Inside the Collection

Rocketing away!

Rocket suspended in in the Space Exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum
Photography by Marinco Kojdanovski, Powerhouse Museum.

It’s a little known fact that Britain is the only country to have developed its own satellite launch capability and then abandoned it. Britain’s launch vehicle was called Black Arrow and it was launched four times from the Woomera Rocket Range in South Australia between 1969 and 1971 before the program was cancelled. On its last, flight Black Arrow launched the satellite “Prospero” (named for the Shakespearean sorcerer who gives up magic), only the second satellite launched from Woomera. Visitors to the Museum’s Space exhibition can see a pair of payload fairings from a Black Arrow rocket, that were actually used on one of these test flights. The payload fairings covered the satellite at the top of the vehicle to protect it from the stresses of launch, forming a bullet-shaped nose cone for the rocket.

The name Black Arrow comes from the “Rainbow Codes” used for research projects conducted by the British Armed Services. Development of the Black Arrow launcher commenced in 1964, with much of its technology derived from the earlier Black Knight rocket, a re-entry test vehicle also used at Woomera. Standing 13m tall and with a maximum diameter of 2 m, the Black Arrow was a small three stage satellite launcher, designed to carry small test satellites (around 100-130 kg in weight) into low earth orbit. The payload fairings protecting the satellite were hinged so that they opened like petals and fell away during the second stage rocket firing.

The payload fairings were made by the British Hovercraft Corporation on the Isle of Wight in the UK: after the demise of the Black Arrow, the design lived on, being used on the French Diamant B/P.4 launcher in 1975 and the British Falstaff hypersonic research rocket, flown at Woomera in the late 1970s. Each metal fairing had an external cladding of a Hypalon, a synthetic rubber-like material. On one of the Museum’s fairings, this cladding shows a major body crack, like a blow, presumably from impact with the ground after it was jettisoned. The payload fairings on the first Black Arrow launch (designated R0) were white, but on the later three launches the fairings were bright red, although the Museum’s pair have faded to orange due to years of exposure to the desert sun before they were recovered.

Which Black Arrow launch did our fairings belong to? As already mentioned, R0 (launched in June 1969) had white fairings, so they must belong to one of the later launches. According to provenance information on the original recovery of the fairings, they were found on Millers Creek Station in South Australia, about 250kms north-west of Woomera. This indicates that the fairings are from R1, the first successful test flight of the Black Arrow rocket, with a dummy third stage. Only Black Arrow R0 and R1 had planned north-westerly flight paths in the direction of Millers Creek Station; the later two flights (R2 and R3) being launched on northerly flight paths. However, R0 was destroyed shortly after lift-off, while R1 was a textbook flight, with the nosecone being correctly jettisoned. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the R1 flight, which was launched on 4 March 1970.

How the fairings came to the Museum is an interesting story in itself. They were purchased at auction in 2001 from the collection of the Rohrlach Heritage Gallery, a private museum in Tanunda, South Australia. The museum’s collection was assembled by Kevin Rohrlach, a South Australian businessman with a passion for collecting technology. In the 1970s and 80s, as the research work at the Woomera Rocket Range was winding down, Mr. Rohrlach salvaged various items of aerospace hardware from Woomera and the downrange pastoral properties for inclusion in his collection. The Rohrlach museum was a tourist attraction in the Barossa Valley area for about 30 years, but after Kevin Rohrlach passed away in 1998 his widow closed the museum and put the contents up for auction in 2001, at which time the museum acquired several examples of space-related technology used at Woomera. In addition to the Black Arrow fairings, other material from the former Rohrlach Collection can be seen on display in the Space exhibition and at the Powerhouse Discovery Centre.

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