The Black Arrow

I could have been looking at the centuries old ruins of a castle.

Highdown Rocket test site, Isle of Wight. (Author)

But the moulded concrete and rusting steel were a give away.  This was no Norman keep, this was the white heat of 60s Britain, sitting on a cliff at Highdown.

Black Arrow.

It was a very cool name.

The first time I heard it I thought it was the best name for a rocket I had ever come across.  I still do.

Blue Streak, Black Knight, Skylark, Falstaff…

If there was a prize for great names in rocketry the UK would be a contender.

But Black Arrow has to win first prize.

Lift off! Black Arrow in 1971. (Photo Via Britain in Space)

This was no appeal to Greek mythology or Norse legend.

This was 20th Century post war British cool.

The Comet, the Mini, Concorde, Michael Caine, Black Arrow.

Of course the British rarely forget history or culture and riding atop Black Arrow was Prospero, Shakespeare’s Magician.

Developed on a shoe string budget in oversized sheds, Black Arrow was that archetypal British project.  Efficient, well designed, looked amazing, great name.  But like so many other British aeronautical projects of the period it had one major fault.


It had no obvious use and therefore its budget was seen as wasteful.  Britain could use US launchers when it needed and that would be cheaper.  Well so said the Minister at the time.

Black Arrow’s problem was that it was a rocket ahead of its time.  A small, cheap, efficient launcher for putting small payloads into LEO. It was launched, along with Prospero in 1971 and then no more.  Britain would be a passenger in other’s rockets.  Payloads were increasing, satellites were growing and a small rocket seemed to be a waste of taxpayers money.

Fast forward 41 years and witness the European Space Agencies latest rocket Vega.

It cost over a Billion pounds to develop and has been designed to put small payloads into LEO….

Meanwhile we can walk amongst the ruins of Black Arrow’s test pad and watch the faint twinkle of Prospero pass overhead every 104 minutes, following its near perfect orbit.

The end of our Vertical Empire? Black Arrow test stand, Highdown (Author)

About astronomersden

Daddy, Hubby, Teacher and when ever I get the chance Astronomer.
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