Woomera was, of course, the test range, jointly funded by the UK and Australia. It was run by the WRE (Weapons Research Establishment) based at nearby (relatively!) Salisbury, South Australia. The airfield at RAAF Edinburgh was used for the V bombers during Blue Steel trials and for transport generally. The Range was first established in 1947 under the Anglo-Australia Defence Project and the Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA) was declared for the purposes of ‘testing war materials’. It was sometimes referred to as the ‘Joint Project’. Most of the early work was devoted to surface-to-air missiles, which would result in the Bloodhound, Thunderbird and Sea Slug missiles. A Blue Streak launch site was built at Lake Hart, with the Black Knight launch sites not far away. Later, a Black Knight launch site was adapted for the Black Arrow satellite launcher.

Work began on a Blue Streak launch site set into the side on a canyon, with the intention of building a silo (‘underground launcher’) around it, but with the military cancellation this was abandoned.


Figure 3. Black Knight launch area at Woomera. There were two gantries, one of which was later adapted for the Black Arrow satellite launcher.

High Down

This was the test site for Saunders Roe, where Black Knight and Black Arrow vehicles were taken for static firing before being taken out to Woomera for


Figure 4. The High Down site on the Isle of Wight.

launching. It was situated by the old Needles Battery, on the top of the chalk cliffs overlooking the Needles lighthouse.


Liquid hydrogen is usually regarded as the most effective fuel for rockets. (In this section, it may be assumed that liquid oxygen is the oxidant. Fluorine is better theoretically, but is very hazardous environmentally, if from no other point of view.) This is because it has a very high exhaust velocity, or looking at it another way, a very high S. I. Thus the HTP/kerosene combination used in Black Knight and Black Arrow has an exhaust velocity in vacuum of around 2,500 m/s, whereas a well-designed liquid hydrogen motor can achieve exhaust velocities of around 4,400 m/s.

Using the rocket equation vfinal = vexhaust x ln(mass ratio), a liquid hydrogen stage of the same mass ratio would achieve a final velocity around 75% greater. On the other hand, the structural penalties of using liquid hydrogen means that the mass ratio would be significantly lower than an equivalent HTP stage. There are complications to liquid hydrogen vehicle design.

The first is that it is extremely cold boiling at -253 °C (20 K), and the second is that it has a very low density – 70 kg/m3 as opposed to around 1,300 kg/m3 for HTP.

The very low temperature of the liquid means the tank has to be well insulated, not only on the ground, but also from the heating effect of air friction

Hydrogenduring launch. Although effective insulation is

extremely light, this still adds weight to the vehicle. The low density means a large tank volume (almost 20 times that of HTP!), which again means extra weight.

Despite these drawbacks, liquid hydrogen is being used in an increasing number of vehicles, usually as an upper stage. The Ariane 5 central core uses liquid hydrogen, although it has the two large strap on solid fuel boosters to lift it to altitude. The Ariane 5 ECA (Evolution Cryotechnique type A) core has a burn time of 650 seconds.

RPE began work on hydrogen chambers in the late 1950s. At that time, they had no facilities for storing or producing liquid hydrogen, but instead used gaseous hydrogen pre-cooled by liquid nitrogen. A number of fully working Figure 13. A hydrogen/oxygen test chamber built chambers were built and fired at RPE Westcott. at Westcott (see Figure 14).

The larger chambers were capable of around 4,000 lb thrust: it would have been relatively easy to scale them up to, say, 8,000 lb, which would be well – suited to upper stages for Blue Streak, Black Knight, or Black Arrow. Such stages would have increased payloads very considerably. Whilst developing the chambers would not have been difficult, building a liquid hydrogen stage would have needed a considerable amount of development work and thus cost.

Based on this work, a variety of designs for launchers using Black Knight as the first stage were drawn up5. Some were pressure fed, others used turbopumps. Sketches of the designs can be seen below.

Calculations were carried out for a variety of configurations. Four different first stages were considered and three different second stages. A Cuckoo solid fuel motor was taken as third stage (calculations were also carried out for a two – stage version, without the Cuckoo motor, but only two of the combinations were able to put any payload into orbit at all). Payloads could no doubt be increased somewhat by a purpose-built third stage.


Figure 14. A hydrogen/oxygen chamber being test fired at the RPE, Westcott.



Подпись: VERSION l(o) LAUNCH MASS - 17,2.8 c LB LAU NCH THRU 5T - 2 l,feQ О LB. PAVLOAP (iQON.M.OR&rO- 8SL3 Подпись: VER5ION 2(a) LAUNCH MAS5 - 20,000LB. LAUNCH. THRUST- 2 5,00О LB. PAYLOAD (300N.M Oft&ll)—102.LB.


Figure 15. Various proposals for satellite launchers using Black Knight as the first stage and a liquid hydrogen/oxygen second stage.

Version 1 is the standard Black Knight, with a tank diameter of 3 ft and a sea – level thrust of 21,600 lb. Versions 2, 3 and 4 have a tank diameter of 4 ft 6 inches and sea-level thrusts of 25,000, 40,000 and 50,000 lb respectively. Version 3 would have a six chamber motor, and version 4 an eight chamber motor (effectively the first stage of Black Arrow). The lift-off weight was derived by assuming a thrust : mass ratio of 1.25.

Three variants of the second stage engine and propellant feed systems were examined:

(a) An engine having four chambers w ith turbo-pump feed of the propellants.

(b) An engine having four chambers with pressurised tank feed.

(c) A single chambered engine with pressurised tank feed.

The estimated payloads for each variant was calculated as being:


Launch mass





17,280 lb

88 lb

18 lb

56 lb


20,000 lb

102 lb

56 lb

76 lb


32,000 lb

324 lb

169 lb

248 lb


40,000 lb

377 lb

187 lb

289 lb

Versions 1 and 2 are really non-starters. Versions 3 and 4 are, on the face of it, fairly promising. However, the first stage of version 4 is in effect Black Arrow. Developing Black Arrow, where the intention was to keep the cost down by using as much Black Knight technology as possible, stretched the budget. Developing a liquid hydrogen stage, which would have been technically challenging, would have been much more expensive, and, as can be seen, payloads were not very significant. Some improvement could have been achieved with solid fuel strap-on Raven boosters, but not enough to make the design worthwhile.

Another major proposal was for a liquid hydrogen third stage for the Blue Streak satellite launcher and the Anglo-French launcher proposal. Although the Saunders Roe brochure for Black Prince is sometimes taken as the ‘definitive’ version of the Blue Streak launcher, there was, in reality, no such thing. Black Prince shows an HTP third stage, but the RAE realised that a liquid hydrogen stage could increase the payload considerably, and in this period, it was looking at 6- or 12-hour orbits for communications satellites. It is interesting to see the emphasis that this stage is given in the initial brochure for the Anglo-French launcher.

Two quite comprehensive studies were carried out: one by the RPE and one by Saunders Roe. Both go into considerable detail, including detailed analysis of the thermal cladding that would be needed for the liquid hydrogen tank.

The RPE produced the report for its design in April 1961.6 One of the more unusual features of the report is that it seems to be the only one written in this period (other than some ELDO reports) which uses entirely metric units. This leads to some slightly awkward conversions. For example, the diameter of the fuel tanks is 1.37 m… or 54 inches! This was obviously designed as a third stage for a Blue Streak/Black Knight combination. Indeed, the RAE had calculated the optimum mass for a liquid hydrogen third stage for the Blue Streak launcher to
be 2,270 kg, and the stage was designed around this weight, although later calculations showed the optimum mass as 3,630 kg.

There would be four motors in the stage, each of which was intended to produce a thrust of 9 kN (2,000 lb) with a chamber pressure of 50 N/cm2 (5 bar or 75 psi). One design being considered was what might be described as self- pressurising: a pressure-fed system, with the gases being used to pressurise the tanks coming from the fuel itself via a heat exchanger. The tank pressures could be relatively low given the low chamber pressure – 80 N/cm2 (8 bar or 90 psi)

Подпись: Figure 16. The RPE design for a liquid hydrogen/oxygen third stage to be used as part of a Blue Streak launcher. was the value being considered. This is quite an elegant solution, dispensing with the weight and complexity of a turbopump, yet avoiding the weight penalties of thicker tank walls and heavy gas bottles. The only drawback is that with the relatively low thrust, the burn time will be quite prolonged, which means carrying the unburned fuel up the Earth’s gravitational potential well as the vehicle gains in height.

