Wight Life

The Rockets Leave Highdown

by Margaret Maidment

Picture of Highdown

AND THE RABBITS are back. Four hundred feet above the sea on the Western tip of the Island, the chalk cliffs of Highdown com- mand a breath-taking, edge-of-the-world view of the Needles and the Channel. But it isn't just a nice view. Highdown's unique geographical position has made it the scene of various projects of national importance.

The first people to dig up the thousands of rabbits which live here were constructing one of the Island forts as a defence against Napoleon. This original installation still forms a basis for the site's later conversions.

Hitler was the next threat, and the old fort was manned once again in the second world war. Luckily for the Islanders, the guns never had to be fired in anger and were subsequently disposed of by the simple means of dropping them into Scratchell's Bay, where they are to this day.

By 1956 Britain was entering the space race, and a suitable site was needed for rocket testing. The natural amphitheatre of Highdown, directing the roar of the rocket-exhaust out to sea so that it was not audible even in Totland (pop festival organisers please note) proved an ideal choice. There were useful surface and underground buildings still in existence; also there was a natural disposal chute for the potentially dangerous High Test Peroxide used as the oxident for the fuel (kerosene) — straight down the cliffs and into the sea.

So the warrens were concreted over yet again, the old buildings renovated and a whole new complex built, to make a test site for the research rocket Black Knight.

The main launching range for the rocket was at Woomera. But when launching takes place 300 miles out in the Australian desert, with engineers and every spare part down to nuts, bolts and rivets having to be flown or shipped 12,000 miles, mistakes are expensive. Static test firings had to be made in England until the rockets were as nearly perfect as possible before shipping. And this was the purpose of the Highdown site.

The first winter back in 1956 was a time of pioneering in rocketry. The physical difficulties only seemed to increase morale. Highdown was often hidden in mist, deep in mud or blasted by 70 to 80 knot gales. But the small team of men was impatient to get the site operational; and everyone, including top design engineers, trekked out to the remote cliff in gumboots, duffle-coats and woolly hats to get on with the concreting, cable-pulling and painting, and to improvise their equipment.

Two years and many delays later the site was ready; consisting of two gantries, a block- house constructed to withstand an explosion, and underground Equipment Centre with all remote control and monitoring equipment, and a large block of laboratories and offices. Black Knight had at last begun its trials.

The main structure of the single-stage (later two-stage) rocket was manufactured and designed by Saunders-Roe, later the British Hovercraft Corporation. Rolls Royce engines were used, and other firms also made components. The whole was then assembled at East Cowes and at Highdown.

The rocket was designed to reach a maximum of 500 miles altitude and could take various payloads, some containing instruments provided by English universities, to gain different information: on x-rays, cosmic rays, magnetic fields, and meteorological data. Research into re-entry problems was also a prime consideration. It was discovered for instance that, contrary to expectations, the best shape for re-entry was the blunt shape now familiar to us from the Apollo capsule. The first Black Knight was successfully launched in 1957. The Highdown tests were even more stringent than the preparation for an actual flight — like checking out every component of your car, so that when the time comes you simply switch on the ignition and go. Also the Australian authorities had to be convinced that any possible dangers had been eliminated at source.

Many of the tests were safety tests, and all sorts of improbable things had to be guarded against. Incidents in Australia and America had shown that interference from radio signals could ac- tually set off the 'destruct' mechanism and cause a premature explosion.

Exhaustive tests culminated in a full-scale dress rehearsal of the launch sequence and a static firing of 35 seconds. Pickets would be posted outside the site boundaries to warn stray ramblers of the impending firing. All personnel (and any sensible rabbits) disappeared into the underground bunkers. And the count-down began. This firing was exactly the same as a real launching except that the rocket was held fixed in the gantry — by one small clamp.

,p>The Black Knight project came to an end in 1965, having served its purpose. Twenty four Black Knights had been made, twenty-two of which were fired at Woomera, one resonance-tested to destruction and one sent to the Science Museum in London. British rocket engineers had achieved 100 per cent success on a shoe-string, compared with the vast sums of money poured into American space research. In fact the amount of money available for the British project was widely regarded as laughable.

The next development was the Black Arrow satellite launching vehicle, to be designed, manufactured and tested by BHC. This three-stage rocket was a development of the Black Knight research, the object being to put into orbit a satellite to be made by the British Aircraft Corporation and the General Electric Company at Portsmouth.

For a period of a year after launching, the satellite would send data on the internal environment of the satellite itself; information about solar cells; would test different pigments for passive control of temperatures (just as black and white paint have different effects on temperature); and so on. This information would be relayed to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough (the overall designing authority).

The Highdown test site had now been in operation for eight years. Fears of erosion had resulted in the HTP being channelled away in proper concrete drains. Banks of streamlined equipment had replaced the original improvisations. The rough and ready, woolly-hats-and-gumbootsdays were now outdated by the necessity for extreme sophistication.

The tests now being carried out were similar to those for Black Knight but far more complex. Satellites made to high reliability, containing instruments expected to function without maintenance for a whole year 300 miles up in space are not two-a-penny. A few specks of dust could ruin the entire project. The satellite had to be brought to Highdown in a special air-conditioned, dust-free van, and the top of the gantry was made into a 'Clean-Area'. When the satellite was mounted on to the vehicle at Woomera the whole area was enclosed in a surgical tent, as used for operations.

The entire development of Black Arrow took only four rockets (a fifth having gone to join Black Knight in the Science Museum). A fully operational satellite was put into orbit in 1971 on the fourth firing, and sent back information for many months thereafter. The object had been achieved with total success, and the possibilities for further research seemed endless — investigation into new solar cell devices, and the development of electric propulsion techniques, which would have greatly lowered the cost of putting communication satellites into orbit.

But the fear which had been behind the entire operation from the start — would the contract be renewed or would the trickle of Government money finally dry up? — at last became fact. The powers-that-be decided that Britain could no longer afford its own space programme, and would from thenceforward rely on the use of American launchers for any research.

The British Hovercraft Corporation was faced, early in 1971, with having to make 50 per cent of the Highdown staff redundant. The equipment, already obsolete, was scrapped, and the test site reverted to downland and the National Trust.

Highdown is once more a ghost barracks. And the rabbits are back.

(Many thanks to Mr John Underwood for all information and photographs).