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.

But this is not how insiders see it. Real British rocket scientists don’t consider building rockets to be … rocket science. ‘I don’t think it’s very hard at all,’ Roy Dommett said as I sat on his sofa in Farnborough last year. ‘Once we got away from the idea that it had to be the sort of clever shape that the V2 had, and realised that it just had to be a straight cylinder with a nose on the front of it and the engine at the back, that’s not difficult We’ve refined the technology since the Forties but it’s still tanks, and an engine with pipework.’ I had already gathered enough of the ethos of rocketmen to know that Dommett was an eccentric. All those who survive from the heyday of British rocketry live in detached, modern houses in Home Counties commuter villages or in Midlands suburbs. But Dommett inhabits a much shaggier version of suburban pastoral than his colleagues. Their houses are ultra-neat, with outbreaks of supernaturally competent DIY. His is surrounded by a runaway experiment in growing wild flowers, and has a car in the driveway which has been awaiting repair for many months.

Inside, rampaging grandchildren zoom about. A keen Morris dancer with a countryman’s voice, he was largely responsible for Chevaline, the naval update of Polaris in the Seventies. As I talked to him, he sat by his fire enjoying the fact that he seems more like Falstaff than Dr Strangelove. But when he talks about rockets, he sounds like all the other rocketmen. The words ‘simple’ and ‘small’ crop up all the time. ‘It was a simple system.’ ‘It was a small job, really.’ It isn’t that they’re not proud of their achievements, it’s just that they think of rockets in terms a league removed from Promethean grandeur. They think of them in terms of elegance and craft, as if rockets were examples of the British talent for made-to-measure quality, like Savile Row suits and quirky sports cars.

Tanks and pipework. A rocket is essentially a container for very, very fast combustion. To build a rocket engine, you connect a combustion chamber to a supply of fuel – ‘propellant’ – and a supply of oxidant. You ignite the two of them together in the chamber. The oxidant provides all the oxygen the fuel needs to burn, so the chemical reaction is completely independent of the rocket’s surroundings: in fact, the rocket will be slighdy more efficient if it is in a vacuum. The fuel-oxidant combination becomes a rapidly expanding, high-temperature gas. You allow it to escape from the open end of the chamber, through a nozzle with a particular ‘converging-diverging’ mathematical shape, like an hour-glass, which converts the energy of the gas to the maximum possible velocity. The gas accelerates out of the rocket engine, and because of Newton’s Third Law, the engine, and the vehicle that holds it, move with equal and opposite force in the other direction. All of the issues in rocket design follow from these basics. Because a rocket does not need a system of compressors to oxygenate its fuel with air, its engine weighs only a fifth as much as a gas-turbine jet engine producing the same thrust. On the other hand, it uses fuel 15 times as quickly. This is why something like 92 per cent of the mass of a rocket ready for launch is its fuel and oxidant Unloaded, it is mostly a hollow shell.

Engineers seek to improve the ratio by using fuel-oxidant combinations with a high ‘specific impulse’ – a measure of the energy you obtain from a substance per unit of its mass. Unfortunately, the fuels with the highest specific impulse, such as liquid hydrogen, which burns at 4700°C, tend also to be the most volatile and hard to handle. So the problems are these. Huge quantities of explosive liquids have to be stored in close proximity to a chemical torch burning at several thousand degrees. The liquids have to be fed to the chamber fast enough to sustain the reaction – which implies a turbopump revolving at tens of thousands of rpm – but evenly and under continuous control. The ideal is a rocket engine you can throttle up and throttle back by changing the flow rate – a challenging exercise in fluid dynamics. Finally (and this is leaving out the guidance systems, without which the rocket is nothing but a big firework), an engine chamber is needed which can survive temperatures at which most metals melt. The V2 came up with the first solutions to all these problems. Wernher von Braun used an alcohol-liquid oxygen combination. His engine was a huge hardened bell crowned with multiple fuel injectors, and a rising unsymmetrical coil of steel rigatoni: the pipes for the separate fuel and oxidant pumping systems plaited together to fit inside the ‘clever shape’ of the V2 body. It is ugly in more ways than one, when you consider that slave labour by German’s best Jewish chemists and watchmakers produced it. But it was a genuine breakthrough in harnessing destructive chemistry to deliberate ends.

