Trampling on the Shoulders of Giants

This is my fourth post about my trip to the Isle of Wight. The first can be found here.

It’s quite obvious to anyone that casts a cursory glance around the world today that the future will be dominated by those nations who excel in science and technology. Only the most foolish and short-sighted leaders would fail to invest in such a lucrative field. As for those who invest, succeed, but subsequently abandon that success, for such nations only the most serious of scorn should be reserved. I’m talking, of course, about the UK. As, after all, the UK is the only nation to have successfully developed a satellite launch capability and then idiotically abandoned it.

Hidden from the mainland by the one of the Isle of Wight’s most famous landmarks is an isolated, wind-swept, concrete husk that was once a thriving, ground breaking facility.

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It may seem surprising today but during the 1950s the UK’s place in the space race was on par with both the US and the USSR. In fact, by the early 60s the UK was actually ahead of the US. A sobering thought in light of this being the same decade when the first American steps were taken upon the moon.

During the 1950s a rocket testing site was built at High Down on the Isle of Wight (just above the Needles). A rocket named Black Knight was designed, developed and tested there as a means of delivering a nuclear bomb. Despite the incredibly tight budget, Black Knight performed exceptionally well. In fact, it experienced no failures whatsoever. It was this success that led to the decision of adapting the technology into a low-cost satellite launch system. This became known as the Black Arrow satellite launcher. Much like the Black Knight the Black Arrow was chronically under-funded. Also much like the Black Knight project, it was astoundingly successful.

Its fourth and final launch succeeded in its goal of successfully placing a satellite into orbit – thus proving itself to be viable and low-cost means of launching satellites. It also made the UK one of only six nations to have successfully sent a home-made satellite into orbit.

As the UK had no suitable launching sites the rocket was launched from Woomera in Australia. Sadly, despite the projects ongoing success, short-sighted politicians of the time cancelled the project. The cancellation was confirmed while the team were on their way to Woomera. “Officially” word of the cancellation never reached them, so they continued with the launch, although some believe they were indeed aware of the order but chose to ignore it. I hope that’s true. I like the idea of them shaking their head in disgust at their superior’s foolhardy ignorance but deciding to bloody-mindedly go ahead anyway just to prove a point.

The subsequent successful launch proved a political embarrassment for the UK government. Equally embarrassing are the views of the minister who made the decision. By his own admission, he could see no commercial value to launching satellites. Now there’s a man with some remarkable foresight.

After cancellation the only real means of commercial satellite launch was through the American Scout rocket. To a large extent the Scout held a monopoly on the lucrative market. It went on to launch over a hundred satellites and continued operating until 1996. This included various British satellites. The fact that the Scout was more expensive and arguably less capable than the Black Arrow only adds to the foolishness of the Arrow’s premature cancellation. To add salt to the wound, prior to the cancellation of Black Arrow, NASA had offered to launch British payloads for free. After the cancellation the offer was withdrawn.

According to the National Space Society every $1 spent on basic research today is thought to generate $40 worth of economic growth (ref: www.nss.org). Granted, the National Space Society is unlikely to be unbiased, but it still indicates the huge economic benefit of investing in science and technology. It also indicates how dangerous to future prosperity it can be when the political class fails to grasp this concept. The Black Arrow story clearly demonstrates the pitfalls of having a political class possessing a dangerous combination of too much power and too little foresight. Still, I’m sure they’d never do anything that stupid again…

There is perhaps one humorous footnote to this sad tale. The successfully launched satellite was originally meant to be named “Puck” (from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream). After the cancellation it was renamed by one of the engineers. Its new name, Prospero, was taken from the Shakespeare play The Tempest. The character Prospero was a great wizard who spent many years mastering his mystical art. At the end of the play Prospero abandons magic and loses his abilities. The renaming took place after the cancellation, clearly demonstrating the engineer’s dim view of the cancellation. And the sore reminder of this foolish abandonment will certainly continue for some time. Prospero remains in orbit. It passes over our heads twice every day, and it’s believed that it will continue to do so for the next 220 years. Yep, there’s clearly no future in such technology.

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About lanceleuven


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