The specification for the BSSLV third stage investigated by Saunders Roe required a motor which had:

(a) A thrust of between 3000lb and 4000lb (in vacuo) lasting for about 15 to 20 minutes.

(b) A thrust of between 40lb and 60lb (in vacuo) lasting for about 2Vi to 3Vi hours.

Communication satellites need to be in as high an orbit as possible, and the new vehicle could have put an appreciable payload in an orbit around 8,000 miles high. The usual method of doing this is the apogee motor, as discussed before. Bristol Siddeley came up with a design for a motor which used a motor with two large chambers and two small chambers. The large chambers would take the vehicle up to orbital height, but the small chambers would then be used to raise the orbit, with a

burn time of two or three hours.

Подпись: Figure 17. The BS 600 proposal with two large pump fed chambers and two small pressure fed chambers. To power such low thrust chambers with a pump was impractical. Pressurising the tanks usually meant carrying large and heavy gas bottles. Instead, the proposal was to use a heat exchanger to produce ‘hot’ (relative in this context) hydrogen gas. The gas could then be used to pressurise the tanks (a further heat exchanger would be needed for the liquid oxygen tank).

Rocket chambers are usually at quite high pressures – perhaps 40 times atmospheric pressure. At sea level, the escaping gases are opposed by atmospheric pressure, and higher chamber pressures make the motor more efficient. In the vacuum of space this does not apply. Chambers can be run at quite low pressures, and it was suggested in this case that a chamber pressure of only one atmosphere might well be feasible. This avoids the complication of pumps and the weight of gas bottles.

On the other hand, pumps are needed for the earlier boost phase, and unless they are discarded (which they were not), the vehicle is carrying unnecessary weight during the long cruise phase.


Bristol Siddeley had not done any work on liquid hydrogen motors up to now, and this proposal was marked in the Ministry of Supply file with a hand written comment:

Downey thinks we would be nuts to bring yet another firm into the space business.7

Downey was one of the senior officials in the Ministry of Aviation – the criticism is slightly unfair since Bristol Siddeley were already producing the Gamma motors for Black Knight.

Saunders Roe were given the task of designing the tank structure, and produced a substantial brochure8. In conjunction with RAE and Bristol Siddeley Engines, the parameters for the design were set:

7.0 Подпись: All Up Weight: Propellants: S.I.: lb approximately

5.0 lb approximately 400 lb. sec/lb

Two thrust phases:

(1) Boost: 3,500 lb for 8 minutes

(2) Cruise: 44 lb for 2 hours

It was estimated that such a design could put 900 lb in a 5,000 mile circular orbit or 600 lb into a 9,000 mile orbit.

Подпись: Figure 18. Saunders Roe’s proposal for a liquid hydrogen/oxygen stage.

In many ways this is an interesting idea, but on closer inspection has as many drawbacks as advantages. During the cruise phase, the large chambers and their plumbing are still attached to the vehicle, but as dead weight. Jettisoning them would make the proposal much more efficient but would not be easy. Secondly, a ‘slow burn’ is less efficient from a different point of view: as the vehicle climbs the gravity well as it moves further from the Earth, then it is taking unused fuel with it. From a gravitational potential energy point of view, it is better to expend the fuel in one big burst at the start of the orbit transfer – this does the opposite!

In the end, of course, all of this became moot. The third stage of Europa was to be developed by Germany, and the design chosen was very different. As a consequence of the ELDO B proposals put forward by the French in 1964, contracts were awarded for research into liquid hydrogen motors. Rolls Royce was one of the firms involved, and building on the work done at the RPE, began the design and testing of a motor called the RZ 20. The contract was shared with the French firm of SEPR (Societe d’Etudes pour la Propulsion par Reaction). Rolls Royce was to produce the thrust chamber part of the motor, with SEPR providing the turbopump assembly.

Val Cleaver, Chief Engineer of the Rocket department at Rolls Royce, wrote to the Ministry of Technology asking whether he could build the test stand at Spadeadam, which was a Ministry establishment, but being run as an agency by Rolls Royce.

JEP Dunning, Director of the RPE, protested that the test site should be built at Westcott, which already had extensive facilities for testing and firing liquid hydrogen chambers, although none of them had been as powerful as the proposed Rolls Royce chamber, seen below being test fired at Spadeadam (Figure 19). Cleaver pointed out that Rolls Royce were building the facility as a private venture. As he put it in a letter to the Ministry of Technology:

It was not possible for ELDO to commit any money for the necessary test facilities for these chambers. Therefore (and not without some difficulty, as you can probably imagine) I persuaded our Main Board to sanction the cost of a modest test cell for the purpose, as a P. V. Extension to the Components Test Area at Spadeadam.9

He went on to say:

We are most anxious to have the test facility at Spadeadam, for two very definite reasons:-

(a) Because if any larger operational programmes for hydrogen rocketry ever arise in the UK, it will be inevitable that their testing should be done at Spadeadam. It is highly desirable, therefore, to begin as we mean to go on, and start gaining early experience there as soon as possible.

(b) Because the team at Spadeadam desperately need some injection of new work, to raise morale and inspire some confidence in the future of the establishment (I am sure I do not need to emphasise to you the problems of this sort we have had since 1959, with the 1960 military cancellation and all ELDO’s subsequent ups and downs.)


Figure 19. Rolls Royce RZ 20 hydrogen motor being test fired at Spadeadam.

Given that it was a private venture, the costs were substantial: £54,000 for the construction costs, £15,000 for two liquid hydrogen road trailers, and £5,000 for the chamber itself, making a total of £74,000 (a contingency figure of approximately 10% was added to the estimate to bring it up to £81,000).

In the end, two firings, each of ten seconds duration, were achieved before the programme ran out of money. The total cost of the programme was £250,000.

Origins of Skybolt

In the words of the Air Ministry:

Following the Interdependence meeting between the Heads of Government of the UK, the USA and Canada in September 1957, a Tripartite Technical Committee met in Washington in December 1957 and established a number of sub-committees to cover specified areas, one of which was strategic air to surface weapon systems. [This] subcommittee decided that an examination of the field should be undertaken by a joint RAF/USAF Task Group which met in Washington in April and November 1958.

The Task Group then issued a requirement for a missile which was circulated to industry, and a meeting was held to evaluate these proposals. To the astonishment of the British representatives present, proposals were produced from more than a hundred American companies. The meeting narrowed this down to 15 firms, who then gave brief presentations. From these, the Douglas design was then chosen.

The USAF did not want to be left out of the scramble among the US armed services for nuclear weapons systems. A system such as the new proposed missile would significantly enhance the capabilities of Strategic Air Command (SAC), although it was not envisaged so much as a strategic weapon, a ‘city buster’, but rather more as a tactical device. SAC’s long range bombers would take several hours to reach the heart of the USSR and would have to overfly a

Origins of Skybolt

Figure 52. A Vulcan bomber carrying two Skybolt missiles.

good deal of hostile territory. The new missile was intended to be fired as the aircraft approached Russian borders, and the relatively low yield warhead was designed to suppress Russian air defences so that the aircraft would be able to deliver their multimegaton bomb load to Russian cities. Thus it was not a major weapon in the US arsenal, which already had Atlas, Titan and Minuteman ICBMs, as well as Polaris and the bombers of SAC. Instead, it was seen by SAC as a way of enhancing its credibility, and not being elbowed out by these other systems.

The initial requirement issued in January had been for a joint USAF/RAF missile with a range of 1,000 nautical miles, a weight of 10,000 lb and a c. e.p. of

3,0 ft. The warhead would have a weight of 600 lb and a yield of 0.4 Mt or 400 kT. A report on the progress of WS-138A, dated July 1959, was prepared by Group Captain Bonser of the Air Staff after a visit to the USA. WS-138A fitted British requirements perfectly. The range was such that strikes against almost any part of the Soviet Union could be launched without having to overfly hostile territory. Each Vulcan would be able to carry two missiles comfortably. Given that the US was to pay almost all the development costs, it would be an extremely cheap deal, and it offered the possibility of extending the useful life of the V bombers by several years.