All the British rocketmen talk of the pleasure of working with very high levels of energy. John Scott-Scott was a hydrodynamicist at Armstrong Siddeley Rocket Motors at Ansty near Rugby, who worked on conventional turbine engines before switching to rockets. He invented a turbo-pump incorporating a floating ‘cavitation bubble’ which could turn at 100,000 rpm. ‘The thing that makes it unique is the power density you can use. We all got used to the Merlin engine for the Spitfire, and then we saw these big diesels, so we assumed that size equals power. Then this thing came along, the size of an ordinary soup plate, which produced a thousand horsepower. Once I saw a few of those, the power levels in piston engines and gas turbines paled into insignificance. You could make things you held in your hand.’ The British style of rocketry, it’s clear, did not banish the sublime. How could it, when the alternative to elegance was a fireball. But Zeus’ fire was confined to a matchbox.

At first the Black Arrow launcher had no official budget – rumour has it that the start-up costs were met from the Ministry of Defence’s contingency fund. Later, cheques arrived quarterly, though they were often late. The RAE submitted meticulous invoices for equipment to the Ministry of Technology in New Oxford Street, dotted with assurances that they would try to improvise home-grown substitutes for this or that expensive item. In the end the Black Arrow project was costed at £9 million. That was for everything: rockets, wages, fuel, equipment, facilities, transport, the RAE, the contractors. Even in Sixties pounds, £9 million was a pinprick in space terms.

The plan for Black Arrow depended on the fact that a rocket already existed which could be adapted. When Blue Streak was first commissioned, back in 1955, very little had been known about the physics of reentry, so there was an immediate need for a test vehicle that would reveal what happened to an object as it accelerated back into the atmosphere. This vehicle was Black Knight, a slender tube of a rocket designed to rise more or less straight up from the test range at Woomera, flip over once out of the atmosphere, and slam back to earth with every instrument on the range tracking it. It had been rushed into existence by 1958 so the results could be used in the shaping of Blue Streak, and it had proved so useful that after Blue Streak had been cancelled as a weapon, Black Knights continued to be launched as a part of joint Anglo-American investigation into stealth materials.

Black Knight used Britain’s share of the loot from the German wartime rocket programme. The Americans got von Braun and several hundred completed V2s which they fired across New Mexico. The Russians got a mixed bag of more junior scientists, and the V2 assembly line at the subterranean Mittelwerk factory. Britain carried off the pioneering German work on hydrogen peroxide. It became the distinctive technology of the British programme. Hydrogen peroxide, as one British rocketman jokes, is ‘green rocket fuel’, about as environmentally benign as a dangerous substance can be. It is H2O2 – water with one extra oxygen atom. It looks like water, pours like water, but it has some properties that water does not. If you concentrate it to 80 per cent purity as High Test Peroxide or HTP, about twenty times stronger than the peroxide used to bleach hair, and pass it through silver gauze, remarkable things happen. The HTP ‘decomposes’ spontaneously into oxygen and water while rising of its own accord to 600° C. ‘The magic of the stuff,’ John Scott-Scott says, ‘was that it flowed into one end of a catalyst pack as “cold water”, half an inch later it would be fizzing like soda water, and an inch and a half down the pipe we had superheated steam. It’s an engineer’s delight.’ The HTP was energetic enough to produce a useful thrust on its own: it was used to make take-off units for fighter planes, and power plants for torpedoes that just pumped HTP through the catalyst and let its explosive expansion do the work. But the best thing to do with HTP was to use it in a rocket engine as the world’s hardest-working oxidant ‘The temperature was high enough so that if you sprayed almost any other fuel into it, it burned immediately, so you didn’t need pyrotechnic igniters that might fail. In our case, we used kerosene – good old honest paraffin.’ The kerosene-HTP combination burned at 2400° C, a very respectable ‘specific impulse’ for two liquids which – unlike liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen – didn’t have to be refrigerated until the moment of take-off. In effect, using HTP allowed British rocket designers to dispense with an ignition system altogether: it was a fabulous shortcut.

You did have to be careful how you handled the stuff. The rocketmen worked in all-over plastic suits when they were pumping HTP – very sweaty on warm days, so some men wore only Y-fronts underneath. It was best to store the HTP in underwater tanks, because if you let the air get at it, evaporation would silently reduce the remaining content of ordinary H2O in the 80 per cent mixture until it became liable to combust spontaneously, without even a catalyst to set it off. Dribbles of HTP left behind after a test in the twists of a pipe assembly would drain out onto the sleeve of the person taking it apart: ‘Instantly the whole sleeve catches fire, pooff, as quickly as that. So everybody worked in twos, with one of them holding a running hose, and you just flicked the hose onto your mate when he was on fire, and he’d go: “Oh, that was a nuisance.” ’ But the simplicity of HTP made up for it. The first time John Scott-Scott experimented with HTP in rockets, he was a sixth-former in Doncaster who gingerly carried a darkened bottle of industrial peroxide home on the bus. His girlfriend’s father, a metalwork teacher, helped out with the engine chambers; the fuel injectors were made from the little plastic tubes inside biros. When Scott-Scott went for his interview at the Armstrong Siddeley Rocket Department a few years later, they worried that there’d been a security leak.

