Select Committee on Trade and Industry Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Mr Nicholas Hill and Mr Dave Wright



  1.1  Space is a very hostile environment and any foray into Space is fraught with risk. Any Organisation that deals with Space will have many failures as well as successes. Success will be judged not by the avoidance of risk, but by the seeking out and active management of risks. Britain has a proud record of successful Space enterprises. This record ought to furnish lessons for the future, inspiration for the young, a general sense of pride, and a source of confidence to those buying British Aerospace products or investing in British Aerospace companies. The history of British efforts in Space has a positive value in providing lessons for the future, educational resources, a cultural heritage, a pedigree of engineering excellence, scientific creativity and commercial capability, and an antidote to those who dismiss British capability.


  2.1  Space is regarded as a hostile environment, and it could be argued that the UK has found it more hostile than most. Whilst we realise that the remit of your Committee is to look to the future, we would also ask you to cast a very brief look back into the past. During the 50s and 60s, Britain had a programme of rocketry research that was both technically high advanced and extremely competent. Some of the details are enlarged upon in our recent article in the magazine History Today, a copy of which we enclose. This article was commissioned from us as a consequence of our researches in this field.

  2.2  However, to take this brief look back, during that period the UK produced a number of technically successful projects which include:

    Blue Streak, which performed almost flawlessly in 11 launches;

    The Black Knight research vehicle, with 22 successful launches;

    The Black Arrow satellite launcher, which in 1971 placed Prospero, the first and last British satellite launched on a British launcher.

  We would not argue that we could or should revert to any of these projects. They were cancelled at the time when applications that are today commonplace were then not envisaged. Whether it is worth reviving work in this area is a matter for speculation, but is not our principal concern.

  2.3  However, we feel that amidst the various issues that you will be considering ought to be one of heritage. The average UK citizen under 40—and many over 40!—thinks of Apollo and of the Space Shuttle when they think of space programmes. Much of the material relating to Britain's early work has been discarded, or, if still extant, is lying quietly in remote corners, and is unknown to the general public.

  2.4  We would like the Committee in its deliberations to give some thought to heritage and to the preservation of the work that was done by a team of successful and motivated engineers. To be specific, we would ask that that part—and it would be a very modest part—of BNSC's remit, to be to preserve the remaining materials and to encourage educational programmes that would bring the attention of Britain's schoolchildren to the work that has been done in the UK.

  2.5  This could be done by providing even modest funding of historical research; of the preparation of suitable educational material for use in schools—which could include textbook materials, CD ROMs, posters and the like; and of displays in Britain's national museums. Since this is also a celebration of Britain's historical heritage, this should be carried in co-operation with other organisations.


  3.1  We would argue that the British Aerospace Industry would be adversely affected by a failure to preserve and exploit past achievements. British achievements have frequently been overlooked and ignored as a result of the assumption that only Superpowers with vast budgets can achieve anything in Space. In 1971 the Black Arrow launch vehicle placed the Prospero satellite in orbit. It was an achievement both behind and ahead of its time. The public had grown used to gigantic, hugely expensive launcher systems thundering into the sky belching smoke and toxic pollution. The astonishing thing about a Black Arrow launch was the lack of such fire and fury. Without thunder or smoke it rises apparently effortlessly with no wasted energy. Launching small satellites cheaply with little pollution was an achievement ahead of its time. There was not perceived to be a market for such a product. The 30th anniversary of the launch of Prospero offers a chance to celebrate a British Space achievement in the year 2001. Such celebration need not be entirely backward looking since British expertise in Hydrogen Peroxide motors is now in demand, mostly by American companies.

  3.2  The Black Arrow programme was an example of a successful alliance of contractors with establishment scientists. The project was characterised by the dedication and flexibility of those involved. Flexibility, innovation and the dedicated support of the entire workforce allowed first class engineering to be created on a shoestring. Britain's one attempt to produce a big launcher, Blue Streak, foundered amidst the difficulties of a European co-venture. Among the series of technical failures of the French second stage, German third stage and Italian fairings there was one constant, Blue Streak never failed. Blue Streak can claim a 100 per cent record of successful launches. First class engineering, a skilled workforce and an extraordinary attention to quality can only explain this extraordinary record. The cancellation of Blue Streak led to Ariane. It should be noted that Ariane was constantly criticised by the French Treasury and came very close to cancellation. It is a national disgrace that a Blue Streak lays rotting in a car park at RAF Spadeadam.

  3.3  It is possible to castigate failures of past Governments and illustrate it with a long list of poor decisions by individuals and organisations. Conversely a list can be composed of British commercial and technical successes. Such superficial analysis can support a variety of partisan viewpoints and illustrates the need for the preservation of the records of past project and for careful study. Government organisations and contractors have both cavalierly destroyed primary source historical materials. Statutory responsibilities have been ignored and material of undoubted historical value has been consigned to the skip and the bonfire.


  4.1  Space is an immensely challenging and dangerous environment. The challenges and the risk are immensely attractive to youngsters. Space can be an effective means of turning children on to Science. The glamour of the courageous Astronaut or Cosmonaut does not conceal but rather enhances the need for sophisticated science and disciplined engineering and management. It is immensely sad that the older child bombarded by information from NASA may come to believe that aspirations to work in the Aerospace industry are the prerogative of American children. Britain may not have a manned Space programme to provide inspiration, but there are engineers and scientists untrumpeted and largely ignored. R J Mitchell and Sydney Camm may not have fought in the Battle of Britain but they are still an inspiration. We do not suggest there is employment for all those children inspired by Space with the British Aerospace industry but an early enthusiasm for Science must benefit the scientific education necessary for the future.


  5.1  We would like to propose that BNSC be required to lead an initiative with other parties to preserve and exploit British Space Heritage. The year 2001 would be an appropriate focus for such an effort. One component of such an initiative should be to make available to schools teaching aids celebrating the achievements of British Aerospace companies, engineers and scientists through posters, texts, videos and Internet sites.

  5.2  The High Down site on the Isle of Wight has not been exploited for its cultural value. The site is one of extraordinary interest with regard to the Scientific and Engineering interest of this country. The Saunders-Roe Company on the Isle of Wight has produced a unique series of products including a satellite launcher, rocket-powered aircraft, helicopters and hovercraft. The design offices in the stables of Osborne House and the test facilities at High Down where the rocket motors were tested on the side of the chalk cliffs represent a remarkable cluster of Heritage sites.

  5.3  The Spadeadam Blue Streak, rotting in a car park in a restricted area hidden from the public, represents a significant financial effort by the British government and a huge personal effort by thousands who worked on the project. To treat their efforts with such contempt is really a national disgrace.

  5.4  We would therefore propose that a National Archive be created to collect Space related historical material, perhaps with the assistance of the British Library and that the Oral History of this exciting period be recorded and made available through the British Library National Sound Archives.

  5.5  We would also be happy to elaborate on any of these issues in oral evidence if you wished to consider them further.

28 February 2000

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