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Skylark Sounding


edited by
Matthew Godwin and
Michael D. Kandiah

CCBH Witness Seminar Programme

Skylark Sounding Rockets 1952–72

The CCBH and the Science Museum are grateful to the

European Space Agency for their help with the costs of organising
and producing this seminar.

This publication is dedicated to the memory of

Sir John Boyd

CCBH Witness Seminar Programme

Programme Director: Dr Michael D. Kandiah
© Centre for Contemporary British History, 2005

All rights reserved. This material is made available for use for personal research and study. We give per-
mission for the entire files to be downloaded to your computer for such personal use only. For reproduction
or further distribution of all or part of the file (except as constitutes fair dealing), permission must be sought
from CCBH.

Published by
Centre for Contemporary British History
Institute of Historical Research
School of Advanced Study
University of London
Malet St
London WC1E 7HU

Skylark Sounding Rockets

Held Friday 7 December 2001

at the Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London

Chaired by

Paper by Matthew Godwin

Seminar edited by Matthew Godwin and Michael D. Kandiah

Seminar organised by CCBH

in conjunction with the Science Museum, London

Centre for Contemporary British History


Contributors 9

Citation Guidance 11

Introductory Paper 13
Matthew Godwin

Chronology 19

Skylark Sounding Rockets 1952–72: Seminar Transcript 25

edited by Matthew Godwin and Michael D. Kandiah


MATTHEW GODWIN Institute of Historical Research

DR MICHAEL KANDIAH Centre for Contemporary British History


DR STEPHEN TWIGGE The National Archives


DAVID ASHFORD formerly British Aircraft Company/British Aerospace. Currently

Managing Director Bristol Spaceplanes.

PROFESSOR SIR ROBERT Emeritus Professor of Physics in the University of London, 19-
BOYD, CBE, FRS (1922-2004) 62–83; Director, Mullard Space Science Laboratory of Depart-
ment of Physics and Astronomy of University College, London,

DR DEREK DAWTON formerly Scientific Civil Servant, Royal Aircraft Establishment,


DR ERIC DORLING formerly Scientific Civil Servant, Space Research Management

Unit in the Department for Education and Science; and Royal
Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough.

JOHN HARLOW, MBE formerly British Aircraft Company/British Aerospace. Currently

President of the British Interplanetary Society.

DAVE HATTON currently Scientific Civil Servant, Meteorological Office.

PETER HERBERT formerly Scientific Civil Servant, Royal Aircraft Establishment,


DR DESMOND formerly Deputy Chief Scientific Officer, Space Department,

KING-HELE, FRS Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, 1968-88.

PROFESSOR KEN currently Professor of Space Physics and Head of Department

POUNDS, CBE, FRS at the University of Leicester.
10 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1952–721

JOHN RAY formerly British Government Representative at the Weapons

Research Establishment, Woomera.

JOHN RAYMONT (-2004) formerly Experimental Officer, Mullard Space Science Labora-
tory, University College London, Sep 1960 - Mar 1994.

E. C. SPURR formerly Scientific Civil Servant, Royal Aircraft Establishment,

Farnborough.RAE Skylark team with Stacey, etc.
STUART STACEY formerly Scientific Civil Servant, Royal Aircraft Establishment,

RAY TURNER formerly Project Manager, Culham Fusion research laboratories.

DESMOND WARR formerly Scientific Civil Servant, Royal Aircraft Establishment,


PROFESSOR JOHN currently Professor in Planetary and Space Sciences at the Open
ZARNECKI University.

From the floor:

NICHOLAS HILL Charterhouse School, Godalming

DOUG MILLARD The Science Museum, London

© Centre for Contemporary British History, 2005. Not to be reproduced without permission.
Citation Guidance

References to this and other witness seminars should take the following form:

Witness name, in ‘Witness Seminar Title’, seminar held [date of seminar], (Centre for Contem-
porary British History, [date of publication], [full internet address of seminar]), page number of
reference [use the number given in the header at the top of the page referenced].

For example, Sir Robert Boyd’s description of his early ideas for experiments to be made using
Skylark should be footnoted as follows:

Sir Robert Boyd, in ‘Skylark Sounding Rockets, 1957–72’, seminar held 7 December 2001,
(Centre for Contemporary British History, 2005, http://www.icbh.ac.uk/icbh/witness/skylark/),

For Harvard reference style, use (CCBH Witness Seminar, date of publication) in the text, and
the following style in the bibliography:

‘Witness Seminar Title’, held [date of seminar], Centre for Contemporary British History, [date
of publication], [full internet address of seminar].

For fuller guidance on the citation of all types of electronic sources, please refer to the H-Net
Guide at:

12 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1952–721

© Centre for Contemporary British History, 2005. Not to be reproduced without permission.
Introductory Paper: Skylark

Matthew Godwin
Institute of Historical Research

On 4 October 1957 much of the world was stunned by the news that the Soviet Union had
launched the first artificial satellite. This remarkable event occurred during the International Geo-
physical Year (IGY), a programme of peaceful scientific activities in which countries collaborated
to study the earth. Although memories of the IGY are eclipsed by the Soviet achievement, British
scientists were also embarking on a programme of space research.
While Sputnik began to broadcast what millions round the world heard from radio and televi-
sion news reports as an omnipotent bleep from the heavens, staff of the Weapons Research
Establishment at Woomera, Australia, were continuing with a series of launches of the UK’s Sky-
lark upper atmosphere research vehicle. First launched in February 1957, a number of Skylark
firings coincided with the IGY and therefore constituted part of the British contribution. Skylark
was a means of launching experiments into the earth’s ionosphere for the purposes of scientific
research, known as a sounding rocket. With the success of the IGY and the establishment of space
research as an important new area of scientific exploration, the Skylark programme went on to
become the backbone of British space science. Launches ran from 1957 until as recently as the
1990s, and also formed the basis of the European Space Research Organisation’s (ESRO) sound-
ing rocket programme between 1964 and 1972.
The intention of this paper is to suggest some issues for discussion whilst providing an overall
view of how the Skylark programme developed. The time-scale for discussion is from the year of
the first launch of Skylark, 1957, through to the end of the ESRO programme in 1972, although
the early initiation of the programme will also be addressed.
After the Second World War British defence planners believed that any future war would centre
on the atomic bomb and the V2. For this and other reasons, the UK began developing her own
nuclear weaponry and also sought to acquire her own ballistic missiles. But Britain could not
develop such missiles without knowledge of the medium through which they would fly. Running
in tandem, therefore, with the initiation in 1955 of the Blue Streak Intermediate Range Ballistic
Missile (IRBM) programme, was the need to carry out research on the characteristics of the upper
atmosphere. As M. B. Morgan noted in 1953:
The introduction of the ballistic missile…has brought about an urgent need for research at much higher alti-
tudes and speeds. The work at higher altitudes will include the investigation of the physics of the upper atmos-
This task fell to a series of test vehicles, the CTV series. The CTV5 Series III was renamed Skylark
in 1956. But if test vehicles like these were scientific research tools, they obviously required the
skills of scientists. It is perhaps unsurprising then, that in 1953 when the Ministry of Supply
(MOS) was made aware that British scientists were interested in rockets for research, the MOS
approached Sir Harrie Massey, the Chairman of the Royal Society Gassiot Committee. This Com-
mittee was responsible for orchestrating investigations into the upper atmosphere and Massey was
naturally keen to accept the MOS offer of using their rockets. The arrangement led to Skylark
being designed and offered to the Royal Society in 1954.2

1 Quoted in N. Whyte, ‘United Kingdom Space Policy: 1955-1960’, unpublished University of London PhD thesis (1996), p. 20.
14 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

It is unclear, however, exactly how this arrangement came about. There was a middleman, Fred
Singer, who as US Scientific liaison officer in London knew both the Royal Society scientists and
the MOS programme. But the terms of the initial arrangement between the MOS and the scien-
tists is still to some extent a mystery. One MOS minute alludes to a deal in which the Ministry’s
real interest ‘for security reasons … is not being disclosed to the Royal Society participants’.3 What
then was the arrangement between the Ministry and the Royal Society? What were the priorities
that drove the Skylark programme?
Once an arrangement was in place between the Royal Society and MOS, a proper working pro-
gramme had to be established. When arguing for funding the MOS had in mind the benefits that
working with the Royal Society would entail for the morale of its staff and reputation of the Scien-
tific Civil Service in general. Therefore the MOS anticipated that the publication of work from the
Skylark programme would heighten the status of the Ministry and its Farnborough Research
Establishment.4 To what extent did the Ministry achieve its aims?
The UK in Space
In 1959 the Macmillan Government announced its first space policy and the initiation of the Brit-
ish space research programme.5 This started as a modest project for satellite experiments with ad
hoc administrative and funding arrangements, which became increasingly complex in the period
1959-1964. Despite the apparent belief of Lord Hailsham, the Lord President of the Council and
Minister for Science, that he had good control over civil science, there were increasing problems
during the remaining course of the administration. Particularly problematic was the relationship
between the Department for Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), Treasury, Office of the
Minister for Science, and Royal Society. In addition some scientists, notably Richard Van Der Reit
Woolley (who was none other than the Astronomer-Royal) was openly critical over what he con-
sidered to be the excessive amount of money spent on space research.
It is difficult to appreciate now the degree of public and non-specialist interest in space in the
1960s. The Treasury, for one, never appeared to be entirely convinced of the value of space
research, especially if there were no direct benefits in defence terms. It would be interesting to
know if scientists and those at the MOS found that they had to talk up the defence significance of
Skylark to ensure continued funding on the defence budget. The Treasury’s scepticism over space
research was generally founded on a comparison with the programmes being developed by the
two post-Second World War super-powers. Treasury officials saw that the UK national pro-
gramme could never rival the efforts of either the USA or USSR, and believed that anything not
on their scale was pointless. For instance, in 1964 G. R. Bell wrote that, to him, there was
a tremendous urge to have a UK space programme on purely prestige grounds… For all the value we get out
of it, we might as well spend this money on seeking gold in the outer Hebrides.6
Who defended and promoted the British space research programme; and who opposed it?
The argument that the UK’s space programme could not rival the USA’s or the USSR’s was the
exact reason that a European co-operative programme had been suggested. Such a suggestion had
found considerable support, not least in the Foreign Office.7 However, perhaps most interesting

2 Harrie Massey and M. O. Robins, History of British Space Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986),
pp. 16-7; D. A. King-Hele, A Tapestry of Orbits (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 4-5.
3 Whyte, p. 25.
4 Ibid, p. 26
5 For Macmillan’s statement see Hansard, House of Commons Debates, 12 May 1959, cols. 1047-1050.
6 The National Archive, Kew [hereafter TNA PRO] T255/2127, Minute from G. R. Bell to Sir Richard Clarke, 12 June 1964.
7 TNA PRO FO371/149636/jkt IAS91/30, D. J. Gibson Telegram to European Embassies, 29 July 1960.

© Centre for Contemporary British History, 2005. Not to be reproduced without permission.
Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72 15

of all was the issue of selling rockets. How strongly was Skylark marketed towards ESRO?8 Any
ESRO programme would need rockets to launch experiments and so the possibility of selling
them was a point noted by the Working Party on European Co-operation in Space Research
(SRE), set up in 1960.9 Certainly some ESRO documents suggest that British delegates, like Sir
Robert Boyd, were emphasising the merits of Skylark to ESRO – was this a deliberately orches-
trated move?10 There was also much talk, at least in the early 1960s, about co-operation within the
Commonwealth. What was the contribution of Commonwealth countries to the Skylark
The publication in 1963 of the Trend Report on Civil Science Organisation marked the beginning
of some considerable changes in government science administration.11 Harold Wilson’s incoming
Labour Government carried forward the Trend Report proposals, as well as taking into account a
further review specifically of space policy which was instituted just prior to the Labour Party’s
1964 electoral success. The main result of the Trend Report can be seen in the subsequent intro-
duction of the Science and Technology Act 1965. This allowed for the creation of a Science
Research Council (SRC) into which the functions of the government’s Steering Group on Space
Research and the Royal Society’s British National Committee on Space Research were largely
It would seem that one reading of the changes to the committee structure for space could draw
the conclusion that space research had suffered a demotion in its significance. This was despite the
fact that the Labour Party and its leader Harold Wilson were strong proponents of the rhetoric of
the ‘white heat’ technology.12 Did the change in government have any impact on Skylark or space
By 1965 the Skylark programme was undergoing significant changes. Most of the construction
and development work had been transferred to industry, namely to the British Aircraft Corpora-
tion (BAC). A history of BAC suggests that Skylark was a cheap and successful solution for space
researchers. However, it does not go in to any detail as to why this may have been the case.13
Therefore, from the BAC/industry perspective, how successful was Skylark as an industrial and
commercial project in the period 1965–1972?
Skylark as a Scientific Tool
In retrospect it would appear that the Skylark sounding rocket programme was an important
research tool. Nevertheless, there were the technological problems with Skylark. To begin with, its
early reliability was questionable, as many of the first flights failed.14 Furthermore, a particular
technical difficulty that emerged was the problem with roll-spin, where the rocket could fail on

8 Interestingly enough, however, when it came to signing the ESRO convention there was some difficulty in persuading Lord
Hailsham (whose department had headed the UK negotiations) to attend as he would only go if ‘there is to be some entertain-
ment in the way of a lunch’. See TNA PRO FO 371/163357/jkt IAS61/198, minute from R. C. Hope-Jones to M. D. Butler, 7
June 1962.
9 TNA PRO CAB132/207/SR(E) (60)/1st meeting (Secret), 28 July 1960.
10 TNA PRO CAB132/208/SR(E)(61)/32, Note on the fourth meeting of the Scientific and Technical Working Group, Note by
the secretaries and paper (Confidential), 4 Sept. 1961.
11 For a survey see T. Wilkie, British Science and Politics since 1945 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991).
12 Richard Coopey, ‘The White Heat of Scientific Revolution’, Contemporary Record, Vol.5 No.1 (1991), p. 116.
13 C. Gardner, British Aircraft Corporation, A History (London: Batsford, 1981).
14 Whyte, p. 37

© Centre for Contemporary British History, 2005. Not to be reproduced without permission.
16 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

ascent. Another key problem, one that apparently remained an ongoing characteristic and led to
launchings of Skylark from Aberporth being ruled out, was to do with dispersion.15 This is where
the rocket landed and would potentially scatter components over a wide area. Were there other
technical problems and how where they solved?
Nevertheless, despite these difficulties, it is evident that Skylark facilitated a significant number
of key scientific experiments. During the 1960s the utility of Skylark increased significantly with
the completion of a stabilisation system which enabled rockets to be guided towards the sun or
moon, or later at specific stars. This made Skylark particularly useful for ESRO and also to the
Atomic Energy Authority, which had begun to use Skylark to investigate fusion-related research.16
However, although lists of the type of experiments that were launched with Skylark exist, it is not
clear to what extent these experiments enhanced knowledge of the upper atmosphere. What types
of experiments were launched, and what did they show? What were the scientific successes
obtained with Skylark?17 Clearly Skylark provided the basis of a doctorate for many trainee scien-
tists, but how significant was Skylark for establishing a new discipline of space research and did
careers rely on Skylark?
In 1972 the ESRO sounding rocket programme came to a close, partly, it would seem, because
of the problems going on within the organisation, but also arguably because satellites were becom-
ing a much more promising research tool.18 During the life of the ESRO programme, Skylark had
played a prominent role and had allowed for many more flights than would have been possible
nationally. However, what were the merits of the ESRO programme? Did it simply provide an
alternative means of launching experiments, or was it in any way preferable to using Skylarks
under the national programme?
Culture and Working Conditions
An area of interest is the culture and working conditions of the research establishments, Farnbor-
ough, Westcott and at Woomera. How was the Skylark programme run and how well was it
Several sources exist written by those employed in the establishments, and there are also official
records that one can use to piece together the organisation, but it would be a useful insight to learn
what it was like to work there.

15 TNA PRO CAB132/212/SRE 64 27/Restricted, ‘Report on the scientific and technical committee meeting held in Paris on
17-18 November 1964’, 7 Dec. 1964.
16 Massey & Robins, p. 197.
17 TNA PRO FO 371/149636/jkt IAS91/30, Notes for adjournment debate, D.A. Smith to W. H. Downey (MOA), 26 July 1960.
18 On problems with ESRO see Massey & Robins, p. 230

© Centre for Contemporary British History, 2005. Not to be reproduced without permission.
Issues for consideration

• What priorities drove the Skylark programme?

