back to article 50 years have gone by since the UK's one – and only – homegrown foray into orbit

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the UK joining an elite club of one: nations that gained the ability to launch satellites into orbit and then discarded the skill. The one – and only – successful orbital launch of the Black Arrow took place in 1971. The place? The Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA) in Australia (about 450km from …

  1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "The easiest thing you can do is pour concrete"

    Yeah, well it might not be that simple.

    1. My other car WAS an IAV Stryker

      Re: "The easiest thing you can do is pour concrete"

      I've mentioned it before in the El Reg boards: even a handful of (fictional) US Army doctors and their company clerk can't follow a recipe correctly (M*A*S*H 4077's concrete "soup" of a new OR floor).

      I'm sure actual Army docs don't attempt to do it themselves; they call in the Corps of Engineers to have it (over)done. Just look at the concrete "apron" that has maintained the somewhat-beautiful St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis -- the cement has been stable for decades and the falls hasn't eroded into a hazardous rapids.

    2. Dr_N

      Re: "The easiest thing you can do is pour concrete"

      No need to pour it. Not when you can grow it!

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Will have to pop over and take a look :)

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: FAST

      It's good work on the Backronym there. Well done them.

  3. Anonymous Coward

    What could have been

    The UK's development of kerosene, hydrogen peroxide rockets was simply brilliant. It avoided all the technological and engineering problems associated with cryogenic propellants and the toxicity of hypergolic fuels - and produced a decent amount of specific impulse. A tragedy that the programme was scrapped just as it was beginning to produce real results - the UK could have had a good start on the small-sat market that came along about a decade later.

    Does anyone know if Prospero is still transmitting? It was certainly still going 'beep!' in the naughties - has anyone tried finding it recently? But even if it has gone quiet, it will be up there long after we have all gone to meet our makers.

    A beer for the Best of British Bryllcreemed Boffins who put it up there.

    1. ArrZarr Silver badge

      Re: What could have been

      Hydrogen Peroxide decomposes exothermically, causing any start to a decomposition to accelerate.

      It's also particularly happy to decompose when in contact with basically anything that isn't hydrogen peroxide. This leads to a situation where it not only needs to be obnoxiously pure but the container needs to be cleaned to the point of insanity.

      If it decomposed endothermically, it would probably be the perfect fuel, but since RFNA has been tamed with the addition of Hydrofluoric acid for storage in steel containers and UDMH is vastly functional, it's not a headache that really makes sense any more.

      On top of that, H2O2 isn't exactly friendly if you get any on you. It's not toxic to the voluminous levels of something like Chlorine Trifluoride or her more exotic sister Chlorine Pentafluoride (just typing that last one makes me wince). Derek Lowe of In The Pipeline considers 70% pure H2O2 to be reason to bring out the chainmail gloves and it just gets worse from there.

      1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

        Re: What could have been

        Lets face it, none of the rocket fuels are nice and easy to handle. Kerosene is the only friendly one I guess, all others are toxic, cryogenic, explosive, corrosive, or all of the above.

        HTP is fairly well behaved (by the standards of rocket chemicals, for that read "mad scientist") and good for a UK site as you can fuel the rocket and have it sitting for several days until the weather clears. Used as an oxidiser with a simply hydrocarbon fuel it is probably your least-worst stuff to have on site and handle.

        1. Wingnut29

          Re: What could have been

          As an ex propulsion engineer, I'd disagree with you. A splash HTP will set your shirt on fire if it's made of cotton. The same safety gear - SCAPE suits - are an absolute must just as they are for hydrazine et al. Plus of course, your hair turns a weird shade of white...

      2. Wingnut29

        Re: What could have been

        I'd agree. Whilst HTP is going through a bit of a renaissance period with in Europe, it is unpleasant stuff for human beings and smart prop engineers tend to give it a wide berth. Saying that the returnable Ariane 6 stage will use HTP for the attitude control system, but as you indicate, you just have to smile at the stuff and it'll set you alight.

      3. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

        Re: What could have been

        but since RFNA [red fuming nitric acid] has been tamed with the addition of Hydrofluoric acid

        Hmm. Don't you just love the idea of hydrofluoric acid making something safer...

        If you don't mind, I'll let you handle the rocket fuel. I'll be over here, hiding.

        1. ArrZarr Silver badge

          Re: What could have been

          If you're interested in the science, the HF reacts with the steel cannister first causing a protective coating, similar to how aluminium deals with atmospheric oxygen.

          The HF is only needed at a 1% concentration, so it's not *as bad* as it sounds.