Douglas estimated the overall cost of the programme to the RAF at between £42 million to £48.5 million, exclusive of development costs of some £2.5 million. The RAE considered that the predicted c. e.p. of 5,350 ft compared favourably with the Thor missile. WS-138A looked to be a bargain. In June 1959 representatives of the V bomber firms, Avro and Handley Page, as well as officials from the Ministry of Supply, visited Douglas to give them further details of the V bomber designs.

Skybolt was very different to Blue Steel or any of the other missiles carried by bombers since it was not intended to fly in the atmosphere, but was a fully ballistic missile. It had two stages, and was carried underneath the wings of the aircraft. Navigation was mainly inertial, but would include a star seeker sensor to improve accuracy (this is why it could not be carried in the bomb bay: the sensor needed a clear view of the sky). It was planned that the Vulcan would carry two missiles, one under each wing. There would be difficulties fitting the missile to the Victor (ground clearance was the issue), but the problem was not insuperable.

Thus by the time the BND(SG)13 had begun its deliberations, Skybolt was well under way. Its development costs would be paid for by the United States. It would extend the useful life of the V bombers for years to come – perhaps to 1970 or beyond. It needed little or no new infrastructure. There was just one snag – how to cancel Blue Streak in favour of Skybolt and make it look convincing.

Early drafts of the Powell report are fairly neutral in tone. As the weeks go by the tone sharpens, and the final report devotes ten or more paragraphs discussing the vulnerability of Blue Streak, with the scenarios becoming increasing convoluted. Thus:

If we assume that the Soviet attack would be made of ballistic missiles of an accuracy equal to that which we expect to achieve ourselves (0.55 NM) and that a warhead of at least 3 MT would be available, 95 per cent of the underground BLUE STREAK sites could be destroyed by between 300-400 Soviet missiles. Even allowing for the requirements of air-defence weapons for the protection of the Soviet homeland, and for the need simultaneously to pose a serious threat to the United States, we have no doubt that the Soviet stockpile by 1967 would be sufficient to provide these warheads for attack on the United Kingdom.

The crucial paragraphs read:

As ballistic missiles cannot be recalled once they had been fired, the political decision to retaliate must also have been taken before this means of evading a pre­emptive attack can be adopted. For this tactic to succeed, authority would need be delegated to order nuclear retaliation on radar warning alone. We do not believe that any democratic government would be prepared to delegated authority in an issue of such appalling magnitude.

This analysis shows that unless the political decision were delegated, the Soviet Union could carry out a successful pre-emptive attack on the BLUE STREAK sites, whether these were underground or on the surface; and that even if the political decision were delegated, the Soviet Union could still make a successful pre-emptive attack on the United Kingdom alone.

What of the vulnerability of the V bombers? The report has one paragraph:

Four minutes are presently required to enable the V bombers, when operating from the planned dispersal airfields, to take-off and fly clear of a nuclear attack on their bases. Given 24 hours warning the V bomber force will be able to react in time to evade a pre-emptive attack made with missiles launched on a normal trajectory. If, however, the Soviets were to fire missiles on low trajectories from East Germany, the effective time for evasive action might be as short as three minutes. The Air Ministry believe that with improved techniques it should be possible to reduce the V bombers reaction time. But, in any event, the arrival of the Soviet missiles would inevitably be spread to some extent and some of the bombers would probably be able to escape. Furthermore, for short periods during a time of tension, it will be possible to reduce this risk by maintaining a proportion of the force on standing patrol. In either event, however, the capability of the V bomber force would be greatly reduced.

Whereas Blue Streak, in its hardened silo, would apparently not survive, ‘some of the bombers would probably be able to escape’. To use a modern metaphor, this analysis does not seem to be using a level playing field. Furthermore, whilst some might be maintained on a quick reaction (four minute) alert, it will not be that many. Aircraft have to be serviced, crews have to rest. The three or four minutes mentioned is also the time from detection of the warning to the arrival of the missiles. The time between receipt of the warning from the radars and the order to scramble has not been factored in – and Bomber Command will not be keen to scramble unnecessarily. If the aircraft are scrambled, and the warning turns out to be false, the aircraft have to be turned back, landed and refuelled – taking them out of the picture until all this is done.

This analysis suited the Air Staff very well. It was, after all, the RAF who would operate Blue Streak once deployed, but the option of Skybolt now opened up a new range of possibilities. Rather than operating from a hole in the ground, the RAF would revert to its traditional role of flying aircraft. The V bombers would be given a whole new lease of life. As far as they were concerned, Skybolt was far preferable to Blue Streak.

In this context, the letter which Watkinson wrote to Sandys contains an interesting comment:

The Chiefs of Staff have been considering their attitude to Blue Streak and have now given me their unanimous advice that they find Blue Streak, as a fire first weapon, unacceptable. I am afraid Dermot sold the pass here to begin with.14

Dermot refers to Dermot Boyle, Chief of the Air Staff, and it is clear from Watkinson’s comment that Boyle was not at all reluctant to see Blue Streak go.

The Foreign Office representative (and more importantly, the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee), Sir Patrick Dean, did send a note dissenting from the Study Group’s conclusions, but the Foreign Office had no great stake in the outcome – their main interest lay in the preservation of a British deterrent, which the report provided.

And not surprisingly, it was the Treasury representative that was the most vociferous in his opposition. One of the key phrases in a memo he wrote to the rest of the Study Group is: ‘… surely we would not decide to equip our troops with spear proof shields if we know that by the time we have made their shields the enemy is going to have fire arms’ – in other words, the Blue Streak silo may be adequate now, but it won’t be by the time the missile is deployed. Elsewhere in the same memo he says, ‘I think we ought to “show our working” somewhere’, which is presumably a reference to the 300-400 missiles.

As an advisor to the air staff put it:

Mr Fraser’s letter is clearly directed to killing at Blue Streak in two stages – first comes the politically more acceptable proposition that we should abandon underground deployment for Blue Streak. When this is accepted, the need to have the weapon at all can be questioned.

And so we must then try and see why the report comes to the conclusion that it does.

The oddest feature is that prior to the report, there are many estimates made by the Air Staff and the Ministry of Supply as to the survival rate of Blue Streak in a silo. To give one example, one Air Ministry memo gives the survival rate of Blue Streak when attacked by a one megaton warhead missile thus:

c. e.p. 0.5 nm

1 nm

2 nm

3 nm

4 nm

Above ground 0%





Below ground 50%





Quite how these figures were arrived at is not clear. Above ground survival rates are easy enough to estimate, but the underground figures depend on the survivability of the silo, and it is never made clear what assumptions are being made in all these various estimates. The other major factor is the c. e.p. of the missile – obviously the more accurate, the higher the ‘kill rate’. The Powell report assumes a c. e.p. of 0.55 miles, although with no apparent justification. Interestingly, the chairman of the JIC is a member of the committee: the estimate of the accuracy of Russian missiles obviously does not come from him, and, more interestingly, he writes a note subsequent to the publication of the report to say he does not agree with its conclusions.

It is clear from all these memos and estimates that the supporters of Blue Streak thought that they had an unassailable case; that underground-based Blue Streak would survive a Russian attack relatively unscathed. The first time this assumption was queried was in a rather obscure paper written for the equally obscure Air Ministry Strategic Scientific Policy Committee in October 1959. The paper is unsigned, but bears all the hallmarks of Solly Zuckerman, Chairman of the Committee, later to become Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Defence. The important section is hidden away in paragraph 17:

The vulnerability of static bases to ballistic missiles depends upon the accuracy and power of the attacking weapons. The operational reliability of any missile system also affects the number of missiles required to knock out any target given a specified accuracy. Intelligence estimates of present Russian missile accuracy and known results of USA test firings indicate that there is no technical or scientific obstacle to the achievement of an accuracy of some 2500 ft [0.42 nautical miles] for comparatively reliable 500/1500 mile range missile systems. In the case of the USSR we should expect this level of accuracy to be achieved at the latest by 1970, and possibly sooner.

