transport to the Bodleian. So what could they do? They all got pissed. ‘I’m sure you are very wicked people,’ said Lewis cheerfully as he staggered away, ‘but how dull it would be if everyone was good.’

Britain’s first priority was Polaris; its second was Eldo. Other rocket activity had to be funded from the scraps of money left over. It was from this lowest priority that Britain’s one success in space emerged. It had become clear at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, where blue-sky schemes were nurtured before the private sector was brought in, that there was going to be scope for a single extra rocket project in the mid-Sixties. The Guided Weapons Department wanted to experiment with larger missiles, but the Space Department had a plan for a shoestring, all-British satellite launcher. The Space Department won. In 1965 the RAE got the green light to construct their Black Arrow vehicle – on condition that it cost virtually nothing.

It’s hard to imagine a cheap space rocket. Our image of rockets was fixed by the Apollo programme: gigantic, overwhelming, needing the deep pockets of a superpower. The moonshot – the moment of maximum cultural resonance for the technology – established rocketry in the public mind as Promethean. Even if the flight of a Saturn V didn’t quite act out the Prometheus story, all the elements were there. Rockets rose from a bed of sublime fire – gouts of flame engulfing the launch pad at Cape Kennedy – and seized the heavens for us. When we think of them, we see a mighty assertion of the power to transform nature. Of course, the image has aged since 1969. Rockets now evoke a slightly old-fashioned kind of wonder, because they stand for an obsolete version of technological prowess. In the scheme of history which has become the most popular version of the recent past, the Space Age counts as the final phase of the Age of Industry – its culmination, just before the paradigm changed and the Age of Information replaced steel with digits. The rocket has become the apotheosis of mechanism: the biggest, fastest, most complicated machine there ever was, inciting the same sort of awe as a blue whale. And ‘rocket science’ remains our shorthand for the most demanding kind of thinking there is, carried over into the decades where manipulating data is the most Promethean thing we can conceive of, so that chip designers in the Santa Clara Valley are ‘rocket scientists’, not to mention derivatives traders and the biologists who are hacking the genome.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in