• Who were the main actors in the arrangement between the MOS and the Royal Society? How
did the arrangement work?

• What was the extent of public and non-specialist interest in space research in the 1957-1972

• How strongly was Skylark marketed towards ESRO?

• What were your views of the Wilson government’s reforms? What was the impact of these
reforms on Skylark?

• What were the technological problems with Skylark? Were they solved?

• Was Skylark a successful industrial project when placed with industry during 1965-1972?

• What were the scientific successes obtained with Skylark?

• To what extent did Skylark form the basis of a scientific career?

• What were the merits of the ESRO programme?

• What was life like at Farnborough, Westcott and Woomera? How was the project organised?
Were there problems with manpower and resources?
18 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

© Centre for Contemporary British History, 2005. Not to be reproduced without permission.

1945 July General Election. Labour government returned with C. R. Attlee as Prime
October British V2 tests, codenamed ‘Operation Backfire’, provide valuable knowl-
edge-gathering opportunity on guided weapons. Scientists begin to realise
the possibilities that rockets could offer for research of the atmosphere.
1947 January Advisory Committee on Scientific Policy (ACSP) established to co-ordinate
civil science policy. Defence Research Policy Committee (DRPC) created to
oversee military research.
1950 February General Election. Labour re-elected.
1951 October General Election. Conservative Government returned under Winston
1952 October Britain detonates her first atomic bomb at the Monte Bello Island off the
north west coast of Australia.
1953 May Ministry of Supply offers Sir Harrie Massey use of their rockets for upper
atmosphere research. Massey accepts and this marks the beginning of the
British space research programme.
1954 Atomic Energy Act establishes the Atomic Energy Authority.
May Desmond King-Hele produces a report outlining the basic design that would
become Skylark.
1955 Blue Streak IRBM/MRBM development begins.
April Churchill resigns and is replaced as Prime Minister by Anthony Eden.
1956 December British troops withdraw from Egypt following the abortive attempt to re-
take the Suez Canal.
1957 January International Geophysical Year begins.
Sir Anthony Eden resigns as Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan replaces
February First Skylark launched from Woomera, Australia.
March Anglo-American Conference at Bermuda.
October Soviet Union successfully launches the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik.
US and UK sign Declaration of Common Purpose.
November The UK detonates her first ‘Hydrogen’ bomb during the Grapple X trials at
Christmas Island. The yield of the device is 1.8 megatons.
1958 April Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, identifies possibility of using high-altitude
rockets for carrying cameras that would need some form of stabilisation. J.
F. Hazell and E. B. Dorling begin to discuss possibilities for stabilised
20 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

October Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) established by the International

Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU).
United States Government establishes the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration (NASA).
United States Congress Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Explo-
ration publishes a report ‘International Co-operation in the Exploration of
Space’ which welcomes co-operative programmes of space research amongst
December International Geophysical Year ends.
1959 March First meeting of the British National Committee on Space Research
(BNCSR), established by the Royal Society as the British liaison with
COSPAR and to look after space research in the universities. The committee
also formed the Government’s main scientific advisory committee on space.
Chairman of the Committee: Sir Harrie Massey.
At the March COSPAR meeting the US offers to launch experiments from
other countries in its satellites.
The ACSP produces a report on a possible British space research pro-
gramme. The programme proposes that limited satellite work should be
May Prime Minister Macmillan announces the establishment of a British space
research programme allowing for satellite experiments (to be flown in US
satellites) and tentative design studies for a satellite launcher. Establishment,
under Sir Edward Bullard, of the Space Research Steering Group to adminis-
ter the programme.
October General Election. Conservatives re-elected
Lord Hailsham appointed the Lord President of the Council and Minister
for Science.
New Ministry of Aviation assumes responsibility for research and develop-
ment in Aviation and related fields (including Skylark) from the Ministry of
1960 April Cabinet Defence Committee confirms Blue Streak is to be cancelled as a mili-
tary weapon delivery system.
July Working party on European Co-operation in Space Research established
under R. N. Quirk.
Nov/ Dec Meeting at Meyrin, Geneva, leads to the Meyrin Agreement setting up the
Preparatory Commission to Study the Possibilities of European Collabora-
tion in the Field of Space Research (COPERS).
1961 April Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union becomes the first human to enter space.
August British application to join the European Economic Community – subse-
quently rejected by French President General de Gaulle.
October ACSP sub-committee, under Sir Alexander Todd, reviewed the space
research programme to ascertain whether unreasonable financial emphasis
was being given to space science. The report found the current level of

© Centre for Contemporary British History, 2005. Not to be reproduced without permission.
Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72 21

expenditure satisfactory.
COPERS approved the ‘Blue Book’ – a report on a prospective scientific
programme for the proposed European Space Research Organisation
(ESRO). The Blue Book proposed a sounding rocket project.
1962 May Committee of Enquiry into the Organisation of Civil Science established
under Chairmanship of Sir Burke Trend (the Trend Committee).
Contract placed with Messrs Elliot Bros Ltd to develop stabilisation system
for Skylark.
June Bristol Aeroplane Company (subsequently the British Aircraft Company)
prepares its first Skylark vehicle in industry.
July US high altitude nuclear test over Johnston Island destroys Ariel I, a UK sat-
ellite. The incident threatens to turn into a Soviet propaganda coup as the US
hurriedly issues a press statement without consulting the UK. Prime Minister
Macmillan orders an investigation. The incident reveals the potency of the
electromagnetic pulse (EMP).
This leads to the Radcliffe Working Party on the effects of high level nuclear
explosions on scientific experiments.
1963 Space Research Management Unit (SRMU), in the Office of the Minister for
Science, established under Malcolm Robins, to administer the space research
June The Profumo Scandal leads to the resignation of John Profumo as Minister
for War.
October Macmillan resigns and is replaced by Sir Alec Douglas-Home.
Trend Report on Civil Science is published.
1964 January The first British Skua 1 sounding rocket is launched from the Hebrides
Range, South Uist. This was mainly a programme for the Meteorological
February Department for Education and Science (DFES) is formed following the rec-
ommendations of the Robbins Report on Higher Education, and the Trend
ELDO Convention comes into force.
March ESRO Convention comes into force.
July First Skylarks launched by ESRO from Salta di Quirra, Sardinia.
August First stabilised UK programme Skylark launched from Woomera.
October Space Policy Review Committee established under P. Rogers, Deputy Secre-
tary of the Cabinet.
Military Space Review Committee established as a sub-committee of the
Defence Research Policy Committee under Professor Hermann Bondi.
Agreement reached for all Skylarks to be manufactured and managed by the
British Aircraft Company. Overall management still rests with RAE.
General Election. Labour returned under Harold Wilson.

© Centre for Contemporary British History, 2005. Not to be reproduced without permission.
22 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

1965 January Space Policy Review Committee reports – no significant change of civil
space policy direction ordered, but questions continued membership of
April Science and Technology Act receives Royal Assent. The Act establishes the
Science Research Council that absorbs the Space Research Management
Unit, assumes the functions of the Space Research Steering Group, and the
British National Committee on Space Research. The Working Party on
European Co-operation in Space Research is absorbed by the Committee on
International Scientific Relations. The Ministry of Technology (MinTech) is
formed whilst the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research is dis-
banded. The ACSP is scrapped and replaced by the Council on Scientific
Policy to advise DFES. An Advisory Council on Technology is formed to
advise MinTech.
Aldermaston formally freed to do non-nuclear research and development.
October Bondi Committee reports – recommends British withdrawal from ELDO.
1966 March General Election. Labour wins with increased majority.
1967 Ministry of Aviation absorbed by the Ministry of Technology. Anthony
Wedgwood Benn becomes Minister of Technology.
January One of the largest UK space science facilities, the Mullard Space Science
Laboratory, opens under Professor Robert Boyd.
February First firing of an ESRO Skylark from Kiruna, Sweden.
May Second British application to join the EEC.
June The first British Petrel sounding rocket is launched from the Hebrides range
at South Uist.
July House of Commons Estimates Committee examines space research and
November Britain’s EEC application rejected by de Gaulle.
Devaluation of the pound (from $2.80 to $2.40) has the effect of increasing
Britain’s subscription to ESRO (and other international organisations).
1968 January Causse Report issued which recommends the union of ELDO and ESRO to
form a European Space Agency.
March First launch of the British Skua 2 sounding rocket from the Hebrides Range,
South Uist.
1969 Britain withdraws from ELDO.
July American Neil Armstrong becomes the first human to walk on the Moon
following the Apollo 11 landing.
1970 June General Election. Conservative Government returned under Edward Heath.
October The Ministry of Technology and Board of Trade are merged to form the
Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). The Aerospace functions (includ-

© Centre for Contemporary British History, 2005. Not to be reproduced without permission.
Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72 23

ing space technology) of the Ministry of Technology are transferred to a new

temporary Ministry of Aviation Supply (MAS).
1971 May Following the Rayner Report on the Government Organisation for Defence
Procurement and Civil Aerospace, the MAS is disbanded and its space func-
tions split between the new Procurement Executive of the Ministry of
Defence (which becomes responsible for Skylark and space technology pro-
curement) and the DTI (which assumes the administrative and other
functions of the MAS.)
October The Black Arrow satellite launcher is launched from Woomera.
House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology examines
UK space activities.
December ESRO Council accept the Puppi proposals which sees the end of the ESRO
sounding rocket programme.
1972 Launch of the first Earth Resources Skylark from Australia (the world’s first
such equipped rocket).
October Enactment of the European Communities Act.
ESRO Sounding Rocket Programme ends.

© Centre for Contemporary British History, 2005. Not to be reproduced without permission.
24 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

© Centre for Contemporary British History, 2005. Not to be reproduced without permission.
Skylark Sounding Rockets,

Edited by Matthew Godwin and Michael D. Kandiah

The Centre for Contemporary British History and the Science Museum held a witness
seminar about Skylark on Friday 7 December 2001 at the Science Museum, London. The
seminar was chaired by Dr Stephen Twigge and the introductory paper was presented by
Matthew Godwin. The witnesses were: David Ashford, Professor Sir Robert Boyd, Dr
Derek Dawton, Roy Dommett, Dr Eric B. Dorling, John Harlow, Dave Hatton, Peter Her-
bert, Dr Desmond King-Hele, Professor Ken Pounds, John Ray, John Raymont, E. C.
Spurr, Stuart Stacey, Ray Turner, Desmond Warr and Professor John Zarnecki. Contribu-
tions from the floor were made by: Nicholas Hill and Doug Millard.

STEPHEN TWIGGE The reason we are here today is to talk about Skylark and I have
been asked to put the programme into context. As we all know it
was a sounding rocket programme, which owes its existence to the
fortuitous turn of events in the 1950s. After the Second World War
the field of upper atmosphere research was opened up, and a new
and exciting area of scientific research, thanks to the adaptation of
the V2. The Royal Society had a long-standing interest in the
atmosphere and, encouraged by the V2 work, was proactive in
leading attempts to develop research with rockets. It so happened
that at the same time the Royal Society was looking for rockets, the
Ministry of Supply was constructing suitable vehicles. The guided
weapons programme of the Ministry of Supply necessitated con-
struction of research rockets as knowledge-gathering devices: the
Ministry needed to know about the atmosphere if it was to develop
effective missiles. And it is from these coinciding interests in
atmospheric research at the Royal Society and at the Ministry of
Supply that the Skylark programme was born, the first launching in
26 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

1957. The Skylark programme underwrote the creation of univer-

sity research groups, the majority of which continue to this day, and
this is something we would like to discuss with the participants.
The rocket itself has endured, with launches continuing into the
1990s. With such a background, it is clearly important that the tech-
nology and the people involved in developing this technology are
better understood. It embodies not only significant insights into the
development of the space programme in Britain and Europe, but it
also has important implications for the understanding of govern-
ment policy, both in science and in the broader interface of politics
and technology. So it is hoped that today’s seminar will provide
some of the missing detail from the history of Skylark. As has been
stated, there is a large archival collection of documents; however,
there are gaps in that archive. There are many conflicting reports,
many different views. I doubt today will solve those, but it would
be useful for the witnesses who were involved in that particular
programme to put their point of view and to give that technology a
human face.
I think the best policy is to go from left to right and ask the individ-
ual members of today’s panel to briefly describe themselves.

DEREK DAWTON It is interesting you started this way, because I, in fact, wrote the
The Royal Aircraft Establishment RAE* Technical Note that assessed the basic design and perform-
(RAE), formerly the Royal Aircraft
Factory, was the British Govern- ance of the so-called Gassiot test vehicle, which was required to lift
ment’s principal research and devel-
opment establishment for aircraft a payload of a hundred pounds to a hundred miles. This arose
and guided weapons. Originally part
of the Ministry of Supply, then from because I was posted as a young scientific officer to the guided
1959 part of the Ministry of Aviation,
and from 1967 part of the Ministry of
weapons department at the Royal Aircraft Establishment under
Morien Morgan,* who realised that with the interest there was in
Sir Morien Morgan (1912-78), scien- ballistic missiles and space in general it was obviously expedient to
tist and civil servant. Head of Guided
Weapons, RAE, 1948-53. tap into the academic knowledge in this general field. In fact Des-
mond King-Hele was involved in some of the initial discussions
with the committee which came up with this ‘hundred pounds to a
hundred miles’ requirement. My role was limited in the sense that I

© Centre for Contemporary British History, 2005. Not to be reproduced without permission.
Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72 27

had discussions with the Rocket Propulsion Establishment at West-

cott about the motor, which was incorporated into an initial project
assessment, and started the whole thing off. At the same time we
were running a series of high-speed test vehicles, designed to meas-
ure kinetic heating, again in support of general background
Black Knight was a research vehicle
developed in support of the Blue knowledge for ballistic missiles. My work really finished once the
Streak ballistic missile project. It was
typically used for the testing of re- initial programme had got underway and I moved over onto Black
entry vehicles (with a view to even-
tual deployment of nuclear war-
Knight.* So in a way my Technical Note was the starting point of the
heads), for example in Project
exercise leading to the Skylark project.

DAVID ASHFORD I was at the British Aircraft Corporation and joined the Skylark
project office in 1972, which I think is just after your interest fin-
ishes! I was project manager for exports and new projects and that
involved selling Skylarks to the Germans and the Swedes. New
projects involved trying to use Skylark technology for cheap and
cheerful payloads on the space shuttle. It was a very interesting
study, but it fizzled out when it became fairly obvious the space
shuttle was going to be rather expensive and I left the project in

SIR ROBERT BOYD I worked with Harrie Massey* during the war in the Admiralty
Sir Harrie Massey (1908-83), physi-
cist. Goldsmid Professor of Mathe- mine design department and joined him in the Department of
matics, University College London,
University of London, 1938-50, Mathematics at University College London after the war. I started,
Quain Professor, Head of Depart-
ment of Physics 1950-72, Head,
at his suggestion, research on the collision processes going on in
Department of Physics and Astron-
ionised gases, primarily in the hope of getting some insight into the
omy 1972-5. Vice-Provost, Univer-
sity College London 1969-73. processes going on in the ionosphere. I could see very quickly that
President, Atomic Scientists Associ-
ation 1953-7, President, Physical there were various things that needed to be done which had not
Society 1954-6. Massey studied at
the Cavendish laboratory, University been done at all, even in the laboratory study of ionised gases. In
of Cambridge. He worked at the
Admiralty during the early stages of particular, people probed gases but came up with values of what
the Second World War, and later
moved to the British contingent of the was called the electron temperature, giving very little consideration
atomic bomb ‘Manhattan project’ in
the United States. He was the Gov- to whether the electrons had a temperature in the true sense. And
ernment’s main advisor on space
research in the post-war period, and one of the main things that came out of the instrumentation and
served as chairman of the Royal
Society’s National Committee on technology that my students and I developed was means of study-
Space Research from its inception in
ing the energy distribution amongst the electrons.

