By the early 1950's the British Government had successfully exploded both atomic and hydrogen bombs, and now set out to
develop a means of delivery; the intercontinental ballistic missile code-named Blue Streak.
A significant part of this activity was the building and launching of a smaller rocket that used the complex liquid propellants but employed hardware and techniques that were immediately available. This rocket was code-named Black Knight. In 1955 Saunders Roe of Cowes were commissioned to develop the missile.
To assemble and test each rocket before shipment to the Australian launch site at Woomera, Saunders Roe required a local test site. The Needles Headland offered a secure site with suitable underground accomodation. In 1955 the Highdown site was leased from the Ministry of War.
Under the instruction of architect John A. Strubbe, construction began in April 1956. The Needles Headland was transformed into something like a James Bond film set. A complex of specialised buildings was constructed over the New Battery and underground control control and instrumentation rooms were converted from the old magazines. There 2,200 square feet of control rooms and underground stores, 4,260 square feet of laboratories and offices and 3.080 square feet of workshops and smaller machine shops. The dining rooms catered for 80 people at a time. In all there was space enough for 240 people, a number reached in the early 1960's. Click here for a plan view of the site.
In the early stages serious consideration was given to accommodating Blue Streak at the site. This would have meant digging silos deep into the hillside - impractical but not impossible. As it was, development of the Blue Streak rocket took place at its own purpose-built facility at Spadeadam, near Carlisle, and its own chequered history is another story.
The 10 metre long Black Knight rockets were assembled in the workshops. Then they were towed down the newly built road along the cliff top above Scratchell's Bay to one of the two 60 foot high test gantries. The rockets were erected inside the steel and aluminium towers by men dressed in protective suits with glass fronted helmets operating one and a half ton mobile cranes.
During a test firing all activities followed a strict time sequence, with the operation of the rocket controlled automatically by a Sequencer unit. At any point the process could be aborted by the press of a button from several monitoring positions, most of which were underground. In addition to manual observations taken from the secure Blockhouse, an array of camera, tape recorders and specialised devices automatically logged data from several hundred instrumentation sensors placed within the engine and other rocket systems.
On ignition, the four jet rocket motors fired into steel "exhaust buckets," cooled by a torrent of water from a specially built 60,000 gallon reservoir, at a rate of 3,000 gallons per minute. The exhaust emerged at right angles from the cliff as a "fountain of steam".
With the missile successfully tested, a team of engineers accompanied it to the launch site. In all, 23 single and two-stage Black Knights were launched, between September 1958 and November 1965.
The success of Black Knight suggested the need for Britain to develop a capacity to launch satellites, and in 1965 the Highdown team started work on Black Arrow, an 18 ton, 13 metre, three stage rocket designed to put a 300 kilogram satellite into a circular near-Earth orbit.
Five Black Arrows were built and four launched into space, the first in 1968. The project reached its zenith on the 28th October 1971 with the launch of the first, and only, all-British satellite put into space by a British rocket. The experimental satellite, designated Prospero in space, achieved a near perfect orbit and carried out short term data collection on micrometeorites and space erosion.
Having achieved its peak, the British programme suddenly ended in a lack of political will and scientific consensus on how to use the rocket. Although briefly put up for tender to potential buyers the Highdown rocket test site was closed in July 1972 and the buildings and infrastruture quickly dismantled.
The concrete bones of the Highdown rocket site are one of the few reminders of the successful, if short-lived, British space programme of the latter half of the 20th Century. The last Black Arrow now resides at the British National Science Museum. Another reminder is Prospero, which will continue to orbit the Earth until at least the year 2200.
As for the future of Highdown, the site is now owned and caringly administered by the National Trust, with the whole having recently been granted Ancient Monument status.
It is hoped, too, that one day a Heritage Centre will be built close to the site as a more fitting tribute to a pioneering and too long unrecognised period of Space, British and Island history.
The above information has been transcribed from a brochure produced by GKN Aerospace Services in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the launch of Prospero. Since its Publication the National Trust have completed the first stage of its initiative to provide an information centre, which is now open in a room at the New Battery.
GKN Aerospace Services