The contract for Black Knight’s engine went to Armstrong Siddeley, and the job of creating its structure and fuselage and control systems was put out to Saunders-Roe Ltd on the Isle of Wigh. Like many of Britain’s small aviation companies, Saunders-Roe was based where an Edwardian aeroplane enthusiast had set up his workshop – in this case, where the flying boat business could be conducted conveniendy close to Cowes Regatta. By the Fifties, Saunders-Roe was no longer coach-building beautiful, varnished hulls, having moved on to experiments with mixed-powerplant fighter aircraft, but the ethos of craftsmanship remained. Jim Scragg joined Saunders-Roe as an apprentice and retired from it forty years later as manager of their rocket activities: he remembers working on Black Knight in a design office which had once been the stables of Osborne House. They worked backwards from the motor’s consumption of kerosene and HTP to the size of the tanks, and the properties of the airframe, and the electrical circuitry that would be needed. Black Knights were built in an assembly shop, where the sections of aluminium tube waited on their side in jigs to be mated together with the pieces of the mechanism. Saunders-Roe used Pickford’s to move items of heavy equipment, but the rocket components were delicate, and when a Black Knight was completed it was transported in a special shock-absorbing, air-breathing, 33-foot crate designed for the purpose. A company film about Black Knight exists, of the kind now often parodied. It is stiff-voiced, immune to irony, and (in a quiet way) ragingly proud of the product.

Saunders-Roe built a ferroconcrete replica of the Woomera launch area at High Down, on the cliffs near the Needles. It had an underground control centre in the bunkers of a battery from the Napoleonic Wars. Each Black Knight was fuelled with its full load of HTP and kerosene, and fired just as at Woomera, except that a steel claw in the floor of the gantry gripped a ball in the motor bay of the rocket and prevented it from reaching the portion of outer space directly above the Solent. Cameras in the exhaust duct below the gantry relayed the view straight up the throats of the rocket chambers as they burned. For a long time, in fact, the test technicians at Saunders-Roe were the only people to know what a Black Knight looked like fired in daylight. (At Woomera, for security reasons, they were always launched at night, and all that the controllers saw was a rising white star.) There were few flames; certainly not the molten ocean of fire you see billowing round a space shuttle launch. Black Knight only burned one part of kerosene to eight of HTP, so only one-ninth of the exhaust gas was burnt hydrocarbons. The rest was steam and CO2. ‘All you see,’ says Jim Scragg, ‘is a shock diamond, where the different flows of the exhaust interfere with one another, and it gives you a pattern, specific to rockets, of a diamond, or a series of diamonds. As the exhaust gets further away from the chamber, it gets cooler, and becomes white, and then yellow, and red. I don’t know if you’ve got any socks with diamonds on them, but that’s exactly what it looks like.’ From a ship on the way into Southampton harbour, you could see a plume of steam from the exhaust duct jetting out horizontally over the sea.

Meanwhile, an entirely different group, not engineers but pure scientists, had taken Nasa up on the offer of a free launch for a British research satellite. They escorted their Ariel-1 out to Cape Canaveral to see it safely on its way aboard an American missile. This was the time described by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff, when the strip of motels and hamburger joints along Cocoa Beach became a playground for astronauts who loved ‘Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving and Driving & the rest’. ‘At night the pool areas of the motels became like the roaring fraternity house lounge of Project Mercury … and what lively cries and laughter would be rising up on all sides as the silvery moon reflected drunkenly in the chlorine blue of the motel pools!’ Something of this spirit must have seeped into the scientists, because the advance party of the group had called London, and requested permission to hire a car. Picture it, the scientists hurtling along Highway A1A in the tumescent Florida night, daringly dressed in shirt sleeves. In a car with fins! No, said London. Rent bicycles.