© Centre for Contemporary British History, 2005. Not to be reproduced without permission.
28 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

1959. He served on the Preparatory Another thing that was quite vital was to know the nature of the
Commission to Study the Possibili-
ties of European Collaboration in the positive ions which were present. I developed a little mass spec-
Field of Space Research (COPERS,
from the French initials), and was trometer which operated essentially like a tiny linear accelerator and
subsequently chair of the Council of
the European Space Research could therefore be tuned in to specific masses, and which was small
Organisation (ESRO) until the end of
1964. From 1965 he was chair of the enough to be pushed in and out of an electrical discharge to get a
UK Government’s Council for Scien-
tific Policy which replaced the Advi- radial distribution of the quantities one was looking for.
sory Council for Science Policy.
In I think it was 1952 Harrie Massey came into my lab and said to
me, ‘Boyd, how would you like to have some rockets for research?’
So I replied that I would very much like that and I went off to the
library to find out what had been going on, using rockets to study
the ionosphere. From that point onwards I was closely concerned
The Mullard Space Science Labora- with encouraging in every way possible the use of rockets for scien-
tory (MSSL) was established with
funding from the Mullard Company. tific research, and I may just say at this point that the reason the
The Laboratory opened in 1967
under the Directorship of Sir Robert Mullard Space Science Laboratory* is not named the space labora-
Boyd as part of University College
London. tory in any other sense is precisely because I was very keen to
Malcolm O. Robins, scientist and emphasise the science that we were concerned with. I am intrigued,
civil servant. Robins was involved
with the Skylark programme from the as I look at the list of questions that we are given, to find how dif-
beginning when he was put on
secondment from the Ministry of ferent they are from all the questions that I ever thought of asking
Supply to work with Massey at Uni-
versity College London. Subse-
about my use of the rockets. I spent a period in a summer, I think it
quently, he moved to head the
was 1952 but it may have been 1953, at the Royal Aircraft Estab-
Space Research Management Unit
in the Department for Education and lishment, getting to know a bit of what was going on. Some things I
Science formed in 1963, which after
1965 was transferred to the Science shouldn’t have been told, I know, but in particular I learnt about
Research Council. He then moved
on to become most recently Director the CTV5 and the work that was going on to study flutter and such
of Astronomy, Space and Radio, Sci-
ence Research Council. He is now things, and I met Eric Dorling and Frank Hazell and very particu-
larly Mac Robins.*

ERIC B. DORLING I arrived at RAE in 1955 at a propitious moment. Everything was

ready for the start of the Skylark programme. Design work on the
Raven motor at the then RAE Westcott had still to begin and the
massive launch tower for Woomera had yet to be designed and
constructed. An important task by the late Frank Hazell, who was
in charge of the project, and Peter Herbert, who is here today, was
making the necessary aerodynamic and trajectory calculations, the

© Centre for Contemporary British History, 2005. Not to be reproduced without permission.
Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72 29

latter lengthy tasks having to be done by hand. Two young lady

assistants calculated trajectories during motor burn, a quarter of a
second by a quarter of a second; those quarters of seconds added
up to two weeks of work. I imagine any of today’s small calculators
would make half a dozen to the minute, but in 1955 we were with-
out that very important tool, the computer.
My job amongst other things was to act as a kind of glue between
the small team at Farnborough (and it was small) and the University
experimenters. I had the pleasant task of go-between, visiting them
to learn of their plans, then returning to Farnborough to discuss
with the group there how the requirements might be met.
I was probably the only one to write articles about the programmes
for general publication. When in 1957 I was asked to write for the
RAE’s Magazine I was determined that the project name CTV5
Series III should give way to something more appealing; I wanted
‘Skylark’. Frank Hazell being in Australia with Robert Boyd, I con-
sulted our division head. From a list of names I had prepared, many
quite hopeless, he lighted upon the right one. So, leaving no time
for second thoughts nor for Hazell’s return, I got headquarters’
agreement. ‘But don’t forget, it’s to be a nickname only,’ they
warned me, ‘not a project name’. The name took at once but, alas,
within a week Skylark was being written on orders instead of CTV5
Series III. When these orders were received in the ordering depart-
ment they went into limbo; nothing was ordered and there was a
The Ariel programme was a bilateral
project between the USA and the UK terrible pause. The worst consequence was that the ordering of the
which allowed British scientists to
place their experiments in satellites next batch of motor tubes was held up until suitable apologies had
and have these launched by the USA
on Scout rockets. This ran from been made!
1959, and was administered first by
the Royal Society/Government I stayed at Farnborough until 1960, when I made another move
Steering Group and then from 1963
by the Space Research Manage- and joined Mac Robins on the satellite programme, the joint US/
ment Unit.
UK Ariel series.* But that is another story.

JOHN ZARNECKI I am a Reader* in Space Sciences at the Open University. My

Now Professor of Space Sciences,
Open University. involvement in the Skylark programme was very much at the end of

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30 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

the period that we are considering here. I graduated with a degree

in physics in 1971 and was looking around wondering what to do.
Those were different times of course and the idea of a PhD seemed
attractive, but I didn’t know really what to do. I went round to a
few laboratories and departments and somehow came across this
strange place called the Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL);
some people might know it. It is beautifully located up in the North
Downs in Surrey. I went there and found they there were actually
building and working on space hardware, whether it was rocket- or
satellite-related, and I was absolutely hooked from that time on.
Over the next four years, 1971-75, I was involved with three Sky-
lark rockets in what was then the very new field of x-ray astronomy,
and Ken Pounds who is here was one of the pioneers in that field.
It was a fascinating time.
After being at the MSSL for a few weeks my PhD supervisor Len
Professor Len Culhane, physicist.
Since 1963, on the staff of the Culhane* said, ‘Well, we’d better think about what you are going to
Department of Physics, University
College London. do for the next three years’. We had got approval for a Skylark and
we hadn’t thought about it too much, but we would like to try and
detect oxygen in a particular supernova remnant; it seemed like a
good idea. He threw a few papers at me and said, ‘Why don’t you
get on with it’. Anyway, I spent the next three years working with
the very professional mechanical and electronic engineers at MSSL
on that programme. This was the first production line star-pointing
Skylark, a Skylark that used a star as a reference frame for pointing
the detectors.
Just a final point. I notice in some of the questions the issue of to
what extent Skylark was a basis for a career in space science. I just
thought about that last night and I thought about some of the
fellow research students who were around at the same time as me. I
noted down what they are doing now and one sees for example the
head of the British Antarctic Survey, the head of the Physics
Department at Birmingham University, a senior professor at Cam-
bridge’s Institute of Astronomy, a professor at Queen Mary and

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Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72 31

Westfield College. All of these were people who cut their teeth on
Skylarks in my era in the early 1970s.

TWIGGE So it was a hotbed of academic research, people going on to bigger

and better!

DESMOND My only connection with Skylark was at the very beginning. I start-
KING-HELE ed work at the Royal Aircraft Establishment Farnborough in 1948
and from then until 1953 I was occupied in doing assessments of
various missiles against operational requirements which were con-
tinually being produced by the Army, Navy and Air Force. I did 16
of these assessments and all the projects were cancelled. So that
was not a very good start, but then the seventeenth came along in
the form of what was later called Skylark. I looked into the possibil-
ities of Skylark, whether to have one or two stages of propulsion,
how long the motor(s) should burn, and worked out the drag and
the height the rockets would get to with various motors, and so on.
I produced a first picture of it, so to speak, which is quite like the
one that finally came about.
However, what I would like to emphasise now is our extraordinary
luck that we had in having the Gassiot Committee of the Royal
Society. The Royal Society covers all science, and, up till about
1935 I think, it had only one specialised in-house committee and
that was the Gassiot Committee, originally set up in 1871 to super-
vise Kew Observatory and then it gradually changed its functions
as it went along. But it was there, and it was a channel which had
two good things about it. One, it was a way into space via the upper
atmosphere; and the other is that getting the Royal Society involved
gave space the respectability that it needed against the many astron-
omers and others who were calling it ‘utter bilge’ and a waste of
money at the time. So I think those two things were very important.
I first came into contact with the members of the Gassiot Commit-
tee at a conference in Oxford in 1953, where there were a lot of
American speakers who talked about the sounding rockets. After

© Centre for Contemporary British History, 2005. Not to be reproduced without permission.
32 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

that Sir Harrie Massey and members of the Gassiot Committee

Sir Arnold Hall (1915-2000), scientist came to the RAE and had a meeting with Sir Arnold Hall,* who
and civil servant. Director of RAE,
1951-5. was the director. I was called along to that and asked to do this
study of an upper atmosphere research rocket: that is how it all
arose. I didn’t have very much more connection with it after the
initial study.

TWIGGE The early origins is something I would like to explore and we may
well be coming back to how the early development started.

KEN POUNDS I am currently Head of Physics and Astronomy at Leicester and I

think looking back, I was fortunate to be in the right place at the
right time. I was a student at UCL in the late 1950s when the devel-
opments that Eric Dorling and Robert Boyd and the other speakers
have referred to were happening. Of course, I wasn’t aware of any
of that, but after graduating I was again fortunate to get an Admi-
ralty scholarship which allowed me to read for a PhD. Robert Boyd
offered me the opportunity to work in his new ‘rocket research
group’ that I think was then only months, or maybe a year, old. I
couldn’t quite see that that was going to be a good pay-off for the
Admiralty, but it seemed like an interesting area to work in and so I
signed up.
For whatever reason, in those days we were able to make progress
so much more quickly than now. Nowadays PhD students struggle
to get a thesis in 3 or 4 years, seemingly doing nothing more than
sitting at a computer churning out data analysis on material already
provided by somebody else. But looking back, I remember for the
first year of my PhD I worked with someone called Dr Gerry
Groves on a Skylark experiment that involved throwing grenades
out of the rocket as it rose through the atmosphere, and then meas-
uring the flash from the ground and listening to the sound coming
through the atmosphere, in order to get a temperature and density
profile for the atmosphere. That was great fun. Robert Boyd, of
course, was very much in the lead in those days and I recall going

© Centre for Contemporary British History, 2005. Not to be reproduced without permission.
Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72 33

with him to Shoeburyness,* to fire grenades into the air to test our
Shoeburyness was a test range of
the Armament Research and Devel- equipment before being allowed to put them on a Skylark. I
opment Establishment.
remember going to Aberporth,* too, on the coast of Wales, where
Royal Aircraft Establishment, Aber-
porth, was a sea test range for the rocket engine tests were done. The serious experiments had to be
proving of guided weapons.
carried out in Woomera, of course, and Gerry Groves led a suc-
cessful programme from there for quite a long time after that,
obtaining some of the best current data on atmospheric tempera-
ture and density.
However at the end of the first year of my PhD project, as I
thought, my supervisor Robert Boyd (and I certainly don’t hold it
against him because it has worked out quite well) decided that I
should switch to something different, since there was a growing
recognition that the sun had a controlling influence on the proper-
ties of the upper atmosphere, and so the opportunity of flying
experiments to measure directly the Sun’s x-ray and ultraviolet radi-
ation was given to me as a new PhD project. That set me off on a
career that has carried on until now. With hindsight, I am very
grateful for, again, for the fortunate timing, and also for the efforts
of many of the gentlemen sharing the platform, who provided that
I would underline what John Zarnecki said about what a great facil-
ity for learning about research, for project training, Skylark was.
Looking back at the sort of experiments that I and contemporaries
of mine were involved in, we had the opportunity to design an
experiment, to help build it, to then go to Australia, travelling on an
RAF Comet that stopped over in parts of the old Empire that we
wouldn’t fly into these days! It took about five days to get there and
I recall we had to be given a suitable Air Force status to fly.
Although just a postgraduate student, I was a ‘Wing Commander’
for the five days as we flew to Australia. On arrival, we unpacked,
re-assembled and checked out the Skylark and experiments. Finally
there was the excitement of the launch. An important bonus, that
these days would be called ‘learning communications skills’ and

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34 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

‘team working’, came through this joint effort with professional

engineers from RAE and Australia, all working to a common aim
and tight schedule. There was all of that, and then of course there
was the science that hopefully came at the end. Overall, Skylark was
a great opportunity for research and training and current students
do recognise that those were really good days in terms of the rich
experience that PhD students could enjoy. I know I was fortunate
to be in the right place at the right time to benefit from the Skylark

TWIGGE I would like to now go back to the genesis of the programme that
people have talked about, the early and mid-1950s, and the various
priorities that were impingent on the programme itself. We have
heard some today, we have heard the science, we have heard Dr
King-Hele being rung up on the phone, wanting rockets, we have
heard various descriptions about the science and what the rocket
itself was meant to do. What I haven’t heard about a great deal is
the Ministry of Supply. What was their input into this, how did they
impinge with the work of the Royal Society? We have heard about
the Gassiot Committee – what were the scientific and political and
possibly defence priorities on the project?

KING-HELE The starting off of the programme was very much, as I saw it,
through the enthusiasm of Dr F.E. Jones, Frank Jones, who was
Deputy Director of the RAE. He was very much in favour of it. I
think he went to the Oxford conference in 1953 and, certainly
afterwards he talked to me quite a lot about it and said, ‘This is a
thing we ought to go ahead with, isn’t it’. And I said, ‘Yes’, partly
for personal reasons – I wanted to get away from the missiles! I
think he pushed it through the Ministry: he was very persuasive and
I think he was an important influence. But of course I wasn’t privy
to the actual discussions in London, which must have gone on
behind the decisions, I was just out in the sticks at Farnborough, so

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Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72 35

I didn’t know what the Chief Scientist and others in London were

DAWTON It is quite clear that F.E. Jones, Morien Morgan and Dennis
Dennis Lyons, scientist and civil
servant. Aerodynamics Department,
Lyons,* were the three senior people who pushed this thing along,
RAE, 1937; RAFVR, 1935-41; Aero-
with the objective of gaining experience in space-related matters
dynamics Flight Aero Department,
RAE, 1941-51; Head of Experimental from the point of view primarily of the interest in ballistic missile
Projects Division, Guided Missiles
Department, RAE, 1951; Head of design in the longer term. I think there was a double-edged aspect
Ballistic Missile Group, Guided
Weapons Department, 1956; Head to this in that it was clearly attractive from the recruitment point of
of Weapons Department, RAE,
1962. view as well. I am quite sure that at that time a lot of young gradu-
ates came in attracted by the prospects of that sort of work, and
many of those then moved on to other areas. I think it is interesting
that the interest in high altitude upper atmosphere research carried
Black Arrow was a rocket developed
as a satellite launcher in the late on for a very, very long time at the RAE, despite enormous political
1960s with its first launch in 1971
when the satellite Prospero was suc- changes. I don’t know when actually the RAE totally lost interest in
cessfully placed in orbit. The rocket
and satellite were of entirely British
upper atmosphere research, but I suppose it was when Black Arrow*
design and construction.
was finally cancelled.

KING-HELE I was still doing upper atmosphere research when I retired, to some
extent; not much, but it was still there in the 1980s.

DAWTON There was a great underlying interest in the scientific and technical
community at Farnborough by way of support for this work. The
great fascination of these research projects was the ability to have
an idea, to implement it and to go out and do it and then analyse
the results at the end. It was a quite unique opportunity for young
scientists, which would be hard to find today.

DORLING Derek Dawton hasn’t mentioned a point he made to me early on –

‘What we need at Woomera for Black Knight’, he said, ‘is a sighter,
you must always have a sighter in any project’. A sighter is a simple
rocket fired along an expected trajectory to make sure that camera-
The V2 was a rocket developed by
Germany during the Second World men are prepared for what is going to happen. You may know the
War at the Peenemunde establish-
ment on the Baltic coast. story from the first V2 to be fired from Peenemunde* – the

© Centre for Contemporary British History, 2005. Not to be reproduced without permission.
36 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

kinetheodolite* operator was so astonished when the huge motor

A kinetheodolite is a tracking camera
designed to record and monitor lit up that he failed to follow the ascent. Derek [Dawton] didn’t
rocket or missile launches.
want that kind of thing to happen at Woomera with his rocket. Sky-
lark filled the need perfectly for the development of all that
essential instrumentation. I wasn’t aware when I first joined the
project how very difficult it would prove to be for the range staff to
track for the very first time a rocket vehicle beyond 80,000 feet or
so. A variety of tracking techniques, both optical and radio, have to
be available, and in some numbers lest the vehicle strays from the
expected track.

ZARNECKI Can I just pick up on that very last point, because it triggers some-
thing that I remember. When I first went to Woomera I was
absolutely amazed at the infrastructure that was needed for the
tracking and recording of all the data that was taken. That for me
was a big surprise. Really quite sophisticated, the infrastructure. In
fact I brought along with me, and some of you will remember
these, the trials instructions. This is the document that was pro-
duced for each launch and if you look through it, a good bulk of it
is to do with all the tracking and this infrastructure that has to be in
place, telling everybody what they should be doing and what fre-
quencies to be tracking on and all that sort of thing.