    2. Matthew "The Worst Writer on the Internet" Saroff

      Re: What could have been

      The Germans used a Hydrogen Peroxide oxidizer and a Hydrazine and Methanol fuel in their Komet fighter.

      Once some of the high test Peroxide leaked into a cockpit and dissolved the pilot.

      1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

        Re: What could have been

        The Germans used a Hydrogen Peroxide oxidizer and a Hydrazine and Methanol fuel in their Komet fighter.

        And if you didn't get rid of absolutely every last drop of fuel on the powered phase of the flight, then the aircraft exploded as soon as you touched down. It wasn't quite a single-use plane, but you'd have to be a nutter to fly in one. Eric Brown did it of course, but I think only once.

        Also it was designed to get up to 30,000ft in a couple of minutes, then glide down and shoot the bombers on the way past. which meant you got only a couple of seconds of useful bomber shooting time if you were a brilliant pilot, otherwise you just zoomed past ineffectively. However it had an unpressurised cabin, the pilot had oxygen. Which I believe meant the pilots had to be put on a special low fiber diet in order to minimise the massive amounts of farting that the ascent to high altitude would otherwise cause.

        1. Stevie

          Re: Farting Nazi Pilots (of Death)

          Why would flatulence be a problem?

          The cockpit was leaky and the air outside at low pressure.

          Alle die schnitzellgaz would leak out of ze cockpit, nein?

          I doubt it would build up into an explosion hazard in and of itself.

    3. Roj Blake Silver badge

      Re: Does anyone know if Prospero is still transmitting?

      The article says it was last heard from in 2004.

  4. phuzz Silver badge

    [Skyrora] has announced plans to de-orbit the Prospero satellite, which continues to orbit the Earth (although was last heard from in 2004), using its Space Tug orbital transfer vehicle.

    WTF? No! Unless they can bring it down safely to put in museum, they should leave it alone, or maybe re-boost the orbit if it's decayed.

    1. nematoad Silver badge

      Excellent idea.

      Yes, let's take back control!

      Now where have I heard that before?

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Perhaps it's a test of much-needed technology to start clearing up all that orbiting junk. Running a vacuum cleaner in a vacuum isn't easy.

  5. Alan J. Wylie

    Previously on The Register:

    A couple of Geek's Guides, covering the sites where Blue Streak rocket motors were tested.

    Spadeadam and The missile test facility at the High Downs on the Isle of Wight

    1. Roger Greenwood

      Re: Previously on The Register:

      A visit to the Leicester space centre is also recommended. You can get close to a real (old) rocket and see the thin and flimsy materials they are made from.

      Also anyone not read Ignition!, now is your chance to laugh/recoil/marvel at the antics of rocket fuel designers and testers. Very readable classic book.

      1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

        Re: Previously on The Register:

        the Leicester space centre

        The recipient of possibly the finest motorway sign graphic - which no-one has seen fit to photograph so my search engine can find it!

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Previously on The Register:

          Google search

          road sign leicester space centre

          select images, 1st result. :-)

          Alternatively, Google Streetview and have a look at the motorway near any of the junctions off the M1 or other major trunk roads around Leicester, eg heading south on the M1 or the A46

          1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

            Re: Previously on The Register:

            Thank you - it didn't show up at all on the DDG search I normally use with that exact search term. I try and avoid Google if I can.

            1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

              Re: Previously on The Register:

              You're welcome. I was using my work laptop at the time, so I don't care what Google do with that. Work involves using specific programmes and, on the whole specific websites so they'll get very little useful data from me. Like you, I try to avoid Google on my own devices (sadly, impossible, but I do like to open tabs to random websites every now and then too, just to mess with what they do gather on me :-)

      2. QuiteEvilGraham

        Re: Previously on The Register:

        Upvote for reference to Ignition! Being an ex-Chemist myself, reminds me why I prefer programming computers. Many, many nasty things, and the pay ain't so great.

      3. Uncle Slacky Silver badge

        Re: Previously on The Register:

        Ignition! can be downloaded in PDF form here:

  6. KBeee

    Black Arrows forth dimension

    As Sir Sidney Camm said of the TSR2

    "All modern aircraft have four dimensions: Span, Length, Height and Politics. TSR2 simply got the first three right.”

    I think Black Arrow hit that same forth dimension.

    1. Greybearded old scrote Silver badge

      Re: Black Arrows forth dimension

      I think I've said before, it was money. From the end of the war until the oil began flowing we were about threepence ha'penny from bankruptcy. (Old money, in 1971 we'd only just gone decimal.)