Putting a satellite into orbit using the Black Knight technology was possible, but only just. A rocket’s range is determined by the final velocity it reaches. If you want a ballistic missile to fly across Europe, you have to accelerate it to around 5 kilometres per second. If you can get it moving at just under 8 km/second, it will make it to orbit. To escape from the earth’s gravity requires about 11 km/sec; to go to the moon 18 km/sec. The equation governing final velocity links the performance of the rocket engine and the rocket’s weight at takeoff. Without improvement in the engine performance, the take-off weight rises, not proportionately but exponentially, as the demand on the machine increases. In the research study that led to funding being granted for the Black Arrow launcher, scientists at the RAE calculated that HTP/kerosene engines could reach an orbit 300 miles high if a three-stage vehicle was used. The first two stages would be like stretched, more powerful Black Knights, and the third stage would be a solid-fuel Waxwing booster: in effect, a solid, shaped blob of plastic explosive fired just before the payload reached the top of its natural parabola, so that it sailed away around the earth instead of dropping back. But if the take-off weight were to be kept small – and Black Arrow was the smallest fully-controllable satellite launcher ever built – the payload would have to be tiny in proportion. The RAE blueprint envisaged a 17.8 tonne rocket delivering a maximum of 100 kg of satellite into orbit. In other words, the payload of a Black Arrow would be only 0.56 per cent of its total weight.

The official rationale for the Black Arrow project begged more questions than it answered. ‘I regard these small rockets,’ Sir Morien Morgan, director of the RAE, said to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, ‘in very much the same way I regard simulators and wind tunnels.’ Black Arrow was an ‘experimental tool’ for the nascent British satellite industry. It existed, Morgan said, so that they could test ‘small bits of experimental hardware’ in a zero-g environment. It was certainly true that Black Arrow was only good for research. It was far beyond its modest capabilities to launch a working communications satellite, which weighed at least 300 kg and needed to be put into an energy-expensive geostationary orbit. But why should British satellite makers, like Marconi or the innovative unit at the University of Surrey, need a British launcher to test their products, when Nasa’s offer of free rides to orbit had become a standing, open invitation? There might, quietly, have been a military purpose. Britain would be able to send small, discreet packages aloft by a route that the Americans did not oversee. Knowing things that your ally does not ensures that you are a valuable partner. The origin of the very first funding cheque for Black Arrow in the Ministry of Defence suggests that somebody was considering the enticing prospect of spy satellites producing purely British signals intelligence; information that could be shared or not, during those long conversations across the polished conference tables of Langley, Virginia.

Conversely, many of the rocketmen were attracted to Black Arrow precisely because it was not a weapon. British rocketry was such a small world that there was never a chance for a wholly civilian branch of it to be established. The same people worked on civilian and military rockets by turns. They were conscientious men, committed to the defence of Britain, who were relieved at the end of the Cold War to find they had not spent their working lives procuring the end of the world. They felt a certain wistfulness for the world of non-warlike endeavour that the engineers of Nasa occupied, spin-off from the Cold War though it was. Black Arrow took them closer to it than any other British project. John Scott-Scott remembers the lectures in the plant at Ansty by invited space gurus. ‘It kept us very fired up. Getting into real space one day had to be the better thing to do than just sending something to the enemy’s country.’

But why was there the wider backing in 1965 without which even a few million pounds does not flow out of government? Perhaps here we need the idea of cultural momentum. The expectation of the BIS in their wartime pub that a country like Britain would definitely go into space had not vanished. The experience of technological acceleration during the war was too profound for that to happen; it lost credibility only gradually. The British SF writer Stephen Baxter, who trained at the RAE, where he worked beside the engineers who’d gathered up V2 fragments in 1944, says of the postwar mood: ‘Maybe we became more content – post-imperial, in a way post-industrial, almost bucolic – and you don’t associate that with a space programme. Nevertheless, we had one, because of the residue from the war.’ He laughs. ‘I think people did expect that one day an old Spitfire pilot would fly into orbit, you know, pipe clutched inside his space-suit helmet’

Consider the popular culture of the Fifties. In the pages of the Eagle, Dan Dare conquered the solar system wearing something that looked very much like an RAF uniform. His International Space Force was supposed to be a global outfit, but ‘Hank’ and ‘Pierre’ had only bit-parts; Sir Hubert called the shots. ‘Eee, I wish I’d stayed in Wigan,’ quavered Digby, as they confronted the green-skinned hordes of Venusopolis. By the mid-Sixties, the fantasy of flying Spitfires to other planets had almost faded away. The space enthusiasm of British children was focused on Cape Kennedy, where the race to the moon made orbital adventures look out of date. The Zooms and Sky-Ray Lollies that the rocketmen bought their children on August afternoons in suburbia referred to archetypal rockets, and therefore to the rockets of the US. The Eagle folded, after faithfully publishing a double-page spread about Black Arrow in January 1965, with cutaway drawings and a background of stars. The naive dream of Britain in space had become a ghost, a shadow. But the momentum was not quite exhausted, and there was, as there had always been, a connection between the dream and the real programme at Ansty and the Isle of Wight. So long as something was still happening, no matter how modest, a path could still be imagined that led from the present by many obscure twists and turns to the future in which a squadron-leader drank tea on the moon; or to a future of realistic advantage for British companies.