TWIGGE So the rocket itself is only one aspect of a larger infrastructure.

ZARNECKI Very much so, yes. It even goes down to the detail of showing
which of the stations, which are the farms in the rocket range,
might be within the area where the rocket would come down. The
people in those stations I think would get this and I am told that
the children usually used to, when they received this and heard that
the rocket was coming near them, sit on top of the bunkers. They
all had bunkers that they were supposed to go inside, but they used
to sit on top to watch the rockets coming down.

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Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72 37

BOYD We are talking very much about the origins here of the programme,
and I think it is worth mentioning that Fred Singer was a naval
attaché or something of that kind in the UK and he used to come
to the seminars that Harrie Massey ran at UCL and entranced us
with the things which were already being done by the Upper
Atmosphere Research Panel in the USA. Indeed it was his input
that enabled us to run the conference at Oxford that has been
referred to, and that gave us some idea of the impact that instru-
mentation on rockets could have on the theoretical work which
was very much Harrie’s own speciality. So just from a historical
point of view, one of the things that was important was the liaison
that we had with Dr Fred Singer at that time.

TWIGGE You bring up an interesting element: the American dimension.

How important was the American dimension, or was it a purely
British programme with assistance from America? How was the

POUNDS I will leave others to comment on US influences in the initial devel-

opment of Skylark, since that was before my time. As a user,
however, what strikes me, looking back, is that Skylark was a very
competitive rocket for researchers like myself, during the 1960s in
particular. Because research, even then, was a global activity all sci-
entists are in a sense competing with other scientists. The standards
by which we then had to judge ourselves in space science – and still
in a way it’s the same today – was what the Americans were doing,
and Skylark for a period of several years was the best sounding
rocket around. We were the first to have a rocket that could launch
a substantial payload to a good height and give astronomers up to
ten minutes’ observing time above the atmosphere. We were the
first country to have such a rocket that could be stabilised in three
dimensions and, as a result, were able for instance to obtain the first
x-ray pictures of the sun that weren’t smeared by rotation. Other
scientific firsts were a direct result of Skylark, throughout a period

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38 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

of maybe ten years, being the best research vehicle of its kind. That
is, with hindsight, quite remarkable in the 1960s, given the enor-
mous effort and funding that the United States was putting into
space research at that time.
The reason why we were fortunate enough to have Skylark appears
to have been the synergy between the interests of places like RAE
Farnborough and the Ministry of Supply, and senior physicists in
the academic community. I suspect that the commitment and
Professor James Sayers (1912-93),
vision of Harrie Massey, Robert Boyd and Jim Sayers* and others
scientist. Professor of Electron Phys-
ics, University of Birmingham, 1946- helped substantially in avoiding the hiccups that so often impeded
other technology programmes in the UK in the past. That synergy,
I believe, really carried Skylark forward to be a unique research
facility for about ten years. And in a highly competitive area like
space research, that’s not bad!

DORLING Could I add one practical reason for the Skylark’s success. When it
was being developed we had in mind the very successful US Aer-
obee sounding rocket, beautifully designed and extremely light.
When its US engineers visited us at Farnborough they were aston-
ished by the size and weight of our vehicle, the Raven motor case
being hugely heavy in their terms. But that was to turn out a bless-
ing. If one does have so heavy a basic vehicle flying to a height of a
hundred miles or so, one can add to its payload with little cost in
performance; indeed I was in charge of a project where the length
of the head exceeded that of the motor. It is true that we later ben-
efited from the introduction of a boost motor, but nevertheless its
weight was one reason why Skylark became such a useful work-
horse, not only at Woomera but in several parts of the world.

TWIGGE I am looking at the audience here and I know some individuals may
have had some linkage with America, what would their view have
been of the Skylark programme and how that related to interna-
tional technological research? Would anyone like to comment on

© Centre for Contemporary British History, 2005. Not to be reproduced without permission.
Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72 39

MICHAEL HAZELL I am Mike Hazell, the younger son of Frank Hazell. Just before
moving on from how the programme began, can I just give a short
paragraph from a private communication from my father. It is writ-
ten retrospectively, but I think it just adds one small additional
element to how it began. He writes:

‘My part in the programme started with a memo from Sir Arnold
Hall, asking for proposals to meet the Royal Society sounding

From Frank Hazell to Sir Harrie

rocket requirements at a cost of £50,000. I was indeed fortunate to
Massey, 1 Oct. 1978. Private corre- be in a unique position to create a legitimate defence requirement,
spondence in the possession of
Mike Hazell. the only answer to a seemingly impossible problem.’*

I think that just picks up from the previous points about how the
ground was set by Sir Harrie Massey and others and that is how the
memo then appeared that my father responded to.

TWIGGE We now move on to the scientific successes related to Skylark. It

was established for upper atmospheric research, as we have dis-
cussed. What I would like now to flesh out in a broader way are the
various experiments that were undertaken. What were the suc-
cesses, what were the failures, if you had your time again what
would you do again?

BOYD Can I say to start with that when I was asked what I would do with
the rocket, my first thought was well, this is going to be an expen-
sive business and we had better make sure that we do something
useful. Now I had not been used to thinking of university science
being something useful, so I came up with two ideas, which in fact
helped things quite a lot in the end, but weren’t very well based on
any knowledge I had. One was, let’s get the meteorological depart-
ment interested, they have a fair amount of money to spend, and it
was for that reason that I chose the experiment that has been men-
tioned to measure upper atmospheric winds and temperatures. The
other thing, which we all knew a bit more about, was the problem

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40 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

of the communication with distant parts of the empire, in those

days, which depended of course on reflecting radio waves from the
E layer and putting up with the attenuation introduced by the D
layer of the ionosphere. So it seemed a good thing to make direct
observations of the plasma situation in the lower ionosphere and
my proposals were for experiments along those lines. Jim Sayers of
Birmingham has been mentioned, he was doing the same kind of
thing. The Department of Physics or maybe Meteorology at Impe-
P. A. Sheppard (1907-77), scientist.
rial College, eventually under Sheppard,* was also interested in high
Professor of Meteorology, University
of London, 1952-74. altitude winds and they used the window, the anti-radar stuff,
thrown out from rockets to do some studies in that.
I must say that we more or less chose to do what we felt would be a
good thing. There was no careful determination of whether this
would please those who were producing the rocket. But as you
have heard already, the training that it gave to many of us I think
has been absolutely invaluable and it must be recognised that our
entry into satellite work, which is demonstrated rather nicely by
Ariel I hanging in the gallery down here, grew directly out of our
work with Skylark. I well remember sketching what we wanted for
our first satellite on my board and it was indeed the sphere that
hangs in its gold-plated splendour in the gallery down here.

TWIGGE Was there no oversight at all of the programme? You give the
impression that everyone could do almost what they wanted, it was
like a large playground: here is a big rocket, put what you want on
it. Is that the case?

BOYD Of course it was scrutinised by the Gassiot Committee’s rocket

subcommittee. I am not sure whether I should even say, but the
sort of thing that happened would be that Harrie would sit in the
chair and go round about five experimenters, asking how much
money they needed for what they proposed. And it was said that he
then looked at this, summed it up, subtracted that from the total

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Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72 41

that was available and reckoned that that would be available to Uni-
versity College.

TWIGGE So it was a back-of-the-envelope phase.

BOYD It was very different from how things were a few years later under
the Science Research Council.

POUNDS I was interested to learn from Robert Boyd’s comments that the
initial case to government was linked to improved communications.
Of course, long distance communications in those days still
depended on bouncing radio waves around the world through
reflection from the ionosphere, and so that was where, as I men-
tioned earlier, the interest in actually measuring the radiation from
the sun that controls the properties of the atmosphere came in.
My own research interests very quickly became focused on the sun
itself. From the ground the sun is just a glowing ball of hot gas at
about 6000 degrees, but surrounding it we knew from eclipse pho-
tographs there is this halo called the corona. It was controversial,
up to the late 1940s, how the corona was formed and what its prop-
erties were. A key observation that the corona was a remarkably hot
plasma at a 1-2 million degrees, came in 1949 with the first detec-
Herbert Friedman (1916-2000), tion of solar x-radiation by Herbert Friedman* and colleagues at
American scientist.
the Naval Research Laboratory in the US, using captured V2 rock-
ets. In the UK, a decade later, we were able to carry out more
sophisticated observations of the solar corona using Skylark. As I
have said, critically, we had the first three-axis-stabilised rocket on
which we could mount cameras to take x-ray pictures and spectra,
and that we were already doing in the early 1960s. Without doubt, a
vital element of Skylark’s success as a tool for scientific research
was the range of attitude control systems that evolved, sequentially,
from the Stage 1 Skylark, which could lock on to the sun and then
roll around the solar axis to fix on a desired position in space. The
first flight of Stage 1 Skylark was in 1964, beginning a highly pro-

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42 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

ductive sequence of some 50 successful launches over the

following 10 years. The first Moon-pointing Skylark (Stage 3) in
1968 continued an evolution that finished with the Stage 5 Skylark
that could lock on to a star, with the first flight in 1970. There was a
very clear link between the scientific usefulness of Skylark and the
advanced attitude control systems that we had so relatively early.

TWIGGE How were the results disseminated to the wider scientific commu-
nity, were there any barriers put in place or could you publish?

POUNDS This was pure civil scientific research and there were therefore no
limitations to publication. In fact, during the 1960s there was high
public interest in space research. Apollo was the big story, but even
the things we were doing, flying quite a simple experiment on a
rocket in Woomera for maybe ten minutes, could lead to a story on
the front page of the newspapers, and in fact that happened several
times. Not all the stories actually withstood the test of time! I know
most of you are not x-ray astronomers so you won’t know the
detail, but amongst the many powerful sources of x-rays in the uni-
verse are clusters of galaxies – regions in space where there are
many galaxies that clustered together like a swarm of bees and obvi-
ously had some common origin. We now know that the space
between these galaxies is filled with very hot plasma that emits x-
rays, and current x-ray telescopes map the distribution of x-rays
over the cluster. One of the discoveries we thought we had made in
the mid-1960s, using Skylark, was when we detected a source in the
Virgo constellation. On our first flight Virgo X-1 was just a five
sigma blip on our data, but when we looked at it again a year later it
seemed brighter. We called in the theoreticians and that was my
Sir Martin Rees, scientist. Astrono-
mer Royal, 1995-. Professor of Cos- first ever contact with Martin Rees,* the distinguished current
mology and Astrophysics, University
of Cambridge, 2002-. Astronomer Royal. Martin, and Dennis Sciama,* his supervisor,
Dennis W. Sciama (1926-99), scien- quickly produced a theory as to why an eletromagnetic x-ray source
tist. Fellow of Peterhouse College,
Cambridge, 1963-70. could vary so quickly. The story made the front page of the Guard-
ian at the time. Only later did it turn out that Virgo X-1 is actually x-

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Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72 43

ray emission from the Virgo cluster, mega parsecs in size, so there
was absolutely no way that it was going to vary between Skylark
flights a year apart. As I said, the public interest in space research in
the 1960s made it relatively easy, if you were brave enough, to get a
story on the front page of the national newspapers, or The Sky at
Night. Fortunately such reports don’t seem to have a memory, so I
have probably erred today by relaying the Virgo X-1 tale. Of course
most of the results from the Skylark programme were published in
the scientific journals, such as Nature, and form an early foundation
to the space science literature.

TWIGGE That is something we ought to talk about later I think, the public
interest in the programme, how it changed over the time and what
its influence was.

POUNDS Space science, fortunately for many of us, particularly in the univer-
sities looking to get as many good students into physics as we can,
remains attractive to younger people in particular. That is one of
the reasons why I think the National Space Science Centre I men-
tioned earlier on is doing so well since it opened 5 months ago.

TWIGGE Were all the scientific experiments purely British, or were there
international collaborative projects taking place?

DORLING Initially, in the first five years, there was no significant international
collaboration that I can recall. Can you….?

BOYD Only in a very private and occasional way. Ken Pounds has referred
to making measurements of the solar ultraviolet and he mentioned
Herbert Friedman. Well, I wrote to Friedman and asked him for
details of his equipment, and he sent me most generously the actual
drawings of their sensitive devices and instructions as to how to
attach the windows and so on. It was an extraordinary generous

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44 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

gesture and I would like to pay tribute to that attitude, that we had
continually from our personal contacts with American scientists.

DORLING Looking beyond 1960 when I left the Skylark project to join the
Ariel satellite collaboration, we had tremendous co-operation from
The National Aeronautics and Space
NASA.* The staff were friendly, eager to collaborate with us and
Administration (NASA), which is the
American space agency. very pleased that there were now people in the field other than
themselves. Apart from what was going on in Russia, about which
we knew so little, space research with satellites had been largely an
American enterprise. Now they were enjoying having us with them.
That supports what you were saying, particularly about the staff at
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who were so helpful.
Could I just make one point about ionospheric research. Initially
the Skylark programme centred on atmospheric and ionospheric
phenomena. One very good reason was that Skylark wasn’t then to
go much higher that 80-100 miles, nor did it behave particularly
well for people who wanted to study the Sun and stars; that was to
Sir W. J. Beynon (1914-96), scien- come later. I remember asking the late Sir Grenville Beynon,* who
tist. Lecturer, later Senior Lecturer in
Physics, University College of first worked at Swansea, later at Aberystwyth, what his interest was
Wales, Swansea, 1946-58; Profes-
sor and Head of Department of in using rockets. He operated a vertical incidence ionospheric
Physics, University College of
Wales, Aberystwyth, 1958-81. sounder, the only ground-based instrument at that time. It showed
during the day the E layer and beyond it the double F layer but
couldn’t tell anything of what lay between. ‘If only we could dis-
cover that much’, he said. Skylark was able to go up and look
beyond the daytime E layer and that seemed a good starting point.
In fact an answer to that now-simple question came very quickly
from the US rocket scientists who were well ahead of us. But I still
look back to those days when such questions provided the stimulus
for early rocket research. As it turned out there was much, much
more to be learned.

BOYD Yes indeed. I would like to add a rider to that, because one of the
big questions was the sporadic E layer, which occurred, by its
nature and by its name, only sporadically. We didn’t know the

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Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72 45

thickness of it at all, we didn’t know to what extent it was due to

sheer forces compressing the ionisation, or what. I remember dis-
cussion of that, I think it would have been in one of the first
COSPAR was the Committee on COSPAR* meetings. Various folk were giving their reports and the
Space Research. Following the end
of the International Geophysical American delegate reported that they had made measurements on
Year, it was realised that rockets and
satellites provided important oppor- the sporadic E layer. It just so happened that we had done so and
tunities for scientific research. Con-
sequently in 1958 the International Harrie turned to me and said, ‘And what did you find?’ and I said,
Council of Scientific Unions decided
to instigate a new body, COSPAR, to
‘We measured it to be 0.8 kilometres’. That is of no special signifi-
co-ordinate world-wide activities in
cance, except that you can see there was a lot of interest in getting
space research and to provide a
forum for international exchange. detail that you could not get via Grenville Beynon’s sonde equip-
The adhering body to COSPAR in
the UK was (and still is) the Royal ment. I suspect more accuracy was read into my reply than was
appropriate, but I remember that Harrie Massey was immensely
thrilled to have a figure to give the Americans on that occasion.

TWIGGE Was there an unofficial community of scientists who worked on

the project? Did you get together formally, or was it informally,
how did you exchange information?

BOYD We started, as far as publication was concerned, by publishing in

the Proceedings of the Royal Society, which we felt was appropriate in
view of the fact it had been a Gassiot Committee programme. But
we published in other journals of course. We fairly quickly got into
a conversational mode with our American friends and colleagues,
but it really was not many others than the Americans, although
Massey sent me to Australia and to New Zealand quite early on, it
must have been about 1956, in order to see if he could drum up
some Commonwealth interest. This brought me, at any rate, and
some others into contact with people who were interested in the
same ionospheric phenomena. Of course let me emphasise again
that long-distance communication was vitally important to the
Commonwealth. I remember trying to hold a conversation from
New Zealand with my wife in this country using signals reflected
from the D region and the E region, and it was a difficult chore.
There are so many stories we could tell, but Harrie Massey and I

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46 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

were having a conversation across the Atlantic, using the telephone

cable the first time, it had been put in use by the BBC. This was all
being broadcast and we had a long time on that telephone link.
Nowadays it all seems so ‘olde worlde’.

