DVD Review: The British Space Programme
The British Space Programme: Projects Cancelled, 1962-1971
Strike Force Entertainment 58mins £14.99
In the shadow of the Space Race to the Moon between the USSR and the USA, Britain built and tested its Blue Streak, Black Knight and Black Arrow rocket projects. Using archive footage this DVD shows that we were technologically capable of launching space rockets, but the biggest stumbling block was (and is) the enormous cost of funding such projects.
Blue Streak began life in 1955 as a ballistic missile that would carry Britain’s nuclear deterrent. The high cost of this scheme and cheaper alternatives led to its cancellation in December 1959. The missile was then developed under the auspices of the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO). The DVD contains striking images of the rocket in its huge transportation case being towed by a Pickfords lorry through narrow English roads past a Dewhurst butcher’s shop. The bemused passers-by who watched it on its journey from its test site at The Rocket Establishment, Spadeadam, Cumbria, for shipment to the launch pad at Woomera, Australia, must have thought the Space Age had truly arrived.
The DVD also shows the Black Knight rocket, which was built and tested on the Isle of Wight, and takes us on a detailed visit to the 5,000 square mile Woomera testing range. Blue Streak and Black Knight were both scraped in favour of the Black Arrow three-stage rocket, which successfully launched the Prospero satellite on October 28th, 1971.
The archive footage shows great pride in British technology and techniques used to successfully launch these rockets, but in the end it was cheaper to go for the option of using US launch vehicles.
To further our misery, the DVD includes news features about The Hotol Project and the Beagle 2 mission to Mars. The Horizontal Take-Off and Landing (Hotol) was a government-funded project to design a revolutionary spaceplane. The clips show engineer Alan Bond discussing his project accompanied by some laughably ancient-looking computer graphics. Funding for this ambitious project was cancelled in 1988. A compilation of news reports tell the story of the Beagle-2 Mars landing craft, developed by a British consortium headed by Colin Pillinger. This time the animated graphics are far more impressive, but the real highlights are the reactions of Pillinger as the mission starts incredibly well and ends in failure. Beagle-2 lost radio contact and it is not certain if it crashed or landed on Mars; what is certain is that lack of funding was a contributing factor to its failure.
Nigel Watson writes on the history of technology
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