He then goes on:

Given that the enemy knows through his intelligence services where our fixed installations are, and making the prudent assumptions that he can launch a surprise attack of sufficient speed and accuracy, it must be concluded that by about 1970 at latest, and possibly before, the USSR could neutralise all fixed UK static bases, whether they be airfields or above ground or below ground missile sites.15

This is true in a very limited sense. The underground sites could be destroyed if the scale of the attack is great enough. The question then comes whether the Russians could or would launch an attack on this scale. The Powell report maintained that 300-400 3MT missiles with a c. e.p. of 0.55 miles could destroy the launchers. The more important questions were whether the Russians were capable of launching such an attack, and whether they would actually do so.

Professor William Hawthorne was also a member of the same committee, but he was already a silo sceptic, as a note to CGWL, Sir Steuart Mitchell, in 1956 indicates: ‘I can imagine a few “impregnable” subterranean fortresses being built at enormous expense, but not many, since politicians may find them hard to justify.’16

The picture is further complicated by the close relationship between Zuckerman and Mountbatten. In 1959 Mountbatten became Chief of the Defence Staff, and Zuckerman was a highly influential Government scientific adviser.

Zuckerman was adept at finding his way around the ‘corridors of power’ being offered the post of Minister of Disarmament in the first Wilson administration (he refused). He was certainly heavily involved in many of the negotiations about Polaris and Skybolt with the US Government, and had very decided views on military matters and the deterrent. As well as being an active proponent of Polaris as against Blue Streak, he is supposed to have wielded considerable influence, in conjunction with Mountbatten, in the decision to cancel the TSR2 aircraft. It is interesting therefore that the first suggestion of vulnerability comes from someone associated with Mountbatten.

All these arguments would soon become academic (although objections to the report would rumble on for two or three months), since the Chiefs of Staff used the conclusions of the report as a pretext for a letter to Watkinson, the new Defence Minister:

You stated in a minute dated 5th January, 1960, that you wished to obtain a decision of the future of BLUE STREAK at the first Defence committee meeting after the return of the Prime Minister, and you asked the views of the Chiefs of Staff on the matter.

We attach no military value to BLUE STREAK, and we recommend the cancellation of its further military development for this purpose, together with the planned deployment.17

The reasoning was that if Blue Streak was vulnerable to a Soviet attack, then it would have to be regarded as a ‘fire-first’ weapon. Politically, this was completely unacceptable. Earlier in the same paper, they had said,

We need a new strategic nuclear weapon system… in about 1966, but since we regard BLUE STREAK as a ‘fire-first’ only weapon we do not consider it meets this need. We therefore recommend the cancellation its further development as a military weapon. We also recommend the cancellation of the planned deployment.

The ‘fire-first’ argument comes directly from the BND(SG) report18, which contained the fatal lines:

. authority would need be delegated to order nuclear retaliation on radar warning alone. We do not believe that any democratic government would be prepared to delegated authority in an issue of such appalling magnitude.

It can be argued that the conclusions of the Powell report were, at best, disingenuous, at worst, downright dishonest. Some immediate objections were ruled out by pointing to the terms of reference (‘Our main object has been to examine the technical and operational factors’) which said that the study should not take political factors into account. This neatly avoided one very obvious objection.

In the scenario postulated, the Soviet Union would launch a surprise attack on the UK using 300 to 400 missiles, each armed with 3 megaton warheads and having an accuracy of 0.55 miles c. e.p. This attack would be sufficient to destroy the Blue Streak silos with the missiles inside, and thus the UK would not be able to launch a counter-attack – in other words, we would not be able to deter the Soviet Union from launching such an attack. The Soviet Union could thus attack the UK unscathed.

But could anyone on the study group have justified a scenario whereby the Soviet Union launched an attack of 1,200 megatons, or 1.2 gigatons(!), on the UK whilst America stood by and watched? That America would allow its troops and servicemen stationed in the UK to be annihilated? That the launch of 400 Soviet missiles, even if it later became clear that they were not aimed at America, could occur without the American authorities launching at least some missiles in retaliation? It could also be argued (as some in the Ministry of Aviation later tried) that such an attack would also be a self-inflicted wound for the Soviet Union – the fallout generated from such an attack (made all the worse by the explosions being ground bursts), coupled with the prevailing westerly winds, would render Europe and most of European Russia completely uninhabitable.

There is also a further assumption, which is that all 400 missiles are serviceable, ready to fire, and are launched (and arrive!) successfully. If 400 warheads are needed to take out Blue Streak, how many missiles would Russia have to fire in order to achieve this? What sort of ‘safety factor’ would be needed to ensure that 400 arrived on target?

It was all very well to say that such considerations were not within the terms of reference if the scenario postulated is clearly absurd, and it is certainly arguable that a scenario whereby the Soviet Union launches more than 400 missiles at the UK without American retaliation (and thus a global war) is absurd. There is the further point that 400 missiles would represent a very considerable portion of the Soviet arsenal. Would they be prepared to devote such a proportion merely to take out the deterrent of what was, in Cold War terms, such a minor opponent? Indeed, taking the serviceability point, nearer 600 missiles would be needed. Sir Patrick Dean, as Chairman of JIC should have been able to give an estimate of the number of Soviet missiles based in Europe, and the answer would probably have been nowhere near the number assumed in the report.

It would also be extremely difficult to invent any plausible political situation whereby the Soviet Union would launch such an attack on the UK in absence of an attack on itself. Britain would never launch first, since they knew all too well how vulnerable the UK would be to any nuclear attack, let alone one on this scale, and the Russians would know that too. A British attack would be, in the jargon, a ‘second strike’, which was the point of the silos being able to survive the initial strike. But what political situation could see the Soviet Union launching 400 missiles at the UK and the UK alone? Such a scenario would also have to assume that the attack would be launched in the sure and certain knowledge that America would not become involved.

Moreover, the report stated that:

The current Joint Intelligence Committee assessment is that we should get strategic warning of at least 24 hours before any heavy Soviet attack on this country. There is therefore no need to maintain our deterrent forces constantly at maximum readiness in order to guard against a “bolt from the blue” attack. But even if there is a period of rising international tension before the outbreak of hostilities, there is still a possibility that the enemy will attempt to achieve tactical surprise in the timing of his attack. The longer the period of such tension the greater the scope for tactical surprise, because deterrent forces cannot be maintained indefinitely at maximum readiness.19

So there is no surprise attack, no ‘bolt from the blue’, but, on the other hand, the Russians were supposed to be capable of co-ordinating the launch of several hundred missiles all within half an hour of each other without anyone noticing.

But what of the ‘technical’ factors? These too can be challenged, and indeed they were. 1.2 gigatons of nuclear explosion almost certainly would have taken out the Blue Streak silos, but there were a considerable number of caveats to this scenario too.

Firstly, we will assume the attack happens during what was called, rather euphemistically, a ‘period of tension’. During such a time, it is probable that some of the missiles would be fuelled and ready to launch. Because of the restrictions involving liquid oxygen, this would not be very many. The probability would be that the missiles would be rotated: after so many hours, the missiles that were fuelled up would be stood down and other missiles made ready in their place. Even those missiles armed, fuelled with kerosene, but not liquid oxygen, could be launched within about 15 minutes at the very most.

In order to ensure that all the Blue Streak silos were destroyed before any missiles could be launched, the attack would have to be very carefully co­ordinated, such that all the attacking missiles arrived within a very short space of time, of the order of 15 minutes. There are problems to this.

The first is that the attacking missiles will be launched from a variety of launch sites, and will have a different time of flight. Thus their launch times would have to be very carefully co-ordinated. There is also the problem that around six or so missiles would be allocated to each silo. This brings the problem of ‘fratricide’, when another warhead in the vicinity of a 3 megaton blast might well be destroyed. Further, once the first explosion has taken place, there will be a very considerable disturbance of the atmosphere, to put it mildly! An incoming warhead that meets the shockwave from such a blast would be thrown off course, so to speak. The chance of it still arriving at its aiming point is remote. Yet if the attack is staggered to allow for this, then it does give windows of opportunity, small though they may be, for a Blue Streak launch to occur. The whole point of making such an attack is to ensure that no retaliation is possible.

But let us assume that the scenario is technically possible, that such an attack is possible, and that it would take out all the silos. What of the alternative possibility: the V bombers armed with Skybolt?