TWIGGE You mentioned Australia and New Zealand, were there any Cana-
dians or any other Commonwealth contributions to the project?

BOYD There weren’t any contributions of instrumentation from Com-

monwealth countries, as far as I can remember, although we did
keep in touch. For example with the folk at Adelaide and the
people at Wellington in New Zealand, who were very much inter-
ested in what was going on and who were of course making
ground-based observations which were relevant.

ZARNECKI By the time that I was involved, in the early 1970s, I remember that
the group at Adelaide University were involved. They were really
right on the spot, because the project was administered from Salis-
bury, in the suburbs of Adelaide, and I guess because of their
proximity the University of Adelaide got involved and flew several
experiments, certainly in x-ray astronomy. Speaking personally, I
can remember that was a good contact, because sometimes we
would go out to Australia and there might be a problem with the
instrument for the experiment and having contacts at the Univer-
sity of Adelaide meant that we could go into their laboratory and
use some of their facilities. I do remember doing that a couple of

POUNDS The Physics Department at Adelaide University provided a means

of support for visiting Skylark researchers, and led to a group being
set up at Adelaide. In fact I remember it was a bit frustrating to us
that they managed to fly the first x-ray astronomy payload on a Sky-
lark, a month before we did in 1967. So the first ever observations
in the southern hemisphere of cosmic x-ray sources were by the rel-

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Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72 47

atively new group in Adelaide. On a personal note, I recall being

offered a senior lectureship in Adelaide to help build these activities
as early as 1963, when I was only a junior lecturer at Leicester. It
was an attractive proposition which I seriously considered, being
interested in sport, a good climate and all that, so I asked Sir Harrie
Massey back at UCL, who of course understood the Australian sit-
uation well. He advised me against moving on the grounds that
there wasn’t sufficient infrastructure or support of space science in
Australia and as far as he could see there wouldn’t be in future. Sir
Harrie suggested that I would be better off staying in the UK, or
doing what quite a few contemporaries did at the time and go to the
USA. With hindsight, that was good advice and one of the many
things I have to thank my former senior colleagues at UCL for.

DORLING You asked me the same question and I gave you the same answer.

POUNDS Thank you Eric. It’s a good job you gave me the same answer, oth-
erwise I would have had to ask a third person!

ASHFORD Two late uses for Skylark. One was earth observation and the other
was microgravity. The use for earth observation started off at Farn-
borough with Frank Hazell and Peter Barham, and they flew a
Skylark from Woomera with the Hasselblad camera. That took
The British Aircraft Company (BAC) good photographs, it was recovered by parachute intact or in pretty
was subsequently nationalised in
1977 to become British Aerospace. good condition. Then BAC* did two firings in Argentina where the
The European Space Research idea was to do a crop survey. Then we did a firing from Kiruna,* a
Organisation’s launching range was
at Kiruna, Sweden. This was known joint project with the Swedish Space Corporation and DFVLR,*
within the organisation as
ESRANGE. This was the main which was a failure because the upper stage failed to ignite. We got
sounding rocket range for ESRO, but
there were other ranges used, most some money from the DTI* to look into the commercial opportu-
notably at Salta di Quirra in Sardinia,
and Andoya in Norway. nities, using Skylark as a sort of instant reconnaissance or

Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Luft- photographic satellite in places where there was so much cloud
und Raumfahrt (DFVLR) was the
German Space Organisation.
cover that satellites wouldn’t give you good coverage. But it soon
became clear that the costs and the logistics ruled against it, so it
The British Government’s Depart-
ment of Trade and Industry. didn’t get anywhere. But I know Peter Barham used the results to

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48 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

get Farnborough started on earth observation as a serious scientific

and commercial venture. We now have the British National
The Technologische Experimente
unter Schwerelosigkeit or TEXUS Remote Sensing Centre and that goes back to Skylark.
programme was a microgravity
project which utilised sounding rock- The other use was microgravity experiments. Skylark gives you
about five minutes of very low gravity and we sold a few to
The European Space Agency (ESA)
was founded in 1974 and has its DFVLR in Germany to get going on the so-called TEXUS pro-
headquarters in Paris. It comprises
of 15 member states: Austria, Bel- gramme.*
gium, Denmark, Finland, France,
Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Nether-
Going back to what you were saying about communication, for
lands, Norway, Portugal, Spain,
many years ESA* had an annual sounding rocket conference. I only
Sweden, Switzerland and the United
Kingdom. went to one, but it was quite well represented by the UK.

POUNDS Can I comment on why Skylark in the end sort of fizzled out. It
was, as you said, seen as too expensive once we had the opportu-
nity to work with small satellites like the Ariel series. One could
have an Ariel satellite for about the cost of ten Skylarks and get
orders of magnitude more science out of it. That was, from our
point of view, why Skylark became unaffordable in the difficult
financial climate of the 1970s.

ZARNECKI If I could just follow up on that. You have mentioned before the
three-axis stabilisation, which of course made Skylark potentially
very usable for astronomy, but I remember with my particular
rocket for example, and I checked back in the records, it actually
took nearly two minutes from the moment when the attitude con-
trol system started to go through its various steps to find the star
until it locked on. Two minutes out of not very many more minutes
didn’t leave you very much time to do your astronomy, so it was
really inevitable that small satellites would win out fairly quickly, at
least for astronomy.

TWIGGE When did that cut in then, the 1970s?

ZARNECKI Mid-1970s I suppose.

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49 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

POUNDS My colleagues at Leicester, working closely in the earlier years with

Robert Boyd’s group at UCL/MSSL, flew instruments, some quite
small ones, on a total of 63 Skylarks over the period 1959-1976 as
part of the UK national programme. In addition, we took part in 8
The European Space Research
Organisation (ESRO) came into Skylark flights by ESRO* from 1965-1971. However, by the early
being in 1964.
1970s, it was becoming clear that we should be putting our efforts
into satellite experiments, at least in space astronomy. There were
other uses of Skylark as have been mentioned, microgravity experi-
ments and remote sensing of the earth, that kept the programme
going for a little while, but I think that the writing was on the wall
for Skylark as a scientific research vehicle from the early 1970s.

TWIGGE That is something we will discuss in detail later on, what the rea-
sons were for the demise of Skylark, but I would first like to go
back and talk about the prospect of a career in Skylark. From what
I have heard it is cutting-edge research, lots of travel, people should
be queuing up to do this type of thing. Were they? Was it some-
thing that students were told would be useful for their careers in
science, or was it a more specialised role in the late 1950s and early

POUNDS John Zarnecki and I both did our PhDs on the use of Skylark. It
was then and remained for some time a great training ground for
students. It wasn’t through any change in that enthusiasm for the
training, or indeed from the student interest point of view, that Sky-
lark died. It was simply because it became relatively so expensive. I
remember a figure of £200,000 in the early 1970s for the real cost
of a Skylark rocket launch, whereas Ariel V launched in 1974 cost
only £2 million or so. The decision to cancel the Skylark pro-
gramme was made by the funding agencies, of course, not the
students. Indeed I know that students today would love this kind of
opportunity; in fact a student in my department has just carried out
a Skylark-type experiment on an American rocket from White
Sands, funded by NASA. The key was the design of a unique exper-

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50 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

iment that could be carried out successfully in short, few minutes

observation. The whole experience for the particular student
involved was great and I know a lot of his contemporaries were
envious of that opportunity. So it wasn’t the students walking away
from Skylark, it just became too expensive.

STUART STACEY I was in the space department RAE at this time. Adding on to what
Ken Pounds has just said, one of the changes that happened in the
space department was that the communications with the space
vehicle changed, telemetry became a much more sophisticated,
much more capable thing. In Skylark days we were looking for
recovery. We took pictures and we wanted to see them back on the
ground. Once you got to the middle 1970s you could actually trans-
mit them by a communications link and I think that was another
negative point for Skylark.

JOHN RAYMONT Yes, many scientists, and I know many of the people that are being
talked about, cut their teeth and made their careers, but many engi-
neers and technicians, people throughout the universities also cut
their teeth on the very early days of mechanical engineering, vibra-
tion engineering, electronic engineering, and there are many of
them who are still around. I was fortunate to travel extensively and
I went on the British national programme to Woomera, on the
European programme, to Kiruna and Sardinia, and I found it
remarkable within the European community of space research that
people within the satellite programme in the 1970s and 1980s
referred back to the camaraderie of the ‘rocketeers’. They trusted
implicitly people they had worked with in the sounding rocket pro-
gramme in the 1960s and 1970s, even when they were in the
higher-profile satellite programme of the 1980s and 1990s. I think
that also stands as a remarkable tribute for the Skylark programme.

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51 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

TWIGGE Something I haven’t thought about in any detail is the engineering

side of it. We have been talking about the science side, but would
anyone like to comment on that?

BOYD I think this is the point at which it might be as well for me to

emphasise that the whole of the academic pursuit of satellite instru-
mentation and studies really grew out of the school of Skylark. If
you just look at the payload on UK I, Ariel I, you see that the
instruments were provided by the groups that were already doing
these things on Skylarks. So when we ask ourselves what came out
of Skylark, for me one of the most important things is the UK’s
entry into scientific space research.

POUNDS What John Raymont was saying there is also a source of concern, in
that I can now look around in several university departments,
including my own, and see many of those key engineers, techni-
cians and craftsmen, who learnt their trade in the Skylark
programme, now coming to the end of their careers. Those people
are going to be very difficult to replace, and Robert Boyd is abso-
lutely right, of course, that the UK’s ability to compete in getting
payloads onto ESA and NASA satellites did depend on the exper-
tise that had been built up in the Skylark programme. That was
certainly a major continuing benefit from Skylark.

TWIGGE So you are suggesting there was a great pillar of talent there that
was in a sense lost?

POUNDS Skylark was itself a scientific and technical success at an interna-

tional level and then formed the basis for continuing strength in
UK space science in the era of satellites.

ZARNECKI If I could just make another comment on the engineering side. I

actually dusted down my old PhD thesis last night and had a look at
it to try and bring back some of the memories, and something

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52 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

which I think one should also recognise is the involvement of

people like the British Aircraft Corporation. I am not sure techni-
cally what their function was, they were not the design authority,
but they had the contract to run the whole programme, did they
not, they had taken it on from RAE. And there was a tremendously
good body of engineering and technical expertise that developed in
BAC in the Skylark group.

TWIGGE When was industry brought into the programme, was industry
always part of it or was it towards the later stages?

ZARNECKI When I became involved in 1971 BAC were essentially running it. I
am not sure when the changeover came.

JOHN HARLOW Late 1960s.

TWIGGE Was it perceived to be a money winner?

HARLOW Not quite. If I could just quote from a BAe* Westcott publication:
British Aerospace or BAe was the ‘The first BAC preparation launch was launch 56, launched on 20
name given to the nationalised air-
craft companies merged together in June 1962, it was SL45.’
April 1977.

TWIGGE What was industry’s view of Skylark, was it perceived to be some-

thing one could make a profit out of ? Was there money to be made
in rockets?

ASHFORD There wasn’t much money to be made, but policy at the time, I
remember the managing director Don Rowley saying, because we
were linked in with a guided weapons organisation, and this ties in
with what my colleague here was saying: ‘Excellent recruiting tool.
You get these idealistic young chaps in to do space research who
wouldn’t touch guided weapons with a barge pole, and ten years
later you point out clear opportunities on guided weapons. By that

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53 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

time they have got wives, kids, mortgages etc.’. So that was policy,
to keep it going, partly for that reason.

TWIGGE It was a very good recruiting sergeant, the Skylark programme?


STACEY One of the thoughts, from my memory back in that time as an

engineer on Skylark, was that space department RAE couldn’t
operate in an international field, they couldn’t become a marketing
organisation, and that is why they needed BAC alongside them to
actually do the international marketing and promotion of this
project. As far as the RAE was considered, the management of
RAE didn’t see any future in RAE running a production line. Sky-
lark had become a very good reliable tool and it now wanted some
industrial expertise to promote it. It didn’t want RAE setting up in
the Ministry of Technology as a production line. I think that is
where RAE started to lose its interest.

TWIGGE That was a policy decision, I take it.

ROY DOMMETT The RAE about that time stopped being as it were in-service sup-
port for projects in general. We were aimed at industry for
everything else, I would agree with you. We have said a lot in
favour of Skylark, I also ought to point out the big mistake we
made right at the beginning when we were deciding what the con-
figuration was. I was involved with Ted Phythian while we were
trying to sort out an optimum layout and I was working on cone
cylinders in those days, so I suppose my responsibility is only for
the cone angle. But it was decided that three fins would be wonder-
ful, it would save us a lot of trouble. Unfortunately, the theory we
were using didn’t tell us the problems we were going to have, that
when the body was at a combined pitch and yaw there were then
rolling moments. So this combined pitch and rolling moment drove

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54 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

the thing into spinning up and ending up in free space in a flat spin.
It was alright if you were throwing out grenades, but it wasn’t very
helpful if you tried to point at things. So we got ourselves into a
whole programme of trying to stabilise the roll system – it didn’t
really work – then into this attitude control of sunseeker/moon-
seeker/starseeker systems. But the problem was, as much as
anything else, that it went into this strange tumbling-type motion,
which needed to be analysed. That is where we evolved the idea of
using a magnetometer, to detect the cutting of the earth’s field as it
were, and Peter Herbert for years struggled with this problem, anal-
ysis, understanding and so on. It really drove us down into a lot of
complexity, and I do agree about the front ends being light, it
always worried me how we could actually add section after section
on the front of it. But the problems were solved and the system was
viable and by the time weapons department, as we became, there
was a different range of names in the 1950s, came to use it as a car-
rier it was a reliable vehicle, where we could actually treat it as a
service. My colleague John Ray in fact managed the programme in
Australia on that very effectively. Although your end date is 1972,
we at least still fired one in 1978.
The final thing that I would like to say about my contribution is
Strategic Defense Initiative, more that I made a great effort in the 1980s to sell Skylark to SDI* in the
popularly known as ‘Star Wars’ was
an American defence programme ini- States. We knew, BAE and Farnborough, that our missile was
tiated by Reagan administration in
the 1980s which envisaged the inter- cheaper, it had so many years of depreciation that it was cheaper
ception of inbound nuclear warheads
whilst they were still in space, en than anybody else’s. The team was organised, we could hire the
route to their target.
mobile launcher from the Norwegians, we could run a campaign
which we knew was significantly cheaper than what the Americans
could achieve. Unfortunately, when we made the pitch to them
they said, ‘No, you are too expensive’. We didn’t understand that
until they explained to us that the motor comes as government-fur-
nished equipment in the States’ missiles programme and they
weren’t paying for their own motors and they would have to pay

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55 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

for ours. So what I thought was something that was going to run us
through the 1980s and into the 1990s failed.

HARLOW Can I just build on those comments and also a little bit about what
Ken Pounds said about why it died. When I first went to Westcott
as a mere contractor at the beginning of the 1970s, I was amazed at
the total lack of customer focus. I won’t mention any names, but
once a motor had left Westcott nobody cared how it performed.
When it left Westcott it left with a Certificate of Conformity and it
had been tested on the pad to that requirement, which was more
often than not laid on us by Farnborough. And as far as my super-
intendent was concerned, if the motor passed its trials on the pad
he couldn’t care what happened at Woomera. Now for a similar
sort of background thought process, a mindset if you will, but in a
much more commercial environment, when British Aerospace
ended up taking on Skylark or Skylark motor production they had
another kind of fixed mindset and that was to make profit on every
single line item, on any part, any of the processes, any of the hard-
ware, that was used to support Skylark motor production. As you
can imagine, some of the sites that they then had were very expen-
sive to run and if you were the only project on that site you took
the whole overhead. That effectively killed the motor production of
Skylark, because of the pricing policy. So that is another reason why
Skylark died.

TWIGGE I think this has been an excellent session, it has given us insights
into the beginning of the programme, how the scientific commu-
nity perceived the Skylark programme and how it was viewed as an
exceptional way of developing a scientific career.

