Prospero: The Little Satellite That Could
Great Britain once had a space programme and then we forgot all about it
Above us, travelling at 17,000 miles per hour, a tiny piece of British Science Fiction orbits the Earth every one hundred minutes. The final child of the British Space Programme, a satellite launched from a rocket called Black Arrow in the parched heat of the Austrailian desert in 1971, Prospero is a tiny refugee, a little ball of metal and electronics, an orphan of a future that never happened. A future where, to quote StephenBaxter, “one day an old Spitfire pilot would fly into orbit… pipe clutched inside his space suit helmet.” A future where Britain would extend itself beyond this planet and take its place amongst the stars.
It’s a little remembered fact that, up until October 1971 the UK had its own, independent, space programme. As Francis Spufford puts it in his excellent book “Backroom Boys: The secret return of the British Boffin”:
“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… Big Rocket motors were test-fired 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 heard in regional accents.”
This is familiar territory for me, a land where, looking back, we can see the direction that things could have taken, a land where possible futures never materialised, forever suspended tantalisingly out of reach.
The British Space Programme was much as you would imagine it to have been. No golden heroes, no huge research establishments, no races for glory. As many have observed, the American / Soviet space race was an exercise in mythology as much as it was an exercise in technological advancement. As much as the control of an actual new territory was important as an objective, the rush to space can be seen as the culmination or climax of belief in technology as ideology with two systems trying to claim their position as the victors of a battle for possession of the future.
For a while, Britain sat at this table, dutifully taking the minimum stake possible to stay in the game. It’s instructive to see just how close to reality the world of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass plots actually are. The real British Space Programme followed a very similar pattern, with quiet, dignified engineers constantly accounting to the Government for every expenditure, constantly worrying and regretting their work being put to military aims, dreaming of the possibility of finally firing an inhabitant of the British Isles beyond the chimney smoke and grey skies and up into the emptiness above.
Prospero’s parents are varied. His first ancestor is Blue Streak. The bastard offspring of American technology and the British workshop pride of De Havilland of Stevenage, Blue Streak was an intermediate range ballistic missile developed as part of a treaty with the US. Commissioned in 1954, it had cost £60 million by 1960, and would have needed another £440 million to be installed in its concrete home in East Anglia. A stillborn, the world moved on while it was crafted and tinkered with, a good rocket but a poor missile. In a race to fire destruction at the enemy, Blue Streak was too dignified and stately, the next generation already threatening to arrive in the time it took Roger Bannister to run a mile.
The knowledge developed during the building of Blue Streak would eventually find it’s way into a joint project between France, Italy, Great Britain and West Germany. Naming itself The European Launcher Development Organisation, it would build Europa, a three-stage European satellite launcher, with Blue Streak as the brute force that would punch it into theblackness above. After a change to a Labour Government in October 1964, and a growing sense of economic crisis, British will reduced to carry on such costly activities. Leaving behind some test firings of Europa, and, according to this site, in the jungles of Guiana, one rocket abandoned, lying in the South American jungle, being used as a chicken coop, the British Space Programme again returned to solely British hands.
In 1965, The Labour government of Harold Wilson made a great commitment to modernisation through technology and creating a Ministry of Technology on it’s arrival in office, commissioned the Royal Aircraft Establishment to begin work on a new project: Black Arrow. This was almost fact following fiction. The RAE was a place where ideas and concepts were toyed with before being commission and put out to private contractors for production, almost an analogue of Quatermass’s British Rocket Group. Just look at the photographs on this page and tell us that they you can’t imagine, just out of shot the sleek shape of the Quatermass 2 rocket. Whilst a military establishment, the RAE had a remit to explore any technologies that might deliver a future strategic advantage, so it is easy to imagine that it became home to people committed to science who tried, where possible, to shoehorn in research into matters lass aggressive and more wondrous. It was charged with the development of an all British Satellite Launcher, but only on the condition that it cost next to nothing. Black Arrow would be funded with the scraps from the table of ELDO and any budget leftovers for the UK’s purchase of Polaris missiles. Eventually, the entire budget for the project would come to £9 million pounds, a drop in the ocean of NASA spending.
