A rocket ready for testing. No new sight in this day and age, but this is a rocket with a difference. This giant will blast a new route to the stars as part of a European plan to put a new satellite into space.
The rocket is British. Its name is Blue Streak. It’s part of a project to link seven nations together in the European Launcher Development Organisation. The rocket, in its present state, is backed by a long record of experience dating from the pioneer days of flight which has put the British aircraft industry among the world’s leaders, and, to experience in the space age fields of rocket propulsion, electronics, radio and radar and micro-miniaturisation – the logical development of Britain’s pioneer work in man’s mastery of the air.
Nearly a decade of development work has gone into this giant which is made largely of stainless steel – chosen because it remains strong in extremes of temperature and can be welded with reliability – even when as thin as this – only about 1/50 of an inch thick.
The electronic heart of the rocket is in the guidance bay, including the autopilot system that keeps it on course. Steering in flight is done by movement by the main motor which also drives the rocket along with a thrust of 135 tons, say the power of about 40,000 family cars, reaching a speed of 8,500 miles an hour.
Built by Hawker Siddeley Dynamics, under the general technical control of the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Blue Streak sets off on her first journey. The space vehicle that is meant to climb 150 miles high in just under 6 minutes, takes to the road at 17 miles an hour. She is on her way from her birthplace near London to the North of England.
Here at Spade Adam, a £20M test site with 10,000 acres of natural safety belt around it, is where Blue Streak’s engine, manufactured by Rolls Royce, and the whole of the rocket system, can be tested without her leaving the ground.
That will come later, on the other side of the world from Britain, at Woomera in Australia.
Under the rig is a vast bucket to turn Blue Streak’s burning gases along the ground. This is Blue Streak’s first real test – the day when the scientists and engineers who first built her will know just how close she is to Woomera and her peaceful role in space. Blue Streak is tethered. Between her and her real launch are four tough steel bolts.
Now she has qualified for the full flight test at Woomera. It is the start of a month’s journey to Australia, the start of a long move forward towards the goal set by the European Launcher Development Organisation to put Europe into space. It’s a plan for a 3-stage vehicle.
Britain’s Blue Streak is Stage 1. France and Germany are supplying Stages 2 and 3, Italy the satellite itself, The Netherlands and Belgium vital electronic and radio guidance systems. Australia contributes the big range facilities at Woomera.
The journey itself has meant weeks of planning. Police forces will have to be notified. Every yard of road has had to be checked in advance for sharp corners, low bridges and road-works.
Now the London Docks, and the rocket starts her long sea voyage to her first flight.
Begun as a weapon system, a means of delivering a nuclear warhead some 3000 miles, Blue Streak ceased eventually to be required for this purpose, but already many saw her in a different role, and in 1961, the European Launcher Development Organisation was formed to use Blue Streak as the First Stage of a composite space vehicle.
300 miles north-west of Adelaide, just to the north of a dry salt pan called Lake Hart, is Woomera Range, where Blue Streak’s static test in England work has been going on to prepare for her arrival at the special site – Launcher Area No 6. Soon, this first test vehicle will be known by a number instead of a name – F1. She’ll have several successors with dummy, second and third stages until F7 is reached. It will carry Europe’s first test satellite into space.
The F1 first has to prove herself here at Woomera, Australia’s outpost of science on the trail into space.
Less than 20 years ago it was no more than an isolated halt on the trans-Australian railway. Today, it is a busy little town in the middle of nowhere with a population of well over 5000, including 1600 children and a well-equipped hospital. It’s a town run by Australia’s Weapon Research Establishment but all community amenities come under the control of the Woomera Board, and elected body.
For Mrs Lawrence, and the other housewives of Woomera, the shops are handy and well-stocked. The town has its own churches, a hospital, a swimming pool and an active community life.
28 miles out of the town, Blue Streak is now at her launch site. For the range staff and the trials team, weeks of preparation lie ahead. Weeks of precise work at Launcher 6A and all the way down the thousand-mile desert range, perhaps the best overland rocket range in the world.