‘I would not underestimate the romantic reasons why we got into Black Arrow,’ the historian David Wright says. ‘Even people who worked in the Ministry went home and read science fiction, saw science fiction stuffon the TV; they dreamed, too. But there were people, and perhaps the same people, who had to make hard-headed decisions about what would pay off, and I think they realised that Black Arrow would keep them in the space exploration business. Maybe, just maybe, there would turn out to be hardheaded, accountants’ reasons to be in space. They didn’t want to play now, they didn’t want to spend money now, but they wanted a place at the table in case it was going to pay off in future.’ Black Arrow kept Britain in the game. It was an ante, a low-denomination casino chip. It was the minimum stake the house allowed.

From the very beginning of die effort to realise Black Arrow, there were constraints on the project that had nothing to do with design, properly speaking, and everything to do with re-using the existing Black Knight infrastructure. For example, the relative power of the lower two stages had to be balanced so that the spent pieces of the rocket would fall on empty areas of Australia. The width of the first stage could only be expanded to 54 inches, because that was the maximum that would fit into the test stand at High Down. And the same arbitrary limits pressed on the building of Black Arrow’s engines.

Fortunately, there was a more advanced HTP engine to use as a template. The Stentor was built with military money to power the Blue Steel self-propelled bomb. Blue Steel was designed to be released from a Vulcan over the wheatfields of Byelorussia and to fly the last 200 miles of its journey on its own. Over the target, a little hatch opened on the Blue Steel and the warhead dropped out – for no reason I can discern except that the engineers disliked the idea of a thermonuclear explosion taking place inside their creation. It’s not as if the blast would have been muffled in any way. The Black Arrow budget allowed for another half-generation of technical advance on Stentor. Ideally, the Ansty engineers would have been able to satisfy Black Arrow’s propulsion needs from scratch. The first stage would then have had a few rocket chambers much larger than Black Knight’s. Instead, they had to get the thrust by combining eight engine chambers, arranged by pairs in a pattern like the arms of a cross, and tiltable on each axis to give control over the pitch, roll and yaw of the rocket as it climbed. For the second stage, they used two chambers mounted on intricate swivels which gave free movement in all directions.

Word came down from Joe Lyons of the RAE that the Armstrong Siddeley engineers were to rein in their creative impulses. ‘That was part of die rules of the game,’ remembers David Andrews, high up in the company hierarchy as Chief Engineer of the Rocket Department. New thinking from the likes of john Scott-Scott over in the research section of the Rocket Department was only usable if it could be sneaked into the design at no extra cost. ‘The technology stood still as of 1956,’ Andrews emphasises ruefully, ‘but we went on until 1971 using it, and making small changes to it.’ In David Andrews, however, Ansty had a leader for the Black Arrow contract who took a philosophical interest in the design process itself; someone who enjoyed the fine-tuning of a project which was actually going into space. He seems to have experienced the arbitrary constraints on Black Arrow as a forcing-ground for clear thought – perhaps, it struck me as I talked to him, in the same way that the arbitrary rules of a stanza compel poets to wrestle their intentions into definite forms. He talks freely about the ‘aesthetic points’ of the Stentor engine, discriminates between the ‘beautiful’ in engineering and the merely ‘tidy’. ‘The most beautiful piece of engineering I’ve ever seen’ he says of the LH10 hydrogen-oxygen engine for the space shuttle. ‘It was absolutely breathtaking.’

It’s clear from the testimony of other rocketmen that he was both a demanding and satisfying person to work for. He instituted a regime of continuous testing, based on the old Ansty maxim, ‘if you don’t know what to do, do something, and measure it.’ Most rocket programmes deal with the need for their products to work perfectly by running off batches of the provisionally-completed rocket, launching them, and seeing what happens. It’s a recognised cost in rocketry. Because there were not enough Black Arrow vehicles available, the engines for the first stage were prepared for their 131 seconds of working life by another method – the flaws were ironed out by firing them alone in the underground test-bed at Ansty, over and over again. Like the Saunders-Roe test site at High Down, the Ansty test-bed used thousands of gallons of water running through a curved duct to soak up the heat from the engine. Huge columns of steam rose up into the Midlands sky. There were occasional complaints from the maternity hospital nearby, not about the danger, but the noise. Sometimes, if a cloud already heavy with vapour passed overhead, the extra steam was just enough to make the droplets precipitate out, and start a very localised shower. On one occasion, an inspection team from the Ministry of Supply were soaked by a downpour a hundred yards across, never wondering why they had been placed at that spot to witness a firing.