      The TSR2 was also late and over budget. Less so than the F35, even if you take into account inflation, but it must have looked similar to the politicians at the time.

      1. A. Coatsworth Silver badge
        Black Helicopters

        Re: Black Arrows forth dimension

        Given that the TSR2 was swiftly cancelled, while the F35 is still being touted as the Second Coming of Sliced Bread, I'd say they are not similar to the eyes of the involved politicians.

        ... of course, if you get pork in your eye, it is hard to see anything.

      2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Black Arrows forth dimension

        Given that a lot of money had been spent in development writing it off against one or two prototypes gets very expensive. Even more so when you write it off and then buy imports. And most of all when you do so to tell the world the exact depth of your commitment to "the white heat of technology".

      3. martinusher Silver badge

        Re: Black Arrows forth dimension

        It might be reasonable to think that the UK was broke by the 1960s but you'll hear the same kvetching from politicians about unnecessary expenditure in the 1930s and even earlier.

        As for the TSR2 its main problem was one shared with Concorde -- to high, too fast, too capable. Americans are very sensitive about anything that can out run or out fly them.

        (As for the F-35, the less said about it the better....)

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Black Arrows forth dimension

          "It might be reasonable to think that the UK was broke by the 1960s but you'll hear the same kvetching from politicians about unnecessary expenditure in the 1930s and even earlier."

          Such as, currently in the news "Palmerstones Follies". Touted as a waste of money at the time because they were never used. Of course, you could also argue that they were never used because their mere existence was a deterrent.

      4. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

        Re: Black Arrows forth dimension

        There was a nice link on one of the El Reg articles, or might have been in the comments, to a civil service report recommending killing Black Arrow.

        It basically said that the government scientific bods might be able to find budget and use for one launch every couple of years. That they'd consulted with industry and they didn't want many more launches than that either. This meant that they couldn't get a decent production line going, which meant that costs were going to be much higher per launch than just buying launches off the Americans. Worse because this meant only making one rocket a year it would also be uneconomic and very hard to improve reliability by iterative design. You're only making a tiny number of components, so it's bloody expensive to engineer them to be more reliable and you're not getting as much real-world data because they're not being regularly used.

        He therefore recommended killing the program and buying what we needed. It's not like the payload was very large either, so to pretend that we somehow short-sightedly gave up this indigenous launch capacity is a bit silly. It still wouldn't have been that useful a rocket and so much money would have had to be spent on designing something bigger.

    2. Tom 7

      Re: Black Arrows forth dimension

      There were some strange post war ongoings that my mad Dad was convinced the US had more influence than is reported. The Avro Arrow was not just cancelled but destroyed while looking like the best thing available anywhere. It has been said it was because rockets with nukes were replacing planes with nukes but people still developed far less useful planes.

      British supersonic jets, rockets and a few others seemed to get cancelled for dubious reasons.

      But then my Dad was in academia and didnt come face to face with post war management in industry in the UK.

  7. devin3782

    Sorry is that an actual rocket or has some put a bright red lipstick on the set of Thunderbirds? Its still not as funny as the bezos cock rocket.

    1. Francis Boyle


      it may look like a lipstick but I bet it vibrates like hell when you turn it on.

    2. itzumee

      Yeah, I also thought that photo was a screenshot from an episode of Thunderbirds

    3. Tom 7

      Working from home getting to you?

  8. StrangerHereMyself Silver badge


    The Black Arrow utilized Hydrogen-Peroxide rocket technology pilfered from the Germans, which made the rocket very compact compared to kerosene-LOX / liquid hydrogen-LOX rockets (due to its density).

    I'm hoping to see newer British rockets utilizing this technology in the near future.

    1. Tom 7

      Re: Unique

      H202 and kerosene has always seemed to be potentially one the cheaper yet seriously useful rocket fuels. Neither need compressing, I've not heard of any turbopump problems with peroxide and its practically hypergolic with kerosene not that ignition should be a problem today.

      I do wonder whether its ignored in case the technology got a bit open-sourcy.

      1. Stoneshop

        Re: Unique

        I do wonder whether its ignored in case the technology got a bit open-sourcy.

        Thinking up a rocket engine for a particular fuel/oxidiser combo isn't too difficult.

        Designing one is a bit harder.

        Building one that actually works, keeps working and doesn't scatter itself and whatever it's attached to all around the test site or the launch pad appears to be still somewhat of a challenge, hence the marked preference to just go with one that's been shown to do what it's supposed to, unless one has very specific requirements.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Unique

        It's even better than hypergolic.

