Space – the final frontier

Woomera, Australia – On the 28th October, 1971, the United Kingdom launched its first – and only – satellite to be carried into orbit by a launch vehicle also designed and built in the UK. The Black Arrow launcher placed the Prospero satellite in low earth orbit some three months after the project had been cancelled by the government.

Because the UK launched its spacecraft from Woomera in Australia – it had rejected Norfolk on the east coast of England as a launch site for fear that bits of rocket might fall on oil rigs in the North Sea – the last Black Arrow was already on board a ship headed for Australia and the government took the view that it would cost more to bring the rocket home than to actually fly the planned mission, so the launch went ahead.

Black Arrow was the most advanced launch vehicle designed in Britain, following on from the Blue Streak ICBM and its successor, Blue Steel. It used the same RP-1 kerosene fuel as the US Saturn V, but used high test peroxide as an oxidiser rather than oxygen. Check out the distinctive exhaust plume in any of the YouTube clips of the launch.

The following year, Britain also pulled out of the European Launcher Development Organisation launch vehicle development project, of which Blue Streak formed the first stage.

Britain thus became the only country ever to have developed a successful home-grown launch system and then given up and walked away. Sure, it still builds satellites, but it has to rely on other countries to lift them into space – notably the French, whose government stuck with the European launch program and today forms the basis of the successful – and profitable – Ariane launch vehicle.

Rise of the accountants
Britain’s lack of an indigenous spacecraft launch system is what happens when accountants take over from scientists and engineers. It’s what happens when a country becomes more interested in counting pennies than exploring the universe.

The US has a successful launch system in the Shuttle, scheduled to cease operations next year. While the remaining three shuttles (there are actually four, but Enterprise was only ever used for glide and landing tests and is not space-worthy) are far from the only launch vehicles available for US missions, they are the most high profile.

The shuttle’s replacement, Project Constellation, comprising the Orion spacecraft and a launch vehicle called Ares – obviously named by someone for whom anagrams are an unknown concept – is currently under review by accountants to see if it should proceed. It’s not under review by engineers and scientists – sound familiar at all?

Congress is looking at the possibility of delaying the retirement of the space shuttles, which could cost about $10 billion and see the shuttles make six or seven additional flights between 2010 and 2013.

In the meantime, Russian scientists have drawn up plans to salvage their modules from the International Space Station when it reaches the end of its life around 2020, to refurbish and reassemble them in orbit while the US-built modules are discarded to burn up in the atmosphere.

So while other countries – most notably Russia and India – are pressing ahead with plans for future missions, the US is counting those pennies, just as the UK did almost 40 years ago.

I remember the excitement I felt watching the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab missions. I was working in India last year when the Chandrayaan moon mission flew and the feeling of national pride was palpable.

The boss of the Indian space agency said at the time that he was not prepared to buy tickets on other people’s spacecraft and that India must have its own indigenous launch facility.

It is a national disgrace that the UK, which did so much pioneering space research, has nothing to show for it today, apart from the last Black Arrow hanging forlornly from the roof of the London Science Museum.

Britain ceased to be a major world power when the accountants took over from the engineers. Let’s hope the US learns from history and keeps looking outward, because one thing is certain – when a country stops moving forward, it is actually going backwards.

It is all too possible that the captain of the USS Enterprise will not speak English, but Russian or Hindi. Is that what we want to happen?