The result of all this was a programme that defied expectations by being tight, self-disciplined and cheap. HTP cost only £175 a tonne. But as the late Sixties passed, the odds on Black Arrow altered for the worse. While Britain laboured to put a small research satellite into orbit, the Americans were on their way to the moon, and the Wilson Government was more interested in persuading the British aerospace companies to amalgamate than in one, isolated research project. At Ansty, Armstrong Siddeley became Bristol Siddeley and then Rolls-Royce; then Rolls-Royce went bankrupt and had to be nationalised. On the Isle of Wight, Saunders-Roe became the British Hovercraft Corporation and would shortly be West-land, all with the same people still doing the same jobs in the same places. Meanwhile, the already minimal allowance of flight tests for Black Arrow was whittled back still further. The two prototypes and five proving flights originally planned shrank to one prototype and three flights. The timetable suffered, too.

If you want to know what Black Arrow looked like when it was finished, go to the Science Museum. Completed but unfired, one of them is lying in pride of place along the floor of the Space Gallery, among slender British meteorological rockets named after birds: Skua, Petrel, Skylark. As you go in, the V2 that bloodily inaugurated the British space age hangs over your head. A little further on, a ring on the floor the size of a Saturn V illustrates the Black Arrow engineers’ joke, that their baby could have been a bracing strut for von Braun’s monster. It really would almost fit in widthways. As it rests on its side in the museum, Black Arrow’s first stage is a little taller than head height; the second stage comes up to your chest. Here and there, the thin riveted panels of the skin have been replaced by perspex so you can see the intestinal tangle of fuel lines and HTP lines serving the rocket chambers. These are contrastingly huge and simple: monumental bells of dulled metal, with shiny brazed bands at rim and waist, and inside a pronounced, ridged grain, like the grain of wood, from the welds when it was assembled. Black Arrow’s front end is painted orange. Here the third-stage motor and the payload rode inside a casing shaped like the head of a rifle bullet, long and aerodynamic. But the shape as a whole is curiously stumpy, compared to the default picture of a rocket in your mind.

Saunders-Roe crated up R0, the first Black Arrow ‘development vehicle’, and shipped the set of bespoke travelling cases to Australia by sea. In the early years of the Woomera range, British engineers had travelled out by a route almost as slow as the sea voyage: they spent ten days flying from one RAF station to another across the world, Malta-Aden-Karachi-Singapore-Darwin, waking each day to cat bacon and eggs in tropical heat, and then jolting around in webbing seats in the roaring fuselage of a bomber until the next outpost of home cooking coagulated on the blue horizon. By 1969, they used the airlines, and it was comparatively easy to change planes at Adelaide for the flight out to the bungalows of Woomera. There were families at Woomera, and a primary school, and churches, but it was primarily a military town, very male, and rowdy to compensate for the secretiveness of the life there. There was nothing to do when the sun was high but work, and nothing to do at the end of another scorched, dusty day but drink, and sometimes fight. Because Woomera counted as a home posting, the civil service rocketmen of the RAE only received 7/6 a day for living expenses, so it was a point of honour for their luckier company colleagues to buy the pints.

R0 was launched on time in June 1969. Only the first stage was live. Fifty seconds into the flight, the eight first-stage engines lost co-ordination, R0 veered off course, and the Range Safety Officer pressed his button and blew it up. It was not a heartening start. Of course, problems like this were precisely what the flight tests were designed to reveal. But there were so few test vehicles to play with in Black Arrow’s case that the loss of R0 started a slippage in the schedule that was never made up. The trials were supposed to be finished by March 1970. Instead, R1 had to repeat the test ofthe first stage, and was repeatedly held up by minor faults. R2, with all three stages live, did not take off until September 1970. It bore its dummy satellite, a gold-plated sphere called Orba. This time, a leak in a pipe shared by two systems sent a false message to the valve controlling the HTP pressure in the second stage. The pressure dropped, the rocket chamber was starved of HTP, and the second stage engine cutout 15 seconds early. Grimly, the engineers watched the solid-fuel third stage ignite. Despite some defects, Orba emerged successfully from the payload casing, but it had not reached orbital velocity, and it plummeted into the Gulf of Carpentaria, a gold streak down the sky.

