History: UK gave up impressive space programme including plans to launch UK astronauts “just to get into Europe”

by | Oct 25, 2012 | Seradata News | 0 comments

There will be sadness in those “space cadets” in the United Kingdom of all ages as we note that new evidence has come to light showng just how advanced the main space launch programme in the United Kingdom promised to be before it was ignominiously cancelled in July 1960. 

At a talk given at the British Interplanetary Society in London on 24 October by the space historian John Hazelwood, he revealed the extent of the programme that had been started in 1953 showing that the plan actually involved launching men to orbit with the eventual aim of going to the moon.  

Having been access to previously undisclosed records at RAF Cranwell, Hazelwood discovered how the programme was derived from declared  RAF objectives to have control of “near space” (ie. Earth orbit) but also have control of “Far Space” i.e. the Moon.  The rocket programme was developed which had a self confessed “duality of purpose”: that was to be a ballistic missile for the delivery of nuclear warheads, while at the same time, being able to act as an orbital launch vehicle for both manned and umanned spacecraft.  

Astronauts needed – because electronics were primative

In the former application, it was thought in the early 1950s that any rocket should be able to launch a 5,000lb payload to an orbit of 300NM.  Initially it was viewed that spacecraft would have crews of five. The need for humans in space in this pre-transistor age, was really a product of the needs of the then-available electronic technology.  The unreliabile valve components, it was thought, would have to be changed out on a regular basis – and astronauts would be needed to do it.

Plans for initial manned forays into suborbital space were to be via rocket planes such as the Saunders-Roe SR-53 and Avro 720 flying off the back of Vickers Valiant and Avro Vulcan bombers respectively.  In the end this programme was cancelled after ballistic missiles showed the way forward.

Blue Streak enters but it only has a launch vehicle role

By the middle 1950s the product of this research programme was a missile called Blue Streak – a 10 foot diameter Liquid Oxygen (LOx), Kerosene rocket system capable of launching warheads ballistically to 2,500NM.  In fact, as Hazelwood discovered from discussions with Blue Streak’s Chief Perfomance Engineer I.E. Smith, this Long Range Ballistic Missile (LRBM) was, with a smaller warhead mass, actualy able to actaully reach out to 4,400NM.  Even more impressively, the rocket, which was powered by two LOx/kerosene burning RZ-2 engines of 150,000 lb thrust, would have been able tlaunch small satellites directly and with high energy upper stages could have even launched a manned spacecraft.   According to Hazelwood, a Blue Streak with a high energy cryogenic upper stage: “would have been able to launch an equivalent payload to an ATV cargo craft.” The 20,000kg ATV as is now launched by the Ariane 5.



Cutaway of Blue Streak missile. Courtesy: Flightglobal


Other designs – and evidence of a major space launch plan

The DeHavilland-designed pressurised Blue Streak was just the start of plans for missile and launch vehicle design.  Running in parallel with Blue Streak was the more pointed English Electric unpressuriseed monocoque concept of similar performance and again of 10 feet in diameter.  This rocket, which was to have been powered by the 185,000lb thrust Delta 3 engines designed by Bristol, was in the end, shelved to be just a back up to the main Blue Streak effort. 

There was other eviidence of just how extensive a British launch programme could have been.  This includes the construction of an air liquefaction plant at Woomera which was capable of producing 18,000 Imperial tons of liquid oxygen (LOx) per year – enough to supply hundreds of heavy lift launches.   More realistically, other evidence suggests that a production line was to have been set up at Stevenage, Hertfordshie, England whch was capale of producing 50 missiles/satellite launch vehicles per year.

Thinking ahead – there were plans for even bigger rockets

Designs existed for much larger rocket launch vehicles with diameters increased up to 16 feet with launch gantrys supplied to handle this growth potential.   At one stage even a 20 foot diameter rocket had been considered.  It was not just launch gantries that were being provided for large launch vehicles.  Modified aircraft were beeing designed to carry stages.

Meantime, a test rocket stand located close to the English/Scottish border at Spadeadam was capable of firing rocket engines upto 1 million lb in thrust.  These engines designated RZ-14 had direct drive pumpls which needed no heavy gearbox and much less heavy lubrication.

While transistors soon negated the need for astronauts to service spacecraft, Britain’s manned element of its space programme was not to be forgotten. Armstrong Whitworth along with other aerospace companies were asked to come up with designs for a three-man space capsule, the drawings of which have never been released.

While other sites including Muckleburgh were considered, eventually it was Woomera which was used as the launch site for all UK missile firing including Blue Streak and the orbital attempts of the smaller Black Arrow launch vehicle.

End of the Dream – but bits of UK expertise helped NASA get to the moon

While the ballistic missile element of the programme was soon ended due to the threat of military strikes on fixed launch sites which such a large liquid fuel rocket would need, the space launch application of the Blue Streak rocket continued.  A second stage based on the smaller Black Arrow was considered. 

In the end, the perceived political and economic need to become more involved with Europe, combined with US pressure for the UK to leave the space arena, and fears over the cost, caused the MacMillan government to give up on large scale space research in July 1960.  

In doing so, it formallly gave up planns for manned spaceflight as it moved its Blue Streak missile to become the first stage of  Europa, the unsuccessful launch vehicle of European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO).  Britain still retained its Black Arrow programme but even this was ended after its only and final successful flight carrying the Prospero satellite in 1971.

However, elements of Britain’s space programme lived on.  Not only were British and Canadian scientists heaviy involved with NASA’s Apollo space programme, some of its technology came from British designs.  For example, the ablative heat shielding came from the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough as did the water cooled undergarments that space suit wearing astronauts wear to prevent overheating.

New UK launcher hopes for the future – but the funding will have to be international

While the United Kingdom did become part of ELDO’s successor the European Space Agency and its Ariane programme, after Ariane 4 it left the launch vehicle programme.  Neverthless, the UK does still have interests in launch vehicle technology.  For example, there are rumours that the UK is considering developing a quick access small launch capability for its own military observation and electronic intelligence satellites (to add to its human and GCHQ listening station intelligence contribution to the pooled facility it shares with its US intelligence partners).  

In addition, the UK government and UK Space Agency remains a supporter of the efforts of UK firm Reaction Engines as it tries to develop reusable air breathing launch vehicle technology (the writer is a small shareholder).  However, given its very limited overall space funding, the UK Space Agency knows that it does not have the money to do this all by itself.  



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