A website about UK Science Fiction, digging through the past to uncover the future.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Buy content through ScooptWords Prospero: The Little Satellite That Could

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 Stephen Baxter, “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 Archeology of the Future, 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 the blackness 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 thirty years we seem to have forgotten what might have been...

Check this previous post for more information on the British Space Programme.

Click here to buy the extremely wonderful 'Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of The British Boffin' by Francis Spufford from amazon.co.uk

Technorati Tags:


Blogger Ghost Particle said...

my god, whatb a read. Now...i never knew britain had an idependant space programme. But still, now they do have private satelite and rocket companies? no?

I used to research a microsatelite made by the surrey space center.

I was searching for SBaxter when I came to yours. Am a big baxter fan. and this is an excellent article.


10:22 am, April 06, 2006

Blogger DavetheF said...

Wonderful and fascinating stuff. The prolific but relatively obscure British novelist Nigel Balchin, himself a scientist who worked for the War Office as a Scientific Adviser in World War 2 wrote a novel immediately before the race to the moon began. To quote a synopsis gleaned from the website The Balchin Family Society:
"Published a year before Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, the novel is narrated by Dr Frank Lewis who, at the age of 36, is plucked from his cosy Cambridge laboratory, seconded to NASA and subjected to training as an astronaut. Nigel, of course, was uniquely equipped to handle such a tale, which benefits both from his detailed technical understanding and his penetrating insight into the human psyche.

"As surely as he had recreated the world of the wartime research scientist in The Small Back Room, Nigel brought to life the world of the space race, and in doing so revealed how similar they remained."

I read it as a youth and your piece somehow recalls its flavour.

Another interesting fact about Nigel Balchin is that while a consultant at Rowntrees in the Thirties he also conceived of the bubble-filled chocolate Aero, and suggested the name KitKat for the company's latest chocolate bar.
He also coined the term "boffin" in his novel The Small Back Room.
A quintessentially British kind of scientist, since he preferred tio think of himself as a writer and thus somehow retained his amateur status. Further excavation of his life and works would be rewarding, I think. He also wrote numerous screenplays, and I think Powell and Pressburger did a film version of The Small Back Room.

6:51 pm, April 20, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

My mu and dad used to live on the Iow ad my dad they used to go to the needles were they tested the black arrow and knight. he said you could here the rocket engings and i visted the site very intersting we should still heave a program

11:18 pm, September 30, 2008

Anonymous Anonymous said...

My Father actually worked on the radio systems for Prospero, but didn't get to see the launch.

I remember that he had a commemorative ashtray with a model of Prospero flying over it. He never smoked, so I think it survives as a souvenir at home.

He carried on working on satellites (such as Skynet 2 & 3) for Marconi Space & Defence Systems until very recently, when he retired from what had become "Astriums".

10:08 pm, November 08, 2008

Anonymous Chris Mullen said...

I work for Astrium, and have been asked to look into the possibility of celebrating the 40th anniversary next year of Prospero's launch by attempting to contact and turn on the satellite. I would be grateful for any information about Prospero, especially the Spacecraft User Manual! Please contact me with any information on chris.mullen@astrium.eads.net.

11:57 am, February 15, 2010

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Has anyone heard more about the post above?
I tried to contact Chris but no reply yet.

9:17 pm, May 13, 2011

Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is usually a display with some of the original members of that magnificent team present at the Needles Battery,Hopefully they can do something special on its 40th Birthday

1:01 pm, July 20, 2011

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was the satellite controller for Prospero at RAE Farnborough in the early 1970s and have submitted a paper for publication shortly in the BIS magazine "Spaceflight" on the history, launch, and results for the first year in orbit. Several Prospero papers were published in the JBIS in 1974.

4:42 pm, November 05, 2011


Post a Comment

<< Home