Iain Peattie, the RAE’s Project Officer for Black Arrow in its latter days steered through a minimal redesign – two pipes instead of one in the second stage, a set of ‘flow restrictors’, a rare redundant system to guarantee the performance of the third stage. A fierce struggle is buried here. Dry, Scots, practised in policy as well as engineering, Peattie is more guarded than any of the other rocketmen I have met. He plays down difficulties, as if understatement were the next best thing to the silence that once enwrapped Black Arrow under the Official Secrets Act. Perhaps he brought the habit of discretion with him when he was summoned from the world of defence intelligence in Washington after R0 blew up. Look, I say. Let me turn this around. If I said to you, I have here a satellite launcher development programme which will cost £9 million, and will have three proving flights, and you were just hearing out my proposition from scratch, what would you think? ‘It would be enormously difficult,’ says Iain Peattie. And laughs.

That was also the spring when a House of Commons Select Committee convened to review Britain’s involvement in space. They began taking evidence on 2 February 1971. The MPs were well disposed, eager to dispel the impression caused by the R2 failure that ‘we were not fundamentally good at this sort of thing.’ Several had an aeronautical background; young Mr Tebbit had been an airline pilot. But as they investigated Black Arrow, among the other items on their agenda, they found that only the aerospace companies directly involved in producing it seemed to be in favour, while support for it in government was faint and equivocal. Arthur Palmer MP to Mr A. Goodson of the Ministry of Aviation Supply: ‘Would it be true to say if we had our time over again we would not have bothered with Black Arrow?’ Mr Goodson: ‘That is a very difficult question. If we were back at the same time, we should probably do the same thing again, but with hindsight, it is another matter.’ Mr Tebbit: ‘Would it not have been cheaper to buy Black Arrow capability outside rather than to have developed Black Arrow?’ Mr Goodson: ‘Yes.’ Satellite manufacturers were adamant that they did not need a British launcher, although Sir Harry Legge-Bourke MP hammered hope-fully at the idea that the Americans might cut off the supply of rockets. The truth was that Black Arrow’s constituency had finally faded away. On 29 July 1971, before the Select Committee had time to reach a conclusion, Frederick Corfield, Heath’s Minister for Aerospace, stood up in the Commons and announced that Black Arrow was cancelled. The image of Dan Dare shimmered like air above a desert and vanished for good. The dream was over.

Or almost over. R3 was already on its way to Australia, and rather than shipping it back home to be dismantled, the engineers were allowed their last chance to prove the system, if only to themselves. Derek Mack was the leader of the Saunders-Roe team at Woomera. ‘We were committed to do it,’ he says. ‘It was a relatively simple system, and everyone from the operators right up to the most senior administrator wanted to see that this piece of kit would work.’ Carefully, R3 was unpacked, transported out to Range E and lifted into the gantry. In the payload bay was a 66 kg satellite, octagonal, surfaced with blue solar cells. The original intention had been to call it Puck, after the sprite who put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes, but Frederick Corfield reputedly said that he wouldn’t trust himself to announce that name in the Commons. So with a wryer sense of aptness, they named it Prospero: the magician who gives up power over earth and heaven.

On the first of the October days that they tried for a launch, a gritty wind got up in the morning and blew all day long. Mindful of the danger of wind shear in the first couple of hundred feet of the ascent, the launch crew waited, and waited, until the light began to go, and then staggered back to the Eldo Mess, covered in dust, and not in the best of moods. But 28 October dawned clear and cool, with only a light breeze across the toxic clay of the gibber plain. Derek Mack drove to Range E at 7 a.m. and relieved the night shift. The tanks had been fuelled with HTP and kerosene overnight, and the various explosive bolts that would separate the stages had been armed. Through the morning, the launch crew worked their way down their checklists once more. At II, they rolled back the gantry from the rocket. R3 swayed ever so gentry in the breeze. One by one the radio systems aboard were switched on and checked. They armed the large explosive which would destroy the rocket if the Range Safety Officer decided it was going the same way as R0; they withdrew the steel claw that pinned it to the ground. R3 was ready to go. At 12.30 the Saunders-Roe crew moved back to the blastproof Equipment Centre 700 metres away where the ground systems were controlled, and took their places. The Range Controller started the 30-minute countdown. Anyone could stop the clock, no matter how junior, but over the radio the reports from the different subsystem controllers and the tracking stations came back steadily positive, if in one case heart-stoppingly close to the two-minute deadline. The Range Controller extended a finger and switched over to the automatic timer which controlled the last events of the count.