        The British rockets pumped hydrogen peroxide over a catalyst to produce superheated steam and oxygen. This was used to drive the turbopumps that fed the fuel and oxidiser and then dumped into the engine where it combined with the fuel.

        Genius, pure genius.

    2. Stevie

      Re: Unique

      Hairspray fuel, nitrox oxidizer, Spud propellent.

      In an Apollo 13 scenario, the crew could eat the propellant.

      Next up: World Peace.

  9. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge

    Just goes to show

    that know nothing plonkers in power is nothing new

    And that most of the UK's 'leadership' over the past 50 years wouldn't know a good idea if it hit them between the eyes.

    Look at today's kerfluffles over global warming... 25 years ago we KNEW that our nuclear power stations would be getting to their end of life... along with the coal powered stations.

    And that global warming(well CO2 emission) would be a big thing in the years to come.

    So its a no brainer to replace existing nuclear and maybe replace the coal (and gas as it turned out) with a mix of more nuclear and renewables of some sort.

    Except the plonkers in charge at the time took the same sort of decision the government did in 1971 ..

    Oh well

    1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge

      Re: Just goes to show

      Gas was heavily promoted in the 70's and 80's

      The phrase "Cookability That's The Beauty Of Gas" is indelibly marked in my memory.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Just goes to show

        ...and also my introduction to The Blue Danube as a fried breakfast slid around the non-stick frying pan, long before I tried flying a Viper into a docking station.

        (At least I think it was a gas advert, I could be wrong - can;t find it on the intertubes)

    2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Just goes to show

      "Except the plonkers in charge at the time took the same sort of decision the government did in 1971 .."

      Meanwhile, over in Germany, a number of the nuclear power stations were off line for repairs but when Fukishima happened, they decided to start shutting down their entire fleet and import power from Poland who were generating electricity from very dirty "brown" coal instead. I'm not sure of the likelihood of earthquakes or tidal waves in Germany, but clearly it's a risk too high to take. It's cheaper and gets more votes to get rid of nuclear and outsource your pollution.

    3. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Just goes to show

      Boris the Cockroach,

      It's all very well to blame the politicians. A very popular sport. But Black Arrow got cancelled for good reasons, and had they kept it would have almost certainly been an under-used and very unreliable system, probably mocked for its unreliability, seeing as it didn't have a high enough launch cadence to either become cheap or reliable. Plus it had a pretty small payload, so wouldn't have been much use for satellites of the time.

      As for nuclear power, I agree that we should have continued to build reactors. It's the greenest system going for baseload power generation. But this isn't just on the politicians. The voters objected to the siting of any new nuclear reactor. Even planning permission for new reactors on existing sites was repeatedly taken to court and objected to. And not just by the usual subjects, lots of the public didn't want nuclear. We've also had objections so sites for permanent storage of nuclear waste, which means there's quite a bit of it sitting around.

      So there's plenty of blame to share with the voters for wanting stuff done, so long as it's nowhere near where they live. For journalists for whipping up panic to sell a few copies. And for politicians for not pushing through stuff that needs to be done. And we can add pressure groups and so-called green gropus for lying about how dangerous nuclear power is and so helping to make our power generation less green.

      I just think it's an easy, lazy answer to blithely blame the politicians and then go back to doing what you were always doing anyway.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Glad we focussed our energy and attention on growth industries of tomorrow, like fishing.

  11. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge



    At this rate I'll be old, senile and decrepit before that gets anywhere high up in the sky.

    May be Boris will lend Boris Force One for you to do something similar to what Beardy Branson is doing with that 747...

    Note: Opinion varies amongst people who know me as to how far I am down the path to o/s/d - but even if I were, it's no use Vulture Central building Lego space vehicles, you need to launch LOHAN!!!

  12. bazza Silver badge

    Life After Black Arrow

    What’s less widely known is that bits of these rockets lived on in Ariane, some of the engines being used in the upper stages of Ariane 4 (which had a very long and successful service life).

    Rumour has it that we have the programme to the French in a bribe to let us into the European Economic Area (or whatever it was called). They said “Merci beaucoup por la rocket. Non”.

    1. KBeee

      Re: Life After Black Arrow

      Au contraire! “Merci beaucoup por la rocket. Oui! Bienvenue Le Common Market!”

      DeGaul was dead by then, so Ted Heath got us in under such bad terms that Wilson's Labour government that followed Heath's Tory one, was so outraged (yeah right) that they held a referendum about staying in under such bad conditions (deja vu)

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