Out on the scattered and remote radar stations like this at Mirakata.
In the instrumentation building where tell-tale signals from Blue Streak will be recorded showing how she is behaving in flight.
And the camera outpost where powerful lenses and precise tracking will catch the flight on film.
Everything is checked and re-checked. There is a dummy run taking the count-down to within 2 seconds of blast off.
Mrs Lawrence is more than a housewife. She has a part-time job on the range and for her, and several hundred others involved in Blue Streak’s test, the weeks of preparation are almost over. Every working day, she joins other desert commuters on the trek to work, but for her, it’s more than a bus-ride away. Security is tight here. Blue Streak isn’t the only rocket on the stocks and many of the projects are still top secret. You don’t need a bus ticket, but you must carry your pass.
And, now for the next leg of the daily journey.
Mrs Lawrence’s post is far up north and there can’t be many women in the world who fly 300 miles to work, and back, every day.
She takes sandwiches for lunch and the plane will be back for her around 4 in the afternoon.
But, today is special – the day of Blue Streak’s launch, and Mrs Lawrence’s camera will be one of many that will follow the flight.
Here for the launch, visitors from Whitehall, from ELDO, from Canberra will be watching Blue Streak’s progress from afar for months, among them General Giradin, ELDO’s Director General responsible for their initial programme. He has flown from Paris.
The final slow-time check-out of the vehicle on the launcher is elaborate, for this first flight is the acid test of years of work. All systems have been exercised and tested. Now they are into the count-down – a procedure of checks and actions in sequence lasting about 60 hours.
On the launcher and in the control room, British and Australian technicians and engineers check and activate the rocket and launcher systems: fuel transfer and pressurisation, the 3 telemetric transmitters which relay vital information to the ground during flight about performance and conditions on the rocket, beacons for radar-tracking, equipment for the radio command which will destroy the vehicle if it goes off-course, the gyroscopes of the autopilot which will steer the rocket on a course north-west across Australia for hundreds of miles – 5000 separate actions.
Now the service tower is withdrawn and it’s time to transfer the liquid oxygen from ground storage to the launcher.
Access to the rocket, painted with its flight-marking, is restricted from now on. There’s a hold period to warn the range of Blue Streak’s impending fuelling.
An hour and a half to the launch now.
Transfer of liquid oxygen is always left to the last for safety reasons, and also because of its low boiling point that causes loss of fuel due to boil-off before the flight.
Into Blue Streak’s tanks go 60 tons of liquid oxygen to add to the 27 tons of kerosene already loaded.
Now the technicians must get out to a safe distance some 4000 feet away.
In the instrumentation building 10 miles away is the digital impact computer that will constantly predict Blue Streak’s point of impact from the instruments tracking her flight. If she strays off her safe course, the computer will detect it instantly.
On the floor above the Trial Controls Officer is receiving the final ready signals. Beside him, for this critical occasion, are the Principal Officer of the Range and the scientist in charge from Farnborough in England.
The decision is taken. The trial is on.
From now on the countdown is automatic to avoid human error through stress.
Blue Streak’s systems are still being checked, but automatically. Should anything go wrong the countdown would stop, again automatically.
The final 10 seconds.
A 20 second vertical climb, controlled by her autopilot.
Then Blue Streak changes direction: 7/10 of a degree a second until her thrust chambers swivel her to an angle 30 degrees above the horizon.
If she strays, if something goes wrong, a finger on that button would destroy her instantly.
But she is on course: north west across hundreds of miles of Australian desert, watched on sky screens, on radar and by dozens of cameras and hundreds of people, still on a safe flight path, climbing around 50 miles high before her fuel is done, then to a height of over 100 miles by her own momentum.
For Mrs Lawrence, it’s a camera’s eye preview of the day when one of Blue Streak’s successors will help Europa 1 to boost a 1-ton satellite into orbit 300 miles high, or perhaps to place an electronic reporter on the moon itself.