How north Norfolk nearly found itself in the Space Race
PUBLISHED: 14:32 28 August 2016 | UPDATED: 14:32 28 August 2016
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When it comes to the space race of the 1960s, you may think that it was a purely two-horse affair, between the Soviet Union and the United States.
But in fact, there was another entrant – one that perhaps lagged behind the two superpowers in terms of scale and funding, but was more than their equal in the skill and enthusiasm of those involved. It got there a little later in sending a satellite into space, but it did get there – and yes, that entrant was our own United Kingdom.
It sounds like something from an alternative history story, or from the 1950s adventures of Jet Morgan on the radio or Professor Quatermass on the television, but Britain really did have its own space programme. And, on October 28 1971, that project successfully launched a satellite, Prospero – a satellite which still orbits high above us to this day.
The Black Arrow R3 rocket behind our one and only home-grown satellite launch ended up taking off from the Woomera testing range in Australia.
But it could all have happened a lot closer to home, for in the early stages of the Black Arrow project, the Royal Aircraft Establishment, the RAE, looked at a possible launch site in Norfolk.
That site was Brancaster. If not for an accident of timing with the exploitation of North Sea oil, this peaceful spot could have found itself at the centre of Britain’s journey into space.
That journey began not with scientific exploration, but with the attempt to create weapons of mass destruction. In the Cold War nuclear paranoia of the Fifties, the government commissioned work on a missile system called Blue Streak, which would be the country’s nuclear deterrent, to strike back against any aggressor who attacked our islands.
Blue Streak was abandoned in the 1960s, as Britain reached a deal with the United States to buy its submarine-based Polaris system instead. But during the course of its development, it had been realised that another rocket was needed to see how the Blue Streak nuclear warheads might behave when they came flying back down to Earth. This was the Black Knight test missile, and in 1966 – given that so much time and money had been spent on the project – the government decided to save some face by giving the go-ahead for Black Knight to be redeveloped as a satellite launch vehicle, the Black Arrow.
The ‘Black Arrow’ was actually mainly white, with a distinctive red tip. At the Science Museum in London, they have a case full of models of rockets from various countries and eras, all built to scale. The models of the American Saturn V rockets are a good two feet or more, while the Black Arrow looks almost exactly like a stick of lipstick on its little shelf next to them, standing no more than about three inches tall.
The Science Museum does, however, have a rather bigger Black Arrow – and it’s a real one. After the project was cancelled there was still one rocket, R4, built and ready to go. It was donated to the Science Museum where it hangs in their Exploring Space gallery, 40ft long, like an enormous version of something you might once have seen suspended by threads from a child’s bedroom ceiling.
It was beneath this last of the Black Arrows that I spoke to Douglas Millard, the curator of the museum’s space collection. He explained to me that you could say, in a manner of speaking, that Britain’s space rockets had been powered by hair bleach – in this case, peroxide!
“I wouldn’t recommend using this particular type of hydrogen peroxide as bleach!” he laughs. “It was extremely concentrated, that’s why it was so useful as a rocket oxidant to burn the fuel in. This high test peroxide was very unstable, but very good for launching rockets.”
It was in October 1966 that the RAE had prepared their report on possible launch sites for Black Arrow in the UK. Their verdict on Norfolk was the most positive. This report survives in The National Archives at Kew, and explains that, “Such a site would have some significant technical and financial advantages… There are several areas north of the coastal road that would appear adequate… In conclusion, therefore, a site in Northern Norfolk is recommended as the most satisfactory...”
The author Ed Couzens-Lake grew up in Brancaster, and has long been fascinated by this “what if?” aspect of the village’s history.
“People are completely incredulous about it when I mention it,” he told me. “They find it very, very hard to believe.”
Ed thinks that if the rocket base had been built here, it could have left Brancaster facing the same fate as the deserted villages now abandoned within the military training area near Thetford.
“That’s the part of the story that’s so fascinating,” he remarks. “If they had brought it here, what would have happened to the village? I think it’s possible it would have been relocated, or at least the people would have been.”
All this could so easily have happened, if perhaps the Black Arrow project had happened just a few years earlier. As it was, one of the factors that made the Norfolk coast so attractive – a clear path of nothing but sea up to the Arctic – was starting to become complicated by the presence of the North Sea oil field. Rockets such as Black Arrow are made up of several different stages, with each stage falling back towards the ground as it is discarded – or in this case, towards the sea.
“Although it would be possible to show statistically that the chances of hitting an oil rig would be acceptably low,” The National Archive’s documents from the time explain, “it seems probable that political considerations would inhibit the establishment of a launch site in Norfolk.”
So a deal was made with Australia and Britain’s rockets were launched at Woomera instead, with nothing that might be in the way of falling bits of space debris. The closest thing Britain ever got to its own rocket base was the Black Arrow’s engine testing site at High Down on the Isle of Wight, overlooking the famous Needles and their lighthouse.
A series of grey concrete bunkers and walkways, partly buried into the steep cliff-face, High Down gives something of an idea of what the possible base at Brancaster may have ended up looking like. Indeed, in the archive documents it’s specifically stated that the Norfolk base would also have replaced High Down as the testing area as well as the launch site.
While on the island to see it, I also met local resident Ray Wheeler, who was the chief design engineer for the Black Arrow project. Ray remains adamant that the work he and his colleagues did was never properly recognised. Indeed, the project had even been cancelled shortly before its successful satellite launch.
“It was a bit of really good British engineering,” he insists, “that didn’t get the publicity it deserved at the time.”
Now at least we can look back and be proud of Prospero, still up there in orbit. And here in Norfolk, we can wonder “what might have been…?” if it had been sent up there from our own North Sea shores.