To infinity and beyond
This week’s British mission to orbit domestically-built satellites from home soil, using a modified Boeing 747 to carry aloft a rocket that then ignited its first stage, was a failure. But no European nation has ever achieved this feat, whilst the United Kingdom can at least take pride in being the second – and in fact the last – to successfully place an object in orbit from a foreign site (France was the first), and this more than half a century ago. That the UK could launch its own satellite aboard its own rocket barely a dozen years after the world’s superpowers made the initial breakthrough says much for her technical ability, industrial power and political will in the post-war years. The products of those two decades deserve to be remembered.
In 1971 a Black Arrow rocket, manufactured at various locations in the British Isles and assembled on the Isle of Wight, was shipped to Woomera, South Australia. Sitting atop it was Prospero, designed to test the long-term exposure effects of space on communications hardware and made at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough. Mention of that establishment requires acknowledgment of the significant cross-over between civil and defence programmes, both carried out at the start of the Cold War. In the Fifties Britain still had a vast network of private companies that continued to develop many areas of technology. Government institutions such as Farnborough generated their own successes, and not only in aerospace – scientists from there invented carbon fibre in 1963. Work on radar before and during the war was not only instrumental in eventual Allied victory but ensured a leading British capability in the field for some time afterward. The radioastronomy of Bernard Lovell and Martin Ryle grew out of this work and led to construction, in 1957, of the largest steerable dish radio telescope in the world at Jodrell Bank.
Operating at a lower – though technically variable – altitude was the Stratosphere Chamber at Weybridge-Brooklands. Designed by Barnes Wallis and built between 1946 and 1947, this house-sized test container was used to expose all manner of equipment to different temperature, pressure and climatic conditions, simulating those at the summit of Everest, both Poles or in the desert. It was also at Weybridge-Brooklands that the first design meeting was held for Concorde, the world’s first supersonic passenger airliner, more of which was built there than at any other site. The military equivalents were the English Electric Lightning, a Mach 2-capable interceptor, and the TSR.2 reconnaissance and strike aircraft. Though the latter was cancelled after a handful of prototypes were completed, the former gave the Royal Air Force the equal of any comparable aircraft in the world for many years.
Faster speeds at sea were possible when Briton Christopher Cockerell invented the hovercraft, which used a cushion of air and a flexible skirt beneath the vessel to reduce drag. Classified until the end of the 1950s, commercial hovercraft eventually appeared and crossed the Channel for thirty years – at a speed that was faster than their eventual replacements. Leisure activities of other kinds also benefitted from Britain’s two decades of post-war accomplishments.
The BBC television centre in west London was Europe's largest production studio when it opened in 1960, with provision, too, for colour, video recording and future expansion. A few years later saw patrons of the big screen indulging themselves at the Odeon Marble Arch, marketed as the world’s most sophisticated cinema and featuring the country’s largest screen, automated running, escalators and closed-circuit television. Those seeking a sunny escape could start their journey from the West London Air Terminal from where British European Airways, the world’s fifth largest airline at the time, later operated a computerised reservation system and one of Europe’s earliest call centres.
This consistently impressive period in the United Kingdom’s long history of scientific and technological achievements should be recalled whenever the occasional failure occurs.