It was this programme that would finally fire Prospero into history rather than the future. Designed and built in the small workshops of the British Aerospace industry, Black Arrow gradually took shape. Finally, on October 28th 1971, this precision engineered hunk of machinery manufactured and designed in the Midlands and the Home Counties posthumously blasted off from the flat plain at Woomera in Australia, three months after the Minister for Aerospace in Edward Heath’s Conservative government Frederick Corfield told the House of Commons that Black Arrow was cancelled. Spinning off from Black Arrow and on into orbit unobserved even by a camera; as a final hurrah, little Prospero proved that we could do it after all, just as the axe finally fell and consigned British Space research once more to realm of the amateur in their garden shed.
While it was the military that dreamed up the scheme and ran it, it was the men who worked at place like Armstrong Siddeley Rocket Motors at Ansty that made it happen. As Francis Spufford explains:
“Many of the rocktmen themselves were attracted to Black Arrow precisely because it was not a weapon… They were conscientious men, committed to the defence of Britain, who were going to be relieved to find at the end of the cold War that they had not spent their lives procuring the end of the world. They preferred working on space to working on nuclear weapons because space was more innocent.
“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 county, if it had to be done.’”
What is interesting about the British Space Programme is that it is unclear what exactly the reason behind it was. From as early as 1957, NASA was offering free rides into space for experimental payloads. When questioned later, Sir Morien Morgan, director of the RAE stated that he “regard(ed) these small rockets in very much the same way I regard simulators and wind tunnels”. Black Arrow, for him, was an experimental tool, a way stage on the path toward Britain’s space future. It’s possible that there was a military purpose, as an independent method of launching satellites may have conferred some advantage in negotiations with the US. What is most interesting to Archeology of the Future, though, is the possibility held out by historian David Wright as quoted by Spufford:
“I would not underestimate the romantic reasons why we got into Black Arrow. Even people who worked in the Ministry went home and read science fiction, saw science fiction stuff on the television; they dreamed too.”
In the 1950s, there had been no question that the UK would go into space. Technological advance was all around; everything seemed, in one way or another to be on an upward trajectory, pushing at the very boundaries of the possible. By the time that Black Arrow was commissioned, the focus for the space dream had already moved to the US space missions, to the race to the moon. The British Programme was already out of date and parochial. It wasn’t big enough. It wasn’t being pushed forward by a collective yearning, but by the fantasies and dreams of a small group of engineers who, raised on the very stuff of space, had sustained their wonder with the dreams of science fiction.
Francis Spufford points out that, to have spent the money to develop a proper space programme in the 1960s, the UK would have had to jettison some of its other achievements. The example that Spufford gives is all of the new universities of the 1960s. It is tempting to think that the collective yearning for space and the future that was lost or refocused found its way into the utopian architectural and cultural ideas that developed in the 1960s. Rather than trying to build the future in space, Britain tried to build the future in Britain.
As Spufford puts it, the space dream continued in hearts and dreams of those engineers and science fiction fans:
“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… All possible futures depended on a starting-point in the present. To sustain the work of the engineers was to prevent the whole fan of futures from disappearing.”
The ghost of this dream still orbits above us now, sucking in energy from the sun. According to this article, amateur satellite trackers heard the last tiny cries of Prospero as late as 2000, a phantom voice from an aborted future…
As a postscript to this post, it seems that there is some real Archeology of the Future to be carried out on the remnants of the British Space Programme. According to this Department of Trade and Industry Committee of HM Government Report published in 2000 great hunks of Britain’s Space History are lying forgotten and overlooked including “The Spadeadam Blue Streak, rotting in a car park in a restricted area hidden from the public.” For more details see:
Real life artefacts from a future that never happened, right here right now. Even in the space of forty years we seem to have forgotten what might have been.
(This was originally written in 2006, in a rush of enthusiasm for forgotten futures.)