28 October 1971: Britain’s only independent satellite launch
This day in 1971 saw the launch of Britain’s only independently launched satellite, when the Black Arrow rocket deployed the ‘Prospero’ satellite in orbit.
The phrase "British space programme" conjures up the image of a couple of bearded boffins welding dustbins and electronics parts in a lock-up garage in Swindon or somewhere. In 1971, that wasn't too far off the mark. But they did manage to get a satellite up into space.
It all began with an attempt to build a British nuclear ballistic missile. But after developing the “Blue Steel”, “Blue Streak” and “Black Knight” missiles, the programme was cancelled. The government decided it would be cheaper to buy off-the shelf nukes from America instead. From now on, all our spacebound efforts would be civilian, the government decided.
And so the Black Arrow delivery rocket was developed from 1964 by Saunders Roe, more famous for its efforts in building hovercrafts. It used some of the technology from the earlier missiles, and was tested in the rocket testing station built into the cliffs overlooking the Needles rocks off the Isle of Wight. Money was tight, however, and only five rockets were built, and only two satellites.
By 1969, it was ready to test from Woomera in Australia. The first launch went badly, and the rocket had to be remotely destroyed after it spun out of control. The second test passed with no bother, but the third launch, carrying one of the programme's two satellites, failed, plunging into the sea.
Then, on 29 July 1971, the government announced it was cancelling the programme. With the fourth rocket and second satellite already on the way to Australia, it was decided it would be more expensive to turn round, bring them back and decommission them than it would be to launch.
And so, the fourth and final launch went ahead on this day in 1971. The Black Arrow shot up and deployed the "Prospero" satellite, designed to test the effects of space on communications satellites. It was, and remains, Britain's only independently launched satellite. It operated until 1973, when it was shut down. It was contacted annually until 1996, when the ground station was decommissioned, and the access codes apparently lost. It is still there, silently circling the earth, 45 years after its launch.