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56 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

Second Session

TWIGGE As you can see there are a number of new faces on the panel. What
I suggest is that if you haven’t introduced yourself this morning, if
you have a point to make please give a brief background on your-
This morning we were talking about the origins of the programme
and how the science of the programme was put together and man-
aged. What I want to do this afternoon is to take this story a bit
further forward, to discuss the use of Skylark in the ESRO pro-
gramme for example, how the Labour government’s co-ordination
of science influenced the programme, and on to the eventual
demise, and at the end to see if there were any lessons learnt and
whether the management of the programme was indicative of a
broader management of science. So taking those questions one by
one, the use of Skylark in ESRO, would anyone like to start with a
brief background of how they saw that element? Was it

BOYD I chaired the committee or subcommittee that was concerned with

ionospheric work to start with and pressed very strongly to get a
range set up at Kiruna, so that we could continue studies of the
aurorae from the polar regions. We had experience of Skylark and
really there were very few other scientists in ESRO who had any
such experience. So it wasn’t difficult to persuade ESRO to get Sky-
larks for that work and of course as you know a launcher was put
up at Kiruna. I remember going to Kiruna and we hired a helicop-
ter and flew down range to see where it would be suitable to put a
downrange station and so on. It was all very amateurish in a way, it
was the sort of way that we on the science side had done things all
along. When one sees how things are done now, one gasps at the
extraordinary amateurish approach that we took, but it worked and
so there is I guess still a range at Kiruna.

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57 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

TWIGGE By saying that the programme was amateurish, it gives the impres-
sion to a lay person that there was no management at all for the

BOYD Well, ESRO did its best to manage the programme in the sense that
after it had been decided what experiments would be done, there
was obviously a lot of logistical work that needed to be done. But
the planning of the firings and the decisions about what measure-
ments should be made were very much in the hands of the little
committee that I was chairman of at that time and which really was
not made up of experts in space science, or in management for that
matter. But we muddled through.

TWIGGE As far as one can tell there were four elements to the programme,
you get industry, you get the scientific input into the programme,
you get Farnborough and you get Westcott. We haven’t really
talked about Westcott at all earlier, perhaps John Harlow would
mention how he perceives Westcott factoring in.

HARLOW At the time Westcott were just a subset of RAE, they were the
rocket propulsion department, and the orders laid on Westcott at
that time (and even I might say into the Chevaline era), we some-
times got a nice operational requirement laid on us and at other
times it was literally the back of a fag packet. There were maybe
two or three criteria that were laid on Westcott concerning particu-
Skylark was a sounding rocket for
which various possible configura- lar motors and I am amazed how late, even into the late 1970s, we
tions were available. During the
course of the Skylark programme were asked just in passing, maybe in the pub, could we do things.
several motors were constructed to
allow for different payloads or Could we do this, could we double the thrust and halve the burn
enhanced vehicle performance.
Motor generally refers to a solid-pro- time, that sort of thing was quite commonplace at the time.
pellant based propulsion system,
engine is used to describe a liquid Regarding the motors for Westcott,* we had a motor called
propulsion system. The range of
motors for Skylark included, Raven Smokey Joe, which was the sustainer system really for the army
(which was the standard motor and
came in a series of variations),
ground-to-air anti-aircraft weapon, and what we basically did to
Stonechat, Goldfinch, and Cuckoo.
create the Raven motor was to weld three of these together. The
Other motor types were also availa-
ble. Smokey Joe had about 330 kilogrammes of propellant in it and

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58 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

three of these obviously made one ton of propellant, and that was
the basis of the Raven I motor. Stan Green - who was what I guess
you might call a senior ballistician at Westcott at the time, although
he was a lot more than that - relates the story that with the first
Raven motor they were so worried about the performance and
capabilities of the motor case, that they produced the motor just
with a one inch thick web around the outside and fired that for
maybe two seconds, just to see if the case would stand up to it. And
it did, so we then went forward with the first charge design with the
full one ton. I have data here as to the first firing dates of Raven I,
Raven II, Raven V or whatever, and in fact the first flight dates.
But if you look at the other motors, let’s take Goldfinch, I think
Goldfinch was the first motor in the Skylark series of motors. That
was required to produce thrust for an anti-ballistic missile system
that we were working on in about 1959, 1960, called Sprint, and I
Hawker Siddeley was a British avia-
tion company subsequently amalga- think Hawker Siddeley* and maybe BAC or whoever came before
mated into British Aerospace
following the nationalisation of the them were actually working on a system at that time to create anti-
industry begun by the Labour Gov-
ernment in the 1970s, completed in ballistic missile systems. Again we had some good bases to build on
when we were looking at the 17-inch diameter motors. Cuckoo was
quite simply a half-length Smokey Joe, Goldfinch was roughly a
Smokey Joe with a slightly different charge design and Raven was
three times a Smokey Joe. They were all very similar motors in
terms of design.
One of the other things I think we need to bear in mind, and I am
as guilty, even being close to it, probably as anybody else, is that at
Westcott it wasn’t until about 1952 that we really had a solid pro-
pellants filling facility available to fill things even as big as
Goldfinch maybe. Although we had fired solid motors at Westcott,
maybe back to 1948, they were not built or filled at Westcott. But if
you think, at the time it was only a matter of three years from the
operational date of the solid propellant laboratories at Westcott
until the first full-up Raven I was statically fired. I think the West-
cott position was that they were as advanced as anybody in the

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59 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

world at the time in terms of providing that sort of performance

capability and that sort of technology. I have to say of course that
from that time on in terms of solids we stood pretty still, we did not
move much beyond that apart from in particular areas, and they
were much smaller motors. Stonechat for the proposal for Skylark
IX, for instance, Skylark XVII, and Skylark XIII, the orbital capa-
bility Skylark. They were all based on the 36 inch diameter motor,
which was effectively an extension of the Raven motor. So that sets
the scene from the Westcott point of view.

TWIGGE How did the team at Westcott integrate their work with the team at
Farnborough, for example. Did you get together regularly?

HARLOW I can’t speak for the time at which Skylark was new. I joined West-
cott in the early 1970s as a contractor, to try and sharpen up their
customer focus, in one sense, trying to make sure that what West-
cott supplied actually was what the customer wanted. And it wasn’t
easy, because the management’s ethos at the time, as I said earlier,
was not customer-focused at all. As a response to that I think we
moved much closer to Farnborough than we were to Westcott at
times. We were actually laying requirements on our own establish-
ment, which for a government establishment was unheard of. At
The Chevaline Programme, begun in
the early-1970s, was an adaptation one time we at special weapons (I think we called ourselves Special
of Polaris with a hardened front-end
and with penetration aids (penaids)
Weapons 4½) were effectively acting as part of Farnborough and
to meet British requirements.
we did that for many years, right into Chevaline times.*

TWIGGE Would those at Farnborough agree with that?

DORLING I don’t want to disagree with what Mr Harlow has said about West-
cott and their customer relations, but I must add that Frank Hazell
and I were members of their joint panel on the Raven motor devel-
opment. We made frequent visits to Westcott, and also went down
to Bristol Aerojet Ltd’s Banwell factory where the motor case was
to be made. Naturally we always made sure that Squadron Leader

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60 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

Hemphill, the Westcott project officer, understood our specific

needs for improved motor performance. In due course they were
met and exceeded.

HARLOW Can I add to that from a technology point of view, and Westcott
suffered many times from this. We spoke about the capability of
Skylark to support endloads. Most of the motor cases were, from
an internal ballistics point of view, very over-designed. We could
Kestrel was a 24inch diameter solid
propellant motor developed at West- have perhaps, in the early Skylark motors, doubled the pressure and
cott in 2 versions. Kestrel I was a
solid cord (cigarette) charge design therefore increased the performance enormously. But they were
for a low thrust, long burning time
motor. Kestrel II was a conventional very conservative designs and this went on through into again
star centred charge design for the
24inch diameter once projected another proposal that didn’t get very far, unfortunately, for a
replacement of Cuckoo on the larger
(24 inch) diameter Skylark launcher. replacement of the 17-inch motors for Skylark with 24 inch motors.
The Kestrel II was subsequently dis-
continued. It was to have been used I lost the thread of where the 24 inch motor went to in the end,
on the larger diameter Black Knight
to continue the re-entry experiments apart from Kestrel and Crusade* later on. But certainly we could have
under Project Dazzle. The follow-on
programme known as Crusade was
increased the performance of the Skylark motors quite enormously
actually never flown because the
at very low cost and very low risk, in my view. And sure, Bristol
British Government lost interest. The
USA carried on with their own pro- Aero Jets down at Weston-super-Mare were hand-in-hand with us
gramme called Sparta, using Red-
stone boosters, and this effectively in the design of the hardware for these motors. Good job they did
led to the end of the Black Knight
project. as well, a very good job.

DOMMETT I certainly agree with you that they could have gone to 24 inch, but
they went to 36. I want to keep reminding people, we did produce a
weapons work Falstaff vehicle, which was a sounding rocket.
Although based on aero department’s hypersonic test vehicle –
which they never got round to being allowed to fly – it was 36 inch
diameter motor, the Stonechat, it was able to get up to a hundred
miles and we were able to get a thousand kilogrammes up there.
The opportunity was there, like the 24 inch motor, like the Kestrel
and so on, it was all there, but nobody was really prepared to pay
for it, or really had the experiments that actually needed these

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61 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

HARLOW Can I add to the pay-for-it bit. Let’s start with Skylark IX. British
Aerospace marketed the 36 inch motor as Skylark IX, based on the
performance data and the reliability data obtained from, as Roy
said, the Falstaff shots. But we moved on into Skylark XVII as a
proposal, and at one stage the pricing structure (we go back to this
again, within British Aerospace, within my ex-company) was such
that we could have given the motor to British Aerospace Systems
for free, and we still could not match the price that was offered for
the equivalent performance available from US Systems. Thus Sky-
lark XVII died. Great shame, we did a lot of work for that. It was a
Stonechat plus a Waxwing motor, that was the basis of Skylark

DOMMETT I was telling Eric Dorling earlier on that in 1971–72, when Jim
Sedgwick joined us, he was sent to Washington to talk to the US
Air Force about sounding rocket usages: could the UK use theirs
for weapons work. They went along and compared Skylark’s known
performance with the range of American sounding rockets and the
US Air Force ballistic missile office just said, ‘Skylark wins hands
down. Stay with your own vehicle, fire them in Australia’. Techni-
cally, that is. The problem was as I said before the way the finances
were organised, which meant that we couldn’t compete financially
with them because we had to buy our motors and they didn’t.

HARLOW There is nobody here who was with British Aerospace longer than
I, so I had better put this point in. When BAC took over the prime
contractorship of the Skylark programme, we were in fact lumbered
The UK Ministry of Defence. I guess is the word with a 5 per cent levy by MoD* on the price. We
had to levy back to MoD 5 per cent of the price that we charged, to
recover the costs of so-called development, which was long lost by
the way, but it was just a cash cow as far as the MoD were con-
cerned. And I have to say as far as British Aerospace was
concerned, that is the way it ended up. Motor production was a
cash cow. It was going nowhere, we weren’t going to reinvest in

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62 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

new propellant, new designs, nothing. Westcott was going to close.

That was another nail in the coffin of Skylark.

DOMMETT There exists from 20 years ago a brochure from Filton of the Sky-
lark family. That included a combination of motors which actually
could launch satellites.

HARLOW That was Skylark XIII, the Spacelark.

DOMMETT So there were great efforts to sell the idea, it is just that it was no
longer the leading way of doing things.

TWIGGE Why was the satellite option never taken up? Looking at what we
were talking about earlier in communications, it seems an obvious
step to take. The technology was there, was it a political decision?

HARLOW I can only refer you to Dr John First, who was the prime mover
behind Spacelark, or Skylark XIII. I had taken him into S10, which is
the empty hardware store at Westcott, many times and he was like a
kid with a penny in a sweet shop. He looked around at all the empty
hardware and he thought ‘I could put one of those on top of one of
those and I could do this with it’. He had got it all in his head,
exactly what he wanted to do and what he could do. I am not sure
he was a very good businessman, in the sense of understanding
what BAE’s or even BAC’s business objectives were, he was an
engineer. And capabilities to an engineer are not capabilities to a
businessman. We have to look at it in the round, not just as simple

DORLING A little bit of history. In 1954-55 when the Skylark project was get-
ting under way, the country was still suffering from the effects of
World War II. One of these was a steel shortage. Bristol Aerojet
had to go to Eastern Europe in search of the right steel for the
motor case and were triumphant in finding one billet. Then they

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63 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

found that nowhere in the UK was there rolling equipment wide

enough to thin a plate of steel to their requirement. Again they
went to Eastern Europe.
Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF) is a The launcher was made at ROF* Woolwich from Bailey bridge
Government agency for the develop-
ment of munitions. panels, new steel being unavailable. Such consideration must be
born in mind in understanding why what was done in 1955 and
onwards was done. Furthermore the transistor had not arrived. All
flight electronics used miniature, ruggedised valves.

TWIGGE Did the technological difficulties impinge on the programme, or

did people come up with ideas and then try and get the programme
to work? How was the programme managed? All elements of the
Skylark programme. I am hearing from some of the witnesses that
you had these great ideas, tried to put them into practice, then
found out that the technology wasn’t possibly able to do so. Or did
you look at the technology and then try to work back and say ‘well
we’ve got this and that, therefore we can go ahead with that
project’? How did it work?

DORLING Are we talking about the motor, or the instrumentation?

TWIGGE The whole package.

DORLING Our job at Farnborough was to build a rocket which would lift a
nominal one hundred pound payload to one hundred miles. The
university scientists devised and built their instruments, or, as in the
case of the grenade experiment, the RAE produced components
for them. I helped provide the glue. In those early days, 1955-1960,
Hazell and I would meet the experimenters in committee – not yet
the British National Committee, that wasn’t formed until 1959, nor
the Gassiot Committee, but an ad hoc group chaired by Sir Harrie
Massey, a member of the Gassiot Committee of the Royal Society,
at University College London. Back at Farnborough, Hazell and I
would decide what could be done and when. I would draw up a

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64 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

schedule of rocket firings, one inevitably determined initially by

progress at RAE, and would write into that schedule the experi-
ments which then seemed most doable. Then with the university
scientists I would work towards a firmer timetable. Nothing was
written in stone, for both sides would meet scheduling difficulties.
There was no overall management plan.
Of course when the Science Research Council came into being in
1965, then there was an organisational structure. We all recognised
that something like that would come along, but for the first five
years from 1955 there was no management. (For the next five years
management grew through the Royal Society’s newly-created Brit-
ish National Committee for Space Research, again under Sir Harrie
Massey’s chairmanship, and the sub-committees it sprouted. By
J. F. Hosie (1913-93), civil servant. now an important member was J. F. Hosie* from the Office of the
Office of Minister for Science, later
Department of Education and Sci- Minister for Science, one of whose tasks was to steer the burgeon-
ence, 1961-5.
ing space programme towards its eventual management by the

DOMMETT Those were the days when the PSO* was lord of all he surveyed,
Principal Scientific Officer is a grade though. Division leaders and so on didn’t actually control pro-
within the Scientific Civil Service.
grammes, the chap who ran the section controlled them.

DORLING Of course when the Science Research Council came into being,
then we had an organisational structure. I think we all knew that
some time there would be something like that coming along, but
for those ten years there was no header body.

TWIGGE Who controlled the money during that period?

DOMMETT Whosoever invented cost codes and all the organisation that Light-
head introduced. That was the trouble, that’s when it changed.

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65 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

DORLING In a way we were one of the little piglets, the runt of the family
moreover, and we fed on the great sow that was the RAE. After all,
we few were not big spenders.

HARLOW In the Ministry system though we had a beautiful interrelationship

between government establishments called PACS. It stands for
something completely different these days, but in those days it was
called PACS. And we could exchange effort between establish-
ments at no cost, we would just run up a bill and then spend it
some time downstream. It was a very easy and efficient way to
work, there was no monetary value necessarily associated with it.