There was no intention, at this stage, that the RAF would mount standing patrols in the same way that SAC did. The best Bomber Command would have to offer would be aircraft on Quick Response Alert (QRA). These aircraft could be scrambled very quickly when the order was given. Unless the crew was strapped in, with the engines running (which was a possibility, although such a state could not be maintained for long), it would take some minutes before the crew could get into the aircraft, start the engines, taxi to the runway, take off and get clear of the airfield.

There were half a dozen V bomber bases, all in eastern England. During ‘periods of tension’, the aircraft could be dispersed to alternative airfields – up to 24 were planned. The facilities at some of these dispersal airfields were not entirely adequate, and such a dispersal could not be maintained for any period of time due to the lack of maintenance facilities. Even so, with 300-400 missiles at their disposal, the Soviet Union could launch a dozen or so at each airfield, and, QRA or not, the chances of an aircraft surviving such an attack, even in the air, is remote.

Sixty Blue Streak silos or sixty bombers on airfields? Which would stand the greater chance of survival? In the face of an attack on such a scale, the probable answer is that neither would survive, and in the event of an attack on a lesser scale, I would put my money on the silos.

There is also a rather more subtle psychological point in favour of aircraft rather than missiles, which usually gets oblique mentions in such discussions, but which did appear to loom large in minds of officials and politicians. The launch of a missile is irrevocable. Once the button has been pressed, there is no way of recalling the missile or even of destroying it in flight. Aircraft, on the other hand, give something of what might called a ‘time cushion’ – they can be sent on their way, but it will still be a matter of some hours before the pilot finally presses his button to launch his missile. This reduces the chance of ‘launch by mistake’ – in other words, it might appear that the UK has been attacked, and so it is imperative to react. Suppose the button is pressed – and the report of the attack turns out to be false. If you have pressed the button in a missile silo, you have started a nuclear war. If you have scrambled aircraft, they can be recalled. This would explain a good deal of the Whitehall dislike of Blue Streak. When Polaris took over from the bombers, there was still that time cushion. There was not the same sense of urgency to get in your response before your deterrent was destroyed.

But to return to the Powell report: once circulated, it drew one of two responses, depending which side a person was on, and by this time, there were few who were neutral. If someone was against Blue Streak, then the report was read and used as conclusive evidence that Blue Streak should be cancelled. So many eminent people can hardly be wrong. Someone in favour of Blue Streak faced an uphill task in trying to defend the missile. Even though the conclusions might be absurd, the reputation of the project had been tarnished – perhaps irrevocably so. (Another way of telling which side someone was on was whether they referred to ‘fixed sites’ (against) as opposed to ‘underground launchers’ (in favour)!)

Sir Steuart Mitchell’s response is typical of many of the incredulous memos which came from the Ministry of Aviation:

The vulnerability of underground Blue Streak is, in my view, grossly overstated in the report. As a result, Blue Streak is presented to Ministers as exclusively a fire first weapon, with all the serious disadvantages thereof. This, in my view, is based on misunderstanding of the technical facts.

The report, in my view, accepts much too light heartedly the technical concepts of the WS.138A weapon system. History is strewn with weapon system concepts in which USAF expressed total confidence and which they pursued with great ardour for a year or two and then totally dropped. WS.138A today is where Hustler was four years ago except that the confidence and enthusiasm in WS.138A today is less than in Hustler four years ago. Hustler today is dead. To any technician familiar with the problems of a ballistic missile fired off a fixed site, the thought of putting our deterrent shirt on an American plan to fire such things off an aeroplane and having them in Service operations in the UK by 1966 or soon after as stated in the report is alarming. In my view the plan proposed in the report is dangerously unsound.20

‘Seriously unsound’, ‘grossly overstated’, ‘alarming’, ‘dangerously unsound’ – these are strong words indeed in this context, not phrases in common use in Whitehall. These are from the Government’s chief expert on guided weapons! And he goes on in a further memo to say:

To provide… 375 sites and missiles, together with roads, services, centralised communications; to give training and firing drill to crews; and to bring the whole edifice to such a pitch that they can fire the whole lot within a few seconds of the correct moment is, by any yardstick, a gigantic undertaking. It amounts in fact to an effort about six times bigger than the Blue Streak effort which it is trying to pre­empt. This aspect is dismissed in the report as simply being ‘within the Russian capability’ …

All these factors, in our view, added to such a gigantic total that while by itself it may be technically feasible yet it is not a practical probability. We think that the very size of this pre-emptive effort is so big as to constitute a deterrent in its own right – providing Blue Streak is deployed underground.

All this is virtually ignored in the report. .

If our politicians are at all competent, it is difficult to conceive of a war with Russia involving the UK but not also involving the USA.

If however such a situation came about, e. g. Middle East oil, it is most unlikely that Russia would pre-empt our Blue Streaks. She would surely fight such a war with conventional weapons (and win it easily this way), knowing that we know that if we “fired first” with Blue Streaks resultant Russian retaliation would destroy the UK.

Pre-empting Blue Streak in such a war is probably the last thing the Russians would do because if he did it would leave himself open to a ‘fire first’ blow of shattering size from the US.21

And then with regard to the arguments about the relative vulnerability of the V bombers and Blue Streak, Sir Steuart wrote yet another memo:

Blue Streak is condemned because of alleged inability to withstand 300 3MT rockets directed against 60 sites. It is therefore fair to consider what 300 3MT bursts could do to our V bomber force.

The Air Ministry claim that they can get “4 bombers airborne from an airfield in 4 minutes”, – presumably four minutes from the local order to scramble.

The distance travelled by a typical V bomber from the point of take-off (i. e. from point where airborne) is

After 1 minute airborne flight. 6 n. miles.

After 2 minute airborne flight. 13 n. miles.

After 3 minute airborne flight. 20 n. miles.

The disabling radius of a 3 MT airburst against a V bomber is approximately as follows:

V bomber on ground… 14-15 miles (not tethered since it is about to take off)

V bomber airborne between zero height and 12,000 ft… 12 miles

One 3 MT burst over the airfield… would therefore disable not only all aircraft still on the airfield but also all airborne bombers within 12 miles of the burst.

Further, it would be reasonable to suppose that the Russians, in addition to the airburst directly over the airfield would at the same time lay on two additional airbursts along the direction of the bomber flight path.

It will be seen that the combination of one airburst over the airfield and two airbursts about 14 miles away and about 30° to the axis of the runway would disable not only all aircraft still on the runway but also all aircraft that had become airborne during the preceding 3 minutes. If these rocket bursts occurred at any time within the period up to 6 (not just 4) minutes before the order to scramble, it is difficult to see how any significant number of the bombers could escape.

I do not know the number of airfields which the V bomber force would use under dispersal conditions, but if one supposes the number to be, say, 50 at the most, then to carry out the attack outlined above would require a total of 3 x 50 = 150 missiles.

If the Russians were in any doubt as to the direction of take-off of the 7 bombers, they could remove the ambiguity by placing two other airbursts 14 miles at 300 from the other end of the runway to cover the reverse direction of take-off. Thus, for 50 airfields, would require a further 100 missiles, thus bringing the total missiles up to 250, which is still below the 300 postulated for the knocking out of Blue Streak.

Further, a number of the dispersal airfields are understood to be sufficiently near each other for the damage radius of a burst on one airfield to overlap on to the neighbouring airfield, thus reducing the weight of attack required.

Finally, it should be realised that the bomber bases in East Anglia would only get 2‘/г-3 (not 4 minutes as commonly stated) warning by BMEWS of the Russian 1000 mile rocket if fired on a low trajectory from satellite territory.

[BMEWS: Ballistic Missile Early Warning System. There was a station at Fylingdales on the North Yorks Moors.]

This was just one of many objections – and this from the Government’s principal expert on missiles. Sandys was writing similar memos as late as March.

So, if the report was so obviously flawed, why was it put forward, and why was it accepted so uncritically? One reason was that the answer it gave was the answer that a lot of people wanted. Never mind the argument, look at the conclusion. Another reason was that the Study Group had been composed of some very eminent men, and there was the obvious appeal to authority – a group as eminent as this could hardly be wrong.

But in one sense the argument had already been lost. Blue Streak had had sufficient doubt cast upon it that revival became impossible. (Similarly, later, when the US Secretary of Defense Macnamara cancelled WS.138A/Skybolt, but still offered it to Britain, Macmillan rejected the offer on the grounds that ‘the lady’s virtue has been impugned’. The same was happening to Blue Streak.)

