It is 50 years since Blighty began a homegrown and all-too-brief foray into space
1970, the Beatles disband and the UK celebrates the first successful Black Arrow launch
Join us tonight in raising a toast to the 50th anniversary of the first successful launch of the Black Arrow, the UK's brief foray into orbital rocketry.
The second of four Black Arrow launches, the lift-off of R1 from the Woomera range in Australia marked the first time the rocket's first and second stages succeeded in a sub-orbital test (the fourth and last in the series made it to orbit in 1971).
The first launch had not gone well. Also intended as a test (and lacking an active third stage or payload), the launch of the R0 on 28 June 1969 failed due to an electrical fault and was destroyed by range safety.
The second try went to plan, and today marks 50 years since that success. An attempt to launch to orbit six months later failed due to the second stage cutting off prematurely before Black Arrow managed to send a satellite to orbit on its fourth and final launch in 1971.
Politicos cancelled the project in 1971, leaving the fifth Black Arrow to hang from the ceiling of London's Science Museum and the Woomera launch facilities demolished.
The first stage of that final Black Arrow was recovered from the Australian outback and shipped back to the UK in 2018 before being put on show as a reminder of capabilities dumped by the shortsighted powers-that-be back in the day in favour of US versions. Or as a celebration of British engineering and economy – take your pick.
The impressive and aggressively unrestored hulk can currently be seen at The Farnborough Air Sciences Trust (FAST) Museum, where it is on loan for three years from its Scottish home in Penicuik, Midlothian. Brit rocketeers Skyrora were responsible for extracting the remains from Australia.
Black Arrow itself was a three-stage rocket, standing 13 metres tall. It was intended to demonstrate how technology reuse could reduce costs and to that end lifted tech from previous rockets, such as Black Knight. The first two stages were powered by RP-1 paraffin and the spin-stabilised third stage used a solid motor.
All told, it was theoretically capable of lifting around 135kg to an orbit of 220km, or 102kg to 500km. However, it only ever sent the 66kg Prospero satellite to space before the axe fell.
The UK was the sixth nation to launch a homegrown orbital rocket and holds the dubious title of the only one to deliberately kill off its own programme. While satellite construction within Blighty's shores has softened the blow, on the 50th anniversary of that first launch efforts continue to restore the lost capability. ®