TWIGGE When the Scientific Research Council came into existence, how did
it affect the programme? Did it become more formalised, did it
make it easier, or did it make it more bureaucratic and more

DOMMETT Thinking back to 1960, we were funded at Farnborough by votes,

as all establishments were, and how the vote was spread around
was to do with the establishment. Each department made its own
bid each year for what it felt was reasonable and sorted itself out.
There was no central accounting in the sense that we have had over
more recent years.
To add to some of the things that were said about the standard of
hardware and so on, the dear old RAE – long gone of course – is
getting rid, by law, of all its photographic negative collection to the
Imperial War Museum. A reasonable selection of the negatives has
been made and I have given the organisers a list of all the Skylark
material I have found which seems reasonable, which includes lots
of pictures of the experiments. They are going to the Imperial War
Museum for a number of reasons, they will be going there some
time after Christmas and they should start being accessible to
people somewhere about the middle of next year, so you can actu-
ally see the things.

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66 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

STACEY You were talking about the management of the programme. RAE
was very much concerned with providing an engineering tool, the
rocket itself, and the science desks in the university provided the
science and the experiments. And it was the matching of the two
that was sort of handcrafted in the early days. Was it the Interna-
tional Geophysical Year that actually put things on a more formal
basis? Because I can remember at one time a whole list of vehicles
with experiments came out and there was a number that repre-
sented the year in which they first dreamt up the objective for that
trial. There was a date after which there was an overall programme
set up, wasn’t there?

BOYD I think it is true to say that from the point of view of the scientists
the International Geophysical Year was not of great significance.
We played along with it, but after all, we didn’t make an important
contribution to international science. The Skylark came a little bit
too late.

DORLING One point. Sir Harrie Massey attended an early meeting of the
International Committee for Space Research (COSPAR), to report
on results from the International Geophysical Year. Many resolu-
tions had been made about what contributions to the IGY
respective countries would make in the field of atmospheric meas-
urements using rockets but Sir Harrie found he was the only one
present with something to report. A Skylark had been launched
from Woomera only shortly before and a sporadic E layer had been
detected. He was vastly pleased that of all the countries represented
ours was the only one to contribute a result.

TWIGGE That was accidental, or fortuitous?

DORLING Fortuitous, yes.

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67 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

TWIGGE So it did have an impact, but an overarching one, the Geophysical


DORLING The rocket side not at all, it was asking too much of it too early.

TWIGGE Had it come some time later it might have been more

DORLING Yes, it might have been.

HARLOW Can I just pick up on something Eric Dorling said earlier. My com-
ment about the performance available from the earlier designs, the
fact that we didn’t get the maximum performance available, was
only really aimed at the earlier construction methods. That was a
racked and welded design. We had steel sheets that we racked into
the correct curvature and welded up into cylinders. Now at one
RS131 was a specification used by
the Bristol Aerojet Company to stage Bristol Aerojet [BAJ] were not able to receive the RS131*
describe a medium grade steel used
in the construction of sold propellant
steel material that we needed to continue manufacturing those
motor cases.
designs. I have my own views as to why this material wasn’t made
available to BAJ, but perhaps it’s gossip and I couldn’t substantiate
it. What happened from then on was that they went into a steel
strip laminate design, in which you have a helical continuously
welding design, which in fact Westcott pushed them towards
because we were looking to be able to design solid motors then up
Polaris was an American-designed to six feet in diameter. We had of course an idea that Polaris,* cer-
nuclear delivery missile intended for
launch from specially built Royal tainly the second stage of Polaris, was always problematical to us
Navy submarines.
and we were looking to be able to design a 54 inch upper stage
motor to replace the second stage of Polaris. So BAJ from a devel-
opmental or research point of view were being pushed in that
direction anyway. Once they had started down that path, the later
Stonechats would have been built in that way, Polaris or whatever
else would have been built that way, and in fact the later Raven
motors, Raven XI especially, were built in that way. In doing that,
of course, we optimised the thickness of the case and therefore we

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68 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

were much more constrained to maintain the internal pressure at

that value. Had we required a higher performance, we would have
had to go to a thicker strip laminate and therefore you tailored the
design to every requirement, whereas previously it was totally over-

TWIGGE You mentioned Polaris and something we haven’t talked about at all
is the influence of the defence programme on the Skylark. Was it
apparent? How did it impinge? Did it not impinge?

HARLOW From the Westcott point of view it was totally seamless. It really
didn’t matter. In solids and liquids Westcott’s sole raison d’être was
to provide a design which satisfied a requirement and that design,
maybe made at Westcott or at BAJ and filled at Westcott, was
passed on to other industrial concerns within the UK. Then they
would wash their hands of it: they had fulfilled their requirements
as a research and development establishment. Should that design
prove problematical downstream to the industrial concern that
picked it up, then Westcott would reinvestigate it to see what the
problem was and try and cure the problem, and if they cured the
problem they put it back into industry again and then walked away
from it again. It was quite a simple relationship early on and that
certainly happened well into the Skylark programme.

TWIGGE What was the view from Farnborough, was it noticeable or was
there no linkage with defence, so to speak, on the Skylark

E. C. SPURR Very little on the Skylark programme. Really, it just continued on

from the designs that we were doing for the controlled test vehicle
and things like that. Frank Hazell’s group used to agree on some-
thing and then they fed the information down to us and we just
built the units and Skylark continued from those early controlled
test vehicles. With 5 Series III, it was quite soon that that was a way

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69 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

of getting early funding to cover it, because we hadn’t got Skylark

funding. And then we were just confronted with it in I think it was
March 1956, something like that, when we started to operate Sky-
lark. We were confronted, as you say, with getting some of the
materials. The bodywork was made up out of magalloy and these
were quite solid sections all bolted together with twenty-four 5/16th
BSF bolts, and it really formed a very solid assembly. But on the
other hand it had problems in quick assembly and that sort of
thing. So that was the basis we were working on, it was a continua-
Controlled Test Vehicle I. tion of the work that was done on CTV1* for quite a number of
years and the instrumentation components had all been tried and
tested on those early programmes. Then we re-engineered it for the
Skylark heads. The only thing was the overall weight, because with
the CTV1s we were using very solid support brackets and things
for accelerometers, so the weight was going up tremendously, and
then we just got hold of the structure. But initially, from March
1956 to the first one flying, we had about a year to get all these
things on. Anyway, in my time we were working away with joining
materials, trying to get them to seal up the various components. We
were a bit concerned about heating effects on them. And then from
then on it was a case of building up, working from there, sorting
out the cooling that was required, any insulation, and just gradually
building up.
But the management was very loose. We operated as small teams,
in fact there were only a handful of people in 1956 really, and we
had two mechanics loaned from the main workshop. There were
about four or five of us working away and it was a case of all getting
down together and working on these things. More or less you
tended to cover the work as you wanted and you just picked up the
things that you wanted to do and got on with it. For that year it was
hard going, because of all the trying to get bits and pieces together
to get the thing to the first trial flight, and we were lucky enough to
get it all assembled for the first firing in 1957. We were going to fire

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70 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

in December 1956, but the firing was based on the firing of six
motors at Westcott and I think three had failed and so we couldn’t
continue then. There were Don Hawes and myself out there deal-
ing with the programme and the paperwork and stuff like that and
we had to return without flying and then they managed to fly it in

TWIGGE How were the firing and the scientific experiments managed as a
totality. If you missed your slot, for example, did you have to go up
for another slot?

SPURR It was more open, the slots for Skylark that I remember, than it was
for CTV1s, because when we were firing at Larkhill or wherever,
these smaller grounds, there was so much competition between
industrial people for the firing and they seemed to get preferential
treatment over the in-house people. I suppose that was a political
move, really. We tried to just get the thing done as fast as possible.
We didn’t seem to have any problem as far as I can recollect with
meeting slots.

DORLING Could I make two points. One is that no mention has been made of
The Weapons Research Establish-
the role in the Skylark programme played by the staff of WRE, the
ment, Woomera Australia, was an
establishment provided under the Australian Weapons Research Establishment at Salisbury, South
auspices of the UK-Australia joint
project which provided a test- Australia.* When a rocket payload left this country in its boxes of
range for guided weapons in the
Australian Desert. The UK’s space bits and pieces, it was destined to be put into the hands of another
proving activities were also gener-
ally sited at Woomera, i.e. Blue organisation, there to be reassembled, checked and readied for
Streak, Black Knight, Skylark and
Black Arrow were tested and flight. I am sorry there isn’t someone here today to represent that
launched there. For the Australian
Government’s official history of side of the project.
Woomera see Peter Morton, Fire
Across the Desert: Woomera and The other point concerns certain benefits of the move of the Sky-
the Anglo-Australian Joint Project,
1946-1980 (Canberra: Australian lark project to BAC Bristol where there were people with fresh
Government Publications Service,
1989). ideas and fresh views. In particular BAC were not happy with
Hazell’s insistence on not spinning up the rocket at launch. Frank,
for very understandable reasons, wanted a rocket which did not roll
on its way up, lest it ran into roll-yaw resonance and broke up. The

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71 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

Bristol team took a fresh view and eventually were firing rockets
which they did spin up. This was of great benefit to most experi-
menters who now had a vehicle that kept itself pointing in one
direction, and, on the whole, stably so. I was responsible in later
years for ionospheric experiments – looked after at the range by
John Raymont who is here today – carried on BAC’s spinning

TWIGGE Was this a technological breakthrough?

DORLING It was not a breakthrough; after all it was being done elsewhere. It
was simply that Hazell was determined nothing should go wrong
on a rocket’s ascent; in his view one way was to have no spin. In
practice a little spin always developed and once out of aerodynamic
control it opened up into a propellering motion. Sadly, without free
gyroscopes it was virtually impossible to work out what motion
developed during flight. Even had we had them, they would soon
have tumbled and become useless. So I am glad to be able to con-
gratulate those determined people of years ago at BAC.

SPURR You could take up the design of the fins as well, because it wasn’t
so rigorous. Because we had great difficulty in keeping them at the

DORLING Yes, indeed.

SPURR Even Clarks, they did a very good job, but it was very difficult with
a ribbelywoppely skin and things like that. Also the castings for
supporting the fins, they were quite a problem, sorting those out.
Even the people at Stirling Metals that did the castings at the time
were having difficulty. We were fortunate in RAE having our own
foundry and the chap in charge of it was going up and down sorting
out some of these problems. The whole fin assembly was rather
difficult and we had to keep trying.

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72 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

BOYD We made good use of the spinning of the Skylark to scan the sky in
ultraviolet and produce the first scan of the southern sky in ultravi-
olet light. In that case, it was a very simple system, it was good to
have a rocket that spun. While on that, may I just make sure that a
couple of errors don’t get carried forward. On page 10 of the paper,
the very last line talks about ‘enabled rockets to be guided towards
the sun or the moon’. There was no effort to guide the rockets any-
where at all, it was the pointing of the lowest cone that was
relevant, so really the word rocket should be substituted by the
word instruments: the instruments to be pointed towards the sun
or the moon.
One other point. I felt that in a way someone not knowing anything
and listening to this meeting might have imagined that we were
somewhat severe to the Americans in a number of ways. I think
Eric Dorling spoke a little bit about the Aerobee, it was a very
beautiful vehicle, it was a liquid-fuelled rocket, and there was an
extremely good pointing control available from Aerobee, which
was made by Ball Brothers of Colorado. This consisted of having
an arm that carried the instruments and that turned down to take
up the appropriate elevation relative to the spin of the rocket, a
system which incidentally was carried over into the early solar satel-
lites and we had instruments on board these satellites which used a
very similar system. So I think that if one looked carefully one
would find there were parallel developments in the United States
and most of them done at a much higher cost and indeed a higher
degree of sophistication.

HARLOW If I could just add to that, another nail in the coffin of Skylark to
some degree I think was the fact that the main competitor system,
Black Brant was a Canadian Black Brant*, had a system supplied by Saab, the S19 stabilisation
sounding rocket similar to Skylark.
system, that in fact enabled the Black Brant system to do away with
spinning the vehicle at all. And my feeling is that Saab had a pre-
ferred supplier relationship with Black Brant and that British

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73 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

Aerospace could not obtain S19s at anywhere near the price that
they were supplied to Black Brant for. Therefore that was another
problem in terms of the price of the vehicle. S19 is a very good sys-
tem, a very good system.

BOYD I am not sure where it might come in, but can I just also make the
point that right at the end of the introductory paper, the penulti-
mate paragraph talks about satellites were becoming a much more
promising research tool. Now, it just depends what you want to do.
If you want to find a vertical profile of ionisation or of many other
things, particularly now observations of the atmospheric constitu-
tion and the like, the satellite isn’t much more promising. You want
a vehicle which will penetrate through the medium on its path. So I
don’t think it would be fair to say that satellites were becoming a
much more promising research tool for everything.

TWIGGE It is only partially the story, you are saying. We haven’t talked about
telemetry. Did anyone have any input into that? When you were
talking about Australia, the launching from Australia and the use of
the scientific packages in the rocket themselves, how was this infor-
mation gathered? Was it parachuted down, was there telemetry?

JOHN RAY I was involved with the Australian trials. They were titled CQ941
for Australian purposes, but basically they were of Chevaline origin.
The RAE weapons department conceived a trial requirement to fire
submissiles, as we referred to them, to establish the kinematic per-
formance exo-atmospheric. Bear in mind that I don’t fit into the
timeframe that this seminar has involved, because my timeframe is
1971 to 1979 with Skylark programmes, 1979 being the completion
of the last Skylark programme at Woomera. So I don’t fit into that,
but nevertheless during the last three years of that period I was
actually the British government responsible officer for Woomera
activities. We decided that the Skylark was at that time a well-
proven rocket and in spite of differences with Frank Hazell’s opin-

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74 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

ion (he always looked upon it as an experimental vehicle) from my

point of view I thought it was a suitable vehicle for launching our
experiments, and so it proved. So we put an order on him for eight
vehicles to be fired at Woomera. The main objectives of such a
programme were to photograph the performance of the submis-
siles as they left the payload, to track them with radar – the range
radars and radars which we fitted up specifically for our purpose.
One of these radars subsequently was dismantled in my time and
Jodrell Bank is a radio telescope
ended up at Jodrell Bank,* as a gift from the project to them for
station located on the outskirts of
Manchester, opened in 1957 it was their space research. The idea was that we would also be able to
famously used to track the Soviet
Sputnik satellite. pick up the submissiles and also any mistakes that were made
during the process of the experiments. The first vehicle was
launched in 1972, primarily to prove the trial design, and then the
programme continued from that time until 1979, when we com-
pleted with a total of eight.
The vehicle itself, as was hoped, was extremely reliable, all the
launches were successful and all the recovery aspects of the pay-
loads were also successful. The camera was recovered and the
actual performance of the submissiles at that time was accurately
recorded. There were no failures at all. This in large measure was
due to the professional performance of the trial teams, in particular
the BAC team that was responsible for the vehicle both in the UK
and at Woomera. As I say I am not in your timeframe, but sadly in
1979 at the completion of our trial programme – the Chevaline pro-
gramme – the joint project between ourselves and the Australian
government was no longer in being and therefore we had to pursue
their clean range policy, as they called it, and this led to my having
to get the launcher demolished. It is rather sad, but it was demol-
ished by ourselves and taken away. This business of clean range
policy which they had out there did have merit, in the sense that it
at least did not clutter up the range when you were trying to find
the wanted payloads on recovery: you were pretty certain that the
bits and pieces that you picked were likely to be yours at that time.

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75 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

And that proved to be so.

The Australian government was extremely supportive of us in the
work, although because the data that we were gathering at that time
didn’t quite fit into the joint project concept and were of little value
to the Australians themselves, which was partly due to a security
ban that we were wrapping round the project, we had to fund a
large number of facilities that were wanted. On a personal note, on
the human side of working at Woomera, and with certainly good
coverage of the Skylark activities there, there has recently been
published a book called Woomera, The Human Face by a chap called
Edward W. Chambers, Woomera: Its Chambers,* who was the officer in scientific charge of many of the
Human Face (Sydney, Australia:
Seaview, 2000). experiments out there. The other possible human note was that
some of the members of my team out there were keen on philately
and they arranged to issue a first day cover for the launch of the
250th Skylark, on 12 May 1976 at Woomera.

SPURR On the telemetry, we used the 465 telemetry system, which had
been used on the CTV5s from their inception and they were fine.
On the CTV1s we used the 600 telemetry system. The difference
was one was about a 3½ inch diameter body and the Skylark 5 was
about 5-7 inches, something like that. Those unit were built for
those rounds and we just adapted them as we put them in on the
bulkheads. Then we used sequence switching, two or three systems,
one was a systems unit with the signals from the instrumentation
feeding through the telemetry, so it was just how it came through.
Then we had another solenoid-operated system, these were used
not only for outputting signals but pushing information out for
operating the thing. I was involved mainly with the grenade rounds
and of course we used those for the firing sequences. To get the
telemetry signals back again we used very simple wire systems
which would cut and operate a little microswitch, which killed off
the signal so that we could send then. So that was the means of get-
ting the information.