Indeed, the battle went outside Whitehall with the publication of an article in the Daily Mail on 4 February 1960. The headline ran ‘Blue Streak is a damp squib’ and went on:

This is the key problem – one of the most critical defence questions this country has faced – that Mr. Harold Watkinson, a senior cabinet minister, was put into the Ministry of Defence last October to solve…

His brief from the P. M. was short and to the point. First, Britain must continue trying by all means within financial reason to remain an effective nuclear power.

Second, an attempt to do this by striking a new balance between the runaway costs of the deterrent and our obvious weakness in conventional forces.

With this in mind, it follows inevitably that the first file called for by Mr. Watkinson in the Ministry of Defence was labelled ‘Blue Streak’.

In the days of his predecessor, Mr. Duncan Sandys, this file was the sacred cow. Mr. Sandys had made up his mind unalterably that Blue Streak, secure in its underground cells, was the answer for Britain.

It is said that throughout last summer Mr. Sandys faced increasing pressure from financial and military experts to think again. Apparently, he was obdurate. Only in his successor has a ready listener been found.

The most disturbing aspect of the cost of Blue Streak was strengthening military opinion that this fabulously expensive weapon would be secure underground only for a few years at most.

Once the Russians could guarantee the accuracy of their rockets within half a mile, Blue Streak would be as vulnerable as today’s Thors which stand plain for all to see fixed on their surface-launching pads in East Anglia…

The most interesting feature of this article is: where did the journalist get his information? To be as well informed as this suggests a leak from someone close to the top – although there is nothing new in that. And, further, although Blue Streak is portrayed as obsolete, no alternative is mentioned.

Other newspapers also picked up on the political implications of the struggle: another article mentioned the constant redrafting of the Defence White paper, and noted of Sandys that if he wins this Cabinet battle his personal standing among Ministers will be immensely enhanced. If he loses, his resignation cannot be ruled out.’

But despite all the arguments between Ministries and their civil servants, as we have seen, the Chiefs of Staff short-circuited the whole debate in their letter to Watkinson saying that they attached no military value to Blue Streak as a weapon, and recommending its cancellation. This was to put Watkinson in a very difficult position. He had only been Minister for Defence since the October 1959 election, and in his first Cabinet post (he would disappear from the Cabinet in the reshuffle known as ‘the night of the long knives’ in July 1962). Irrespective of all the papers from the Ministry of Aviation, and from Sandys, a Cabinet colleague who had been in successive Conservative cabinets since Churchill’s election victory of 1951, and who had been the originator of the project, Watkinson had now received a memo from the Chiefs of Staff to say they had no confidence in the weapon. There was little he could then do. If his Chiefs of Staff told him that they attached no military value to a project then Watkinson was in no position to argue. He wrote to Sandys on 9 February and, unusually, the word ‘personal’ is handwritten at the top. The letter reads:


Single stage. Launched 11 June 1959 at 22:33. Apogee 499 miles.

BK04, the first re-entry experiment with a separating spin-stabilised head, was very successful. The main stage reached its designed burn-out velocity and both guidance and control of the vehicle were satisfactory. Telemetry on the main stage worked throughout the flight to apogee and re-entry, and valuable information on systems performance was obtained. The head separation, turnover and spin-stabilisation system was successful. The head re-entered (200,000 ft) at 11,740 ft/second, telemetry worked throughout to impact, except for a short period during re-entry, and some information on re-entry dynamics and heating was obtained. Recovery of the head with the patches of materials under test attached to it yielded valuable information on ablation during re-entry.

The photograph in Figure 90 is a time lapse picture of the re-entry of the head and of the main rocket body. (The stars in the background appear as streaks due to the long exposure time.) This was one of the reasons Woomera was chosen for
the trials: clear skies with no cloud or smog (the flights were also scheduled for moonless nights, for obvious reasons). A further advantage of the range is that the remains of both the head and the rocket body could be collected and examined later (provided they could be found!).

Подпись: Figure 90. Re-entry photograph for the first separating head, BK04.

Подпись: Э0О IOOO 1020 1040 1060 1080 1100 TIME (SECS) Figure 91. Graph showing the re-entry head temperatures for the BK04 flight. These data showed that the peak temperatures were close to the predicted value, and that any reentry head based on this design would not burn up on re-entry.

Data was sent from the re-entry head by radio (later heads would have a tape recorder) for analysis. The graph in Figure 91 below shows the temperature at the head of the re­entry body.3 The results from the flight vindicated the choice of design: the heating was well within acceptable limits.

Although Black Knight had fulfilled its original purpose, RAE was interested in some of the other phenomena observed during re-entry, and the range at Woomera was equipped with better optical and radar equipment for the gaslight and Dazzle series of flights. The US was also interested in the results, which meant that the programme became a UK/US/Australian collaboration.

BK04 also set up the altitude record for a single stage vehicle until January 1962, when the launch of a Thor lifted an Echo-2-prototype balloon to a height of more than 900 miles.


Two stage. Launched 25 November 1965 at 22:50.

Apogee 393 miles. Re-entry head: Copper sphere.

The performance of the

first stage was excellent. A flare was fitted to the second stage to highlight ignition. The sabot and lanyard system seemed to be a success. The head was recovered the following morning. It had survived the impact with the ground but the halves had flattened on impact and flew apart.

Summary of Black Knight Launches


Stages Launch date

Empty weight (lb) All up weight (lb)

Apogee (miles)



7 September 1958






12 March 1959






11 June 1959






29 June 1959






30 October 1959






24 May 1960






21 June 1960






25 July 1960

1, 600





7 February 1960






9 May 1961






7 June 1961






1 May 1962






24 August 1962






30 November 1962






17 October 1963




6 August 1964






6 November 1964






24 April 1965






27 July 1965






29 September 1965






25 November 1965




Could the UK Once Again Become Involved in a Launcher Programme?

In a word, no. There are many reasons for this.

Firstly, there is no infrastructure left. After the Black Arrow cancellation, the facilities at Cowes, at High Down and at Ansty were closed down. With the demise of ELDO, the Rolls Royce facilities were closed, and Spadeadam handed over to the RAF. There was still some work going on with the Falstaff programme designed to assist the Chevaline upgrade to the Polaris system (Chevaline itself also required some rocketry development). Some facilities were kept available until the mid-1990s as a ‘strategic asset’, but even those have gone. A little development work continues at Westcott related to satellite work.

Building new infrastructure would be very difficult. Gone are the days when redundant War Office sites or disused airfield could be pressed into service. The idea of building a rocket test facility at somewhere like High Down is laughable in today’s Britain.

Secondly, the skills have gone. Whilst there may well be plenty of competent engineers available, none will have worked on rocketry systems. Such systems have their own peculiarities. If you have worked on them in the past, you are aware of the pitfalls to be avoided. This is sometimes described as ‘tacit knowledge’ – knowledge you have gained by experience, but which is very difficult to describe. But all those who worked on Blue Streak or Black Knight or Black Arrow have long since retired, and newcomers would have to learn many lessons which once were well known, but that knowledge has gone with the engineers of the past.

Thirdly, there is money. Rocketry demands a lot of money. The folk memory of the Treasury is long, and the experience of ELDO is burned into the collective subconscious of Whitehall. Never mind that it was the Government’s fault in the first place – the money wasted serves as a stark reminder to anyone trying to resurrect the programmes.

On the other hand, space is not all about rockets. Rockets are but a means to an end, and that end is to launch satellites. Part of what is left of de Havilland’s site at Stevenage has, by a long and tortuous path, ended as part of EADS Astrium, and still manufactures satellites, as does another site at Portsmouth, which in 2011 employed 1,400 people. Similarly, Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL) is an example of what the Treasury was talking about when it insisted that if space was a profitable business, then private business should get on and do it.

What was left of the Ministry of Aviation became subsumed into the Ministry of Technology, then the Department of Trade and Industry. Now there is a new UK Space Agency, created in April 2010, replacing the British National Space Centre (BNSC) which was an umbrella organisation of ten Government departments, research councils and non-departmental public bodies. The UK civil space programme budget was at that time in the order of £270 million per year – about 76% of which is the UK’s contribution to ESA projects.