At minus ten seconds a squirt of HTP through an umbilical spun the first stage turbopumps up to 50,000 rpm. Zero, and first-stage engine started. HTP pumped through the catalyst packed into the eight rocket chambers: 600°C. Kerosene ignited instantly in the slipstream: 2400°C. Black Arrow’s 50,000 lb of thrust built smoothly against its 40,000 lb of weight. It always took a few breathless seconds to reach the ‘instant of move’. ‘Time seemed to hang,’ says Derek Mack. ‘The first indication we’d have in the Equipment Centre was when a small electrical connection was broken at the base of the rocket. The instant-of-move light was just below the window so you could see both things in the same field of view. We saw the smoke and the bits of steam, and then it lifted off slowly and majestically.’ No flames showed beneath R3’s steel skirt. It rose on an invisible column of superheated steam. By the time the assembled VIPs, controllers and cheering engineers at the Instrument Centre five miles to the rear could see it, it was a yellow-white vapour trail accelerating upwards.

‘Then it was back to the telemetry.’ Derek Mack’s team were now out of the loop, but the raw data from the sensors aboard R3 were coming to them as a set of fluctuating white lines on a monitor, and they clustered round, deducing the progress of the rocket above them. At plus 131 seconds, the first-stage engine shut down, exactly on time. R3 was already moving at more than a mile a second, 26 miles up in a sky dimming to black and glinting with stars. A crack of explosive bolts: first-stage separation. This was the moment made famous on film by the Apollo moonrockets, but Black Arrow could not run to frills like cameras, so there was no one to see as the spent stage tumbled away backwards towards the red desert. On the monitor a white line blipped upwards. Plus 137 seconds: second-stage engine start, exactly on time. The line representing the HTP tank pressure stayed just where it should be. It was beginning to dawn on the engineers that they were watching a virtually perfect performance.

R3 coasted on upwards for five and a half minutes. Derek Mack packed up in the Equipment Centre and headed back to town. Then, 303 miles high, as R3 floated across the top of its parabola, the solid Wax-wing third stage lit, and gave R3 its final boost into orbit. Prospero bumped once, gently, against the debris that had accompanied it, and sailed away north-westwards around the blue curve of the planet at 17,000 mph, spinning like a giant glass Christmas tree bauble.

The first confirmation came from a satellite tracking station in Fairbanks, Alaska: ‘We have an operational satellite overhead on 137 megahertz.’ Pandemonium at Woomera; uproar; rivers of beer. Everyone from the van drivers to the visiting VIPs drank in the Eldo Mess that night. The party was long and loud, because the attempt to orbit Prospero had been the last thing between the rocketmen and the end of the programme, and this, the celebration, was the last of the last. When the sun came up the next morning over the desert, the hangover would encompass the whole of British rocketry. The future would begin, the future that would not even remember what they had done, except in circles of space enthusiasts almost as small as the BIS in 1944. The general public in 1971 was growing bored with astronauts playing golf on the moon, or driving around in their lunar rover; they would scarcely remember that last baroque stage of the Apollo missions, let alone this miniature triumph. The man from the Department of the Environment would come to see the padlock put on the gate of the High Down test site, and Jim Scragg of Saunders-Roe would put the key in his hand, and they’d walk away down the access road cut in the white chalk. Success gave a special bitterness to stopping.

After the party, the post-mortem. The Select Committee’s report had been published at Westminster the day before the launch. The MPs who wrote it had not known that Black Arrow’s history of delays would end in vindication, but they put their finger on an essential characteristic of the programme: ‘As so often in the development of new technology, economy in expenditure has resulted in too little being done to achieve success and the money, time and effort that has been expended has been spent to little purpose.’ The cheapness of Black Arrow was a great achievement. But as the Select Committee understood, it was also a sign of its limitations. The designers at Ansty and Cowes had squeezed out almost all the performance gains that were possible without upgrading Black Arrow radically. The modifications required to turn Black Arrow into a launcher with actual customers would have cost, not a little extra money, but a whole order of magnitude more. ‘I think one needs to go up by a factor of ten,’ says Iain Peattie. That’s £90 million rather than £9 million.

The irony is that, in their certainty that the Spitfire days were over, the policymakers missed the imminent arrival of something that had nothing to do with great power status, or nuclear security: 1971 represents one of the last moments before the money that had been fired into orbit started to rain back down, multiplied. The great era of the commercial satellite was just about to begin. Within a decade, satellites would be relaying TV, phone calls, floods of data, saleable weather charts, crop information. The market would be enormous, and the French, who stuck with space as much for la gloire as from commercial calculation, would inherit an impressive piece of it. Ariane makes a profit every year. Meanwhile, Prospero is still travelling around the earth every 100 minutes, in an orbit so stable it will last another forty years.