There may have been relief in the Treasury and in the Government when the programmes were finally cancelled, but there was a great deal of bitterness among those who had worked on the projects. Let them have the last word: they built rockets with a success rate almost second to none on shoe string resources, and then retired into obscurity. [19]

Political and Administrative Matters

Most of the projects covered in this book started life in a military guise, and so the procurement process, as it would be called today, needs to be examined.

Often a project might have its origins in the Defence Research Policy Committee, or DRPC. Thus in 1953, German rocket scientists who had gone to work in Soviet Russia returned to their homeland, and were then debriefed. The DRPC considered the debriefings, and concluded that the UK should begin research on both ballistic missiles and also investigate possible defences against them. This can be seen as the beginnings of what became Blue Streak.

When a need for a particular weapon had been clarified, the Ministry of Defence or the Air Ministry issued an Operational Requirement, or OR. Thus Blue Streak was OR 1139, the warhead Orange Herald was OR 1142, and so on. The OR could be very specific about some of the requirements: thus for aircraft it might specify range, altitude, speed, maximum weight, and so on. Then the OR would be circulated to various firms, who would produce appropriate designs. The Ministry would then evaluate rival designs and award the contract to a particular manufacturer. Development was the responsibility of the Ministry of Supply, who dealt directly with the firms concerned. When the winning design had been selected, it would look after the timetable, finances and so on for the project.

The major problem was that the Ministry of Supply was not the end user, nor did it benefit or suffer directly from the success or failure of the project. A considerable amount of rancour developed between the Ministry of Supply and the Air Staff as a consequence.

As a result, Blue Streak files in the Public Record Office can be found in various different forms: Supply files, Defence files and Air Ministry files. Often material here is duplicated, as the same set of minutes of meetings were circulated to all relevant Ministries. A further complication is that the names given to a project by the Ministry and by the firm can sometimes be different: thus the Saunders Roe SR53 is known in Ministry files as the F138D.

There is a strong perception that this cumbersome bureaucracy did nothing to speed up projects, and that it would have made considerably more sense to give the function of overseeing development and production to the Ministry who would be the end user. This situation was never helped by continual Defence Reviews, changes of policy, and Treasury oversight. Whilst the latter three are obviously necessary, they can also cast doubts on projects which cannot have helped when it came to producing enthusiastic efforts to get the relevant project in service as swiftly and effectively as possible. Relations between firms and Ministries could also be difficult. Given directions as they were from Whitehall, the firms acted almost as government agencies at times, free from normal commercial pressures. They were often at the mercy of the vagaries of changes in defence policy. Thus, as Saunders Roe was gearing up to produce 27 prototypes of the P177, together with work on Black Knight and the SR53, the work force approached 4,000, only to be cut back drastically as a result of the cancellation of the P177. This is always a problem when a company relies too much on government work.


Blue Streak was effectively in the hands of three Ministries: Defence, Supply and the Air Ministry, whilst the whip hand was held by a fourth, the Treasury. The set up seems Byzantine to modern eyes.

Ion Motors

Ion motors are an extremely promising technology, and have remained mainly at the ‘extremely promising’ stage for the past 40 years. Instead of converting chemical energy into kinetic, as in conventional motors, it converts electrical energy into kinetic. This is done by ionising atoms, then accelerating them through a very large voltage. The main problem is that the only source of electrical energy in space (other than a nuclear reactor) comes from sunlight via solar panels. The amount of energy is not great, and thus the thrust available is small.

The RAE began investigating ion motors as early as 1963. Initial thoughts were for an attitude control and station-keeping capability. Another possibility emerged as a requirement for a high energy upper stage for the Black Arrow launcher, utilising the spiral orbit-raising principle from an initial low altitude parking orbit.

Подпись: Figure 20. The T1 at the RAE. Подпись: ion motor developedIon MotorsInterestingly, at that time ELDO was also considering the augmentation of the payload capability of its launch vehicle by the same means.

The initial designs used mercury: an ion accelerating

potential of about 1.5 kV was chosen, giving a S. I. of close to

3,0 s. The success of the initial

tests with the T1 thruster resulted in the design of a new device, the T2, for which a 10 cm beam diameter was selected to provide a thrust of 10 mN with a beam accelerating potential of 2 kV.10

10 mN thrust might be adequate for attitude control, but not for orbital adjustment. Further development has continued, with the main change being the substitution of xenon gas for mercury as the fuel, but the further story is rather beyond the scope of this book.

As a measure of the work being done by British firms on rocketry, the following figures were given in 1961 for the total expenditure to date (i. e., effectively, since the war):

£ in millions



Double Scorpion de Havilland:



Sprite & Super Sprite







Bristol Siddeley Engines Ltd:












PR.37/2 (Jindivik)









Rolls Royce:

Blue Streak



Supply of HTP



These costings do not include the work done at RPE Westcott, which was considerable. The series of motors leading up to Gamma (Alpha and Beta) were developed there in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Rolls Royce used Westcott’s facilities for early RZ 2 work, and RPE also had its own on-going liquid hydrogen work. In addition, Westcott was a major centre for the development of solid fuel motors.

However, by 1968 the picture had changed radically. Napier no longer existed, de Havilland were doing no more work on rocket motors. Bristol Siddeley and Rolls Royce had been amalgamated. There was just the one firm, and work was shrinking. Val Cleaver, in charge of the rocketry work at Rolls Royce, wrote to the Ministry of Technology to ask how he could keep his team together:

In this atmosphere, it is hard to maintain staff morale, or to retain the good people. Many of our best men have gone out of rocket work over the years (apart from a few who have left our projects, only to emigrate to the States), and we have been able to justify the recruitment of only a mere handful of bright youngsters in recent years.

The Director General (Engineering) at the Ministry of Technology then wrote to CGWL to explain:

My object in encouraging Cleaver to write to you was the conviction that the presently foreseen programme of liquid rocketry development implies the winding up of Rolls Royce’s R&D activity in this field by the early seventies, and the facts need to be faced now, both by Mintech and by the Rolls Royce management.

He then went on to give the following figures for future planned expenditure, based on no further commitments to ELDO, one Black Arrow firing a year, and a limited programme on packaged propellants:

Year: 1967 1968 1969 1970 1971

Expenditure: 1.656 1.900 1.117 0.667 0.437

(in £ million)

It is not clear whether this includes work on the RZ 20 liquid hydrogen motor, which was being carried out under an ELDO contract (and part of the funding had come from Rolls Royce itself).

Indeed, one of Cleaver’s complaints was that it was all obsolescent technology. The RZ 2 had been designed in 1955, 13 years earlier, and although since refined, there was nothing further to be done with it. Similarly with the HTP work: all that was left was derivatives of the Gamma motor, which had started life again in the mid-1950s as the small chamber from the Stentor engine. The liquid hydrogen work was being run on a shoe string.

In the event, work effectively finished in 1971, with the demise of Black Arrow and of Europa. Since then there has been no significant rocketry work done in the UK.

Dear Duncan

Rippon and Strath will have told you how things have been developing in your absence.

The first development is that WS.138A seems to be doing well. You will have seen the messages sent to your Ministry by the Mission, which show that it has now been approved by the Department of Defense…

This leads on to Blue Streak. The Chiefs of Staff have been considering their attitude to Blue Streak and have now given me their unanimous advice that they find Blue Streak, as a fire first weapon, unacceptable. I am afraid Dermot sold the pass here to begin with.

If then it is open to us to obtain an American weapon on acceptable terms, we are faced with a disagreeable choice. Either we must go on with Blue Streak in the knowledge that the Chiefs of Staff advise against it as a weapon. Or we must cancel it in favour of an American weapon, with all that may be involved in the way of losing the ability to develop missiles on our own. No intermediate course seems to be feasible as I understand from your department that if Blue Streak is to go on at all there is no sensible way in which any significant sum could be saved. I am not sure that they have really thought this out enough, but you will know better than I about this.

This then is the choice so far as spending defence money is concerned. It may be that the Minister of Science will conclude that he can justify financing the development of Blue Streak and converting it into a project for space research, primarily from civil funds. I have put this proposition to him but I should doubt whether he can find the money.

All this presents us with a difficult choice and I am not yet clear what it is best to do in the national interest. In order to help me to form an opinion I have been asking your department for information about the consequences of stopping Blue Streak. Your department is directly in touch with the Minister of Science’s office about the cost of the space research programme.

I should very much like to know what you think, as soon as your people have finished setting out the consequences of stopping Blue Streak, or any possibility of saving something from the wreck.22

‘Dermot’ referred to in paragraph five was the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Dermot Boyle. Blue Streak was intended for service in the RAF, yet even the head of that Service had rejected it. Watkinson’s implication is that Boyle’s withdrawal of support for Blue Streak was the precipitating factor. The phrasing of the letter is also interesting: Watkinson realises the implications for Sandys, yet cannot argue against the advice given to him by the professionals.

What were the motives of the Chiefs of Staff? Crudely, they could be summed up as follows.

The Army had no real interest one way or the other. Their only real interest was to keep the cost of the deterrent as low as possible to allow more room in the military budget for new equipment (tanks and the like) for conventional forces. If a cheaper alternative to Blue Streak were available, they would vote for it.

Mountbatten, as mentioned, had other motives. He was, in addition, Chief of the Defence Staff and a man with a considerable Whitehall network. Cancelling Blue Streak, to which he was opposed anyway, opened the way for the Navy to acquire Polaris submarines, which they did in the mid-1960s. His successor as First Sea Lord, Sir Charles Lambe, was also pushing hard for Polaris.

Boyle, of the RAF, also saw new opportunities for his service. Not only would the V bombers be given a fresh lease of life, there was a window of opportunity for the RAF to acquire further aircraft to supplement and replace the V bombers. Proposals were well advanced at the time of the cancellation of Skybolt to modify the VC-10 airliner to enable them to carry the missile.

Apart then from the Ministry of Aviation, Blue Streak had no Whitehall or Service support. Hence it was to go.

But there were other political considerations to the cancellation. Two of the most important were the political dimension of the cancellation, particularly given the cost to date, and the implications for relations with Australia.

Since the late 1940s, there had been considerable co-operation between the UK and Australia in matters of weapons development. The UK had devices to test but no room in which to test them; Australia had the room but did not have the devices. Thus Australia provided testing sites for atomic weapons (the Monte Bello Islands, Emu Field, and Maralinga), as well as the Long Range Weapons test site at Woomera. All Blue Streak test firings were to have been carried out at Woomera, and many facilities, funded jointly by the UK and Australia, were nearing completion. Thus the Foreign Office in particular was concerned about the impact of the cancellation on the Menzies Government and on Australian public opinion.

As to the cost of the project so far, there was a salvage option: to continue Blue Streak not as a military weapon but as a satellite launcher. This would help deflect much of the political criticism, but it was an option that had not been thought through very clearly – in particular, the cost implications.

Now the decision went to the Cabinet Committee on Defence, and the minutes of its third discussion on 6 April concerning Blue Streak read as follows:

THE PRIME MINISTER said that the first question for consideration was whether

the provisional decision… to abandon the development of BLUE STREAK as a

weapon should now be confirmed. There were two main issues to decide:-

(a) Would it be militarily acceptable to rely on the V-Bombers, with SKYBOLT, rather than on BLUE STREAK, as our strategic nuclear force from about 1965 onwards?

(b) Was it reasonable to assume that SKYBOLT and eventually POLARIS (if we needed it) would be made available to us by the Americans on satisfactory terms?

THE MINISTER OF DEFENCE said that… the general consensus of opinion was that, in circumstances other than a surprise saturation attack, the V Bombers equipped with SKYBOLT would have certain advantages over BLUE STREAK. The main considerations leading to this conclusion were political rather than scientific or technical. The Bomber force had qualities of mobility and flexibility which were useful for conventional operations as well as for the nuclear deterrent. It had the advantage that it could be launched on a radar warning without an irrevocable decision being taken to launch the nuclear attack itself.

THE MINISTER OF AVIATION agreed that there would be certain financial and political advantages in depending on the V-Bombers and SKYBOLT rather than on BLUE STREAK for our strategic deterrent force in the later 1960’s [sic]. From the military point of view, there was no marked advantage one way or the other. In these circumstances he would concur in the decision that the development of BLUE STREAK as a weapon should be abandoned.

… The Americans had indicated their willingness to make SKYBOLT available unconditionally, except for the suggestion, which we might be able to persuade them to modify or abandon, that specific reference should be made to its use for North Atlantic Treaty (N. A.T. O.) purposes. It should be possible to reach a similar understanding as regards POLARIS (on which, however, no immediate decision was required) .

THE PRIME MINISTER said that the Committee’s discussion showed that their provisional decision to abandon BLUE STREAK as a weapon could now be confirmed. The next question to be considered was whether its development should be continued for scientific and technological purposes. The officials’ Report showed that there were only two alternatives:

(a) to cancel BLUE STREAK completely; even if this were done immediately, there would be unavoidable nugatory expenditure of about £72.5 millions, of which £22 millions would fall in 1960/61.

(b) to adapt it as a space satellite launcher at a cost, including the development of a stabilised satellite, of about £90-100 millions.

The advantages and disadvantages of these two courses could not be wholly assessed in material terms. To cancel BLUE STREAK would involve dislocation of industry, difficulties with the Australians, heavy charges, the loss of the potential value of a large British rocket for space research or other purposes and the abandonment of that part of the work already done which was relevant to the development of a satellite launcher; but it would curtail expenditure in the longer term, and make resources available for other purposes. To develop BLUE STREAK as a space satellite launcher would be much more costly. and the Ministry of

Aviation had not been able to consult the firms concerned about whether the £90­100 millions launcher and satellite programme would in fact be practicable…

THE CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER said that an immediate decision should be taken to bring all further work on BLUE STREAK to an end. The nation’s resources over the next few years would be inadequate to meet all our existing commitments. Since there was no suggestion that any other project should give way to the development of BLUE STREAK as a space satellite launcher, he did not see how the heavy expenditure involved could be met. The programme was estimated to cost over the next four or five years some £75 millions more than the cost of immediate cancellation; past experience suggested that this figure might be considerably increased and that other defence projects, for which no provision had yet been made, would eventually come forward to take the place of expenditure saved on BLUE STREAK. The national economy would benefit from the industrial and man-power resources made available by the complete cancellation of BLUE STREAK.

Summing up, THE PRIME MINISTER said that the Cabinet should be informed of the decision to cancel the development of BLUE STREAK as a weapon and invited to consider whether this decision should be announced in terms that all work on BLUE STREAK should cease completely or that further consideration was being given to its development as a space satellite launcher. If the latter alternative were adopted it would be desirable for a final decision to be taken if possible within the next few weeks.

The Committee took note that the Prime Minister would arrange for the Cabinet to be informed of the decision to cancel the development of BLUE STREAK as a weapon and of the terms in which this decision might be communicated to Parliament and to the Government of Australia on the alternative assumptions that –

(a) all further work on BLUE STREAK should cease;

(b) consideration should be given, in consultation with industry and the other interests concerned, to the adaptation of BLUE STREAK as a space satellite launcher.

The decision having thus been taken, it fell to Watkinson to make the announcement in the House of Commons on 13 April. He rose to read a statement which ran thus:


Single stage. Launched 29 June 1959 at 21:03. Apogee 275 miles.

BK05, a re-entry experiment using a double cone eroding head, was designed for greater penetration at high speed into the atmosphere with the object of obtaining much greater heating, particularly in the nose cone which was made of doorstops. A complicated parachute recovery system was built into the head in an attempt to prevent damage to the nose cone on impact.

Overheating in the propulsion bay, as in BK03 (unfortunately not confirmed until after BK05) again caused premature engine cut-out resulting in a reduced re-entry velocity.

A hitherto unsuspected long decay time of thrust at engine shut-down resulted in collision of body and head at separation. The body telemetry continued to function to re-entry but head telemetry ceased just after head separation. The head aerial was probably broken by the impact with the body. The head was recovered and it was found that the parachute had torn out the inner core of the head and the base dome had been pulled off. Early deployment of the parachute would have resulted in excessive drag loads and it can only be assumed that this happened.

Some supporting evidence is that the barometric switch used to deploy the parachute was found on recovery to operate at a pressure equivalent to 22,000 ft instead of the expected height of 10,000 ft. However, the trial was not a complete failure since recovery of the head yielded data on erosion, albeit at a lower re­entry speed than intended.