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76 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

DOMMETT CTV5 Series I was actually a real guided weapon, Series II, which
benefited from the contract of the first one, was actually our ther-
mal heating test that Dr Dawton ran, CTV III was in fact Skylark’s
start and CTV5 Series IV was actually the cover story for the start
of Black Knight. The funding in those days was different. I would
like to add, we have mentioned many of the names of the people at
Farnborough who were involved, including Frank Hazell who is
dead, but not Arthur Lansley who worked with Stuart Stacey and
John Ray. He was there right from the beginning, wasn’t he?

RAY Because we wanted to track the radar performance of the submis-

siles, we set up at Woomera range a couple of radars for monitoring
the performance of the submissile as it ejected it and Arthur Lans-
ley was responsible for that. As I said, as part of the clean range
policy at the end of the programme we dismantled them and
packed them off and we offered them to Jodrell Bank. They were
pleased to receive them and they have been using them since I

TWIGGE Was there anywhere else, apart from Australia, where testing went

DORLING Yes. Nothing has yet been said about Sardinia, where there were
launches of Skylark. Robert Boyd has mentioned Kiruna.

BOYD Yes, but I don’t know that there has been any report back about
how Skylark performed, whether there was any feedback of the
important information. I just don’t know.

RAY It was very successful from the Chevaline project point of view. We
obtained the required data on the performance of the devices we
were ejecting and it was extremely successful. We were able to pick
up our bits and also we were able to, as a result of the results from
the Skylark, influence the design of the system that was required. So

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77 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

from a Chevaline/CQ941 point of view the Skylark was an extremely

successful programme, but bear in mind that was well into its life.
We are talking 250th plus, the period I was involved in trying to use
it. That was totally Australian. The setup, as previously has been
touched upon, was that there was a British cell down at Adelaide,
or Salisbury as was, and they controlled the range activities from

SPURR There was also a launcher put at Aberporth, the range there. The
intention was to do some firing from Aberporth, but they were
very worried about dispersion and dropping them in the sea area
off Wales. We had almost a dustbin lid nose cone on the thing, to
reduce its flight, but I don’t think they ever fired one, they couldn’t
get permission.

DORLING No, the trouble was that a fin came off one of the rockets fired
from Woomera (probably as a result of roll-yaw resonance), and
the firing was a failure. Now, the understanding was that no rocket
could be fired from Aberporth until we could guarantee on the
basis of Woomera firings only one chance in a million of it coming
down on land. That one failure – just a fin coming off – put an end
to our hopes.
Could I come back to your question - what about telemetry? We
had to use a standard telemetry system. It wasn’t adequate for our
needs and why should it have been, for it was developed originally
for a rather different purpose? But one can’t separate telemetry
from the subsequent data processing. It is extraordinary now to
think that from rocket flights in those early days all that came to us
were paper records. There were no computers and only the sim-
plest machines to help us. Instead there was a room full of girls
working on long rolls of photographic paper to predetermined
instructions, taking off measurements of interest. To a university
experimenter the presence of anything worth having in the records

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78 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

was immediately apparent so he would not normally ask for the

services of the scanners.

TWIGGE When did the first computers come into the programme?

DORLING Use of the first machine, the Ferranti Pegasus, was made available
to us in about 1957; it was as primitive a machine as you could
imagine. Peter Herbert undertook to program it, in machine code!
You may guess what an heroic effort that was. The first machine to
be delivered to RAE was the follow-on Ferranti Mercury. That we
could all program thanks to the release of Autocode, but even so
Mercury was primitive; as with Pegasus it used radio valves, not
transistors, and punched paper tape input. You came up to London
for the Pegasus, which was a Joe Lyons organisation.

TWIGGE Was the computer assembled in Australia?

DORLING Computers didn’t arrive until the 1960s in any size, and then sud-
denly there was this great booming of computers thanks to IBM,
who produced a really quite large thing. But up to that time there
was no prospect of analysing your data on the computer, it all had
to come back on paper and you just took your readings off. It was a
bit of a surprise to get to the Goddard Space Flight Center in 1960,
they had just fired the seventh in the series of scientific satellites,
and they still hadn’t got a computer in their system. They had
rooms full of girls too, analysing paper records. So although they
were miles ahead of us on the development of computers and of
course transistors and so on, they were still behind the times there.
The first satellite in the Anglo-Ameri-
can Ariel programme.
We were in fact, with Ariel I*, the first people to benefit from a
system designed from the beginning to go right through and be
processed on a computer. What I am saying is how lovely it would
have been if science in one area had advanced ten years and we had
had all that available to us. But we didn’t and it was quite difficult.

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79 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

BOYD One of the interesting things in that context is that having seen the
enormous amount of work that was involved in trying to look for
something important in miles of records, we decided we would do
in-satellite analysis or preliminary processing. The Ariel instruments
took in fact the second derivative of the current voltage curve that
the probes were taking, and that was where the real information
was. If you tried to do that by simply sending it over the telemetry,
taking the second derivative of something that’s come over teleme-
try is a hopeless game.

DORLING There was the famous discovery of whistlers* from an early Ameri-
Whistlers is a term which refers to can satellite. It was picked up by a magnetometer, and they said
background noises in the atmos-
phere. look, if we had done this clever business of processing the data up
in the satellite and just sending the key things down, we would
never have received it, it would all have been filtered out; fortu-
nately we had a single channel telemetry system from that little
satellite. It was about the third one they had launched, something
like that. They found whistlers and whistlers led them on to dis-
cover the magnetosphere. So there are pros and cons.

STACEY I think the other point we must record is the fact that the telemetry
system for Skylark was basically using common-user equipment
developed for all sorts of programmes by RAE at Branshott and
here in London. These were supplied as bits of kit we then engi-
neered into the system. Then you had the range at Aberporth and
the range at Woomera, both of which were geared to set up and
receive no more than two of these channels wide band and the
multiplexing and demultiplexing had all their own limitations. Of
course that is how it was set up, so although it would have been
nice to have had a free hand and some money, we had no hands
and no money.

DORLING And it is a thought that had there been a new one developed then it
would have been using valves, because the transistor was just round

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80 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

the corner but not quite there, and behind that came the digital sys-
tem. Of course what everybody wanted was a digital telemetry

STACEY We did actually get into magnetic tape recordings on Skylark, to get
the wide band stuff, in order to recover stuff.

TWIGGE Was that the first time it was used?

STACEY Yes, again using common-user equipment developed by the Minis-

try for a variety of programmes and it used half-inch tape. This was
flown as a recovery of the payload: as long as you got the tape back
you didn’t worry about the valves or the electronics or whatever.

HARLOW There are four issues here I would like to pick up on. The first one
was firing from Aberporth. I find this idea of one in a million from
Aberporth really rather weird. Aberporth had been firing two-stage
if not more systems over the Irish Sea for years and years and years
with no destruct system at all. They all worked well, none of them
hit Dublin (which they could have) and yet we have this problem of
one in a million. So all of a sudden someone has an idea we must be
worried just now, instantly, about impact dispersion and fail-safe
systems etc. I find that interesting.
In terms of paper output, I don’t know whether anybody here was
concerned with some of the Chevaline trials in the States, but having
TEL IV was one of a multitude of sat in TEL IV* and had paper output - TELIV is about twelve foot
telemetry stations set up at and
around the Cape Canaveral launch- square and you have got about ten outputs - I tell you, after the
ing facility in the United States. TEL
IV was a very small building with pen thing has got out of range you are this high in paper outputs, it’s
recorders which generated large
amounts of paper recordings during incredible. Very late on the US were still using paper outputs and
a launch.
they needed droves of people to analyse them, and it took a long

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81 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

time for them to get DARC1* approved for funding, which got rid
Data Acquisition and Receiving Cen-
tre (DARC) replaced the TEL sys- of all that system.
About ranges, I have here on this list at least three shots of Skylark
from Huelda in Spain as well, so I have a list of the ranges that Sky-
lark flew from if anybody is interested.
The last point comes from a long time back, something I think
David Ashford said earlier, about Cuckoo failed to ignite. Yes, I
agree with you, it failed to ignite. But on my post-flight analyses of
Westcott motors, not only for Skylark but for all other uses of Gos-
ling and Cuckoo, I have to say that having reviewed the post-flight
data and reports, there was no time where a Gosling or a Cuckoo
ever failed to ignite in flight when it was so commanded.

ASHFORD It was a Raven.

HARLOW Maybe it was a Raven. I just had to make the point that Skylark and
the 17-inch motor series were a very, very reliable system and that
is one of the things we had over competitive systems.

TWIGGE Can I come back to the point you made earlier about Spain and Sar-
dinia. Why were these tests undertaken?

HARLOW I can only read from the records that I have here. DFVLR, they
were the sponsor in the ones that I can see here, so it was German.

STACEY Did they take place under UK BAE sponsorship, or were they part
of the ESRO campaign?

HARLOW They were not prepared by British Aerospace, and it was BAE at
that time, not BAC.

STACEY So they were ESRO vehicles. That is the problem you see, BAE
were promoting into ESRO for missiles.

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82 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

HARLOW They could well have been.

ASHFORD From memory, they were German launches, from Spain, not
ESRO. Also some of them used the DFVLR portable launcher.

STACEY They were all mentioned on a mobile campaign. I think BAE had a
single-rail mobile launcher and support equipment and they shot
her into these places. We went into Woomera because it met our
requirements, we were designed to be compatible with the range. I
am not sure that the campaigns that BAE launched had a range
compatibility requirement imposed on them, they had to do what
they could with Skylark as it was: as she was designed so she flew.

RAYMONT In Sardinia ESRO/ESA had a fixed launcher system, it was not a

mobile launcher. And in Kiruna they also built, at huge expense,
one of the most beautiful Skylark towers. I love the Skylark tower
in Woomera, but the one in Kiruna, because of the climatic condi-
tions, is beautiful. The one in Kiruna was air conditioned and
heated, the whole thing was built inside a galvanised cladding. So I
think it was Spain where it was a mobile launcher.

STACEY And Argentina?

RAYMONT I know nothing about Argentina. The other thing is, I think if ever
you read anything and you see a Skylark number referred to as SL
something, that is the British national programme; if you see it with
S something, that is the ESRO/ESA programme.

HARLOW These were S numbers, so I have to agree with you.

DOUG MILLARD Were any considered for launching from Uist?*

South Uist was a War Office/Army
station in the Outer Hebrides. The
launching range was on Benbecula.

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83 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

RAYMONT I don’t know if you have ever been to South Uist, but if you have
Petrel and Skua were smaller sound- you would not consider it to launch Skylark from there. The Petrels
ing rockets primarily developed as
less expensive alternatives to Sky- and Skuas* were launched off the back of a seven ton Bedford plat-
lark. The two rockets, particularly
Skua, were intended for meteorologi- form truck and Skylark needs a much larger launch platform and
cal work, and were considered to be
potentially good for commercial dispersion area. South Uist is not really the location I think for
exploitation. The co-ordinating
establishment for Petrel was Alder- Skylark.
maston as part of the establish-
ment’s plans in the 1960s to re-
deploy its staff and resources into
other areas.

HARLOW Can I just add that we did look at launching Skylarks from South
Uist, and it never happened!

TWIGGE The last question we need to talk about, even though it is outside
the timeframe, is the cancellation or the build-up to the cancella-
tion. Two questions: why did it happen, and was it inevitable?

HARLOW Again from a commercial perspective, the last real opportunity we

had to sell Skylarks or Skylark-derived vehicles was to NASA. I
went with Hugh Whitfield, who unfortunately couldn’t be here
today or he could give you more background to it, to the Office of
Space Science Administration (OSSA), who are still going, there is
still an office in NASA. They normally undertook a buy of about 90
vehicles for maybe a four/five year period and we were bidding
against Black Brant. We were quite friends with Black Brant. I should
say that Bristol Aerospace of Canada – a lot of friends I have there
– obtained the plans for Raven II through their connection with
Bristols, of which Bristol AeroJet of course was a common partner.
And they took that design, which as far as I was aware was really
Her Majesty’s Government’s design, and actually exploited it in
North America at no cost. They did in fact change the propellant to
Hydroxy Terminated Poly Butadiene originally a polyurethane, it is now HTPB*-type propellants, but
(HTPB) is a form of rubber used as a
binder component of solid propel- they exploited that design and it was a very successful range of
vehicles, as everybody knows. It is still going, but for the same

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84 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

reason we discussed earlier the market for Black Brants is somewhat

diminished today.
But going back to the NASA side of things, I think it was 1992 that
we had a bash in [Washington] DC, where we both bid our wares.
It wasn’t a commercial bid, it was a technical bid, and OSSA came
out with evens. They suggested that the buy should be split – which
is a good thing for NASA – and both Bristols and ourselves agreed
that we needed two people in the business, to offer competition,
and maybe we could market each other’s systems in Europe and
the US. We had, we thought, a way ahead. But unfortunately our
management decided that unless buys were forthcoming in the next
18 months or two years, they would close the business. They were
milking the business. NASA deferred the buy and what happened is
that our management pulled out of the production of Skylark hard-
ware, which didn’t just hit Westcott, it hit Bridgewater as well. And
immediately of course Black Brant hiked their price, which NASA
was not very amused at, but it did in the end buy about 50 vehicles
from Black Brant and flew them at a much reduced rate. So from my
perspective, and I guess British Aerospace’s perspective, that was
the last great opportunity to keep the production line rolling. The
odd one or two a year for Interzodiac or TEXUS is fine, but you
need a bread-and-butter order and we lost that bread-and-butter
order in the early 1990s.

STACEY The other point, which John made earlier on, was that we had 250
plus firings from Woomera, therefore it was the biggest launch cen-
tre. And when the common-user programmes all started to run
away and the focus was no longer Woomera as a land range par
excellence, Skylark had nowhere else to go apart from these small
campaigns in small areas. There was no way in which it could sus-
tain a range like Woomera on its own.

DORLING I liked the appearance in The Times in February 1997, 40 years after
the first firing, of a lovely picture of Skylark leaving the launcher

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85 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

and more or less saying ‘Happy fortieth birthday’. I think the total
number of Skylark firings was 430. So if one wants an answer to the
question ‘what were the scientific successes obtained with Skylark’,
I think I would just delete the ‘scientific’ and say the great success is
that it lasted for forty years. Try comparing that with any other
vehicle! It was a huge success in that sense.

TWIGGE And very good value for money.

STACEY Four hundred plus launches is a success by any standard when you
are in a multi experiment payload situation.

DORLING And I think the people who made the original assessments, that is
Desmond King-Hele and Derek Dawton, got it right to go for a
solid motor rather than a liquid motor. I wouldn’t have told you
that it was right when I first joined the project!

HARLOW One thing I did forget to add was that we didn’t give up there, of
course. We did bid into Whitesands, we did bid into Wallops and
other areas specifically on SDI programmes. We were not success-
ful, for basically the reasons Roy Dommett mentioned earlier.

TWIGGE Did Britain not lose the opportunity to take forward its skill base in

HARLOW Do you want to know what we did internally, to try and push Sky-
lark-type production? Clearly the propellant technology that we
were using, which is plastic propellants, was somewhat limited. If
you look at the history of Falstaffs sitting on a launcher in the
warmth of Woomera at times, plastic has the geological properties
of slump. It is an uncured polymer binder, you have to be very
good on your control of the molecular weight so that you get the
geology of the propellant more or less just right. And we knew we
couldn’t stretch this technology. So we had two choices: we either

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86 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

would follow up where Bristols had gone with their Black Brant
system and go to the HTPB-type propellants, or we could branch
out and use the extruded and pressable type propellant technology
that Westcott was good at, they had got 50 years experience, with
Waltham Abbey behind them of course.
We started to develop a system called extrudable curable. The ben-
efit of that – and it is a benefit of plastic propellants as well – if you
imagine you have putty or plasticine, the propellant is warmed up, it
is de-aerated and loaded into a motor and what you effectively do is
load just a little bit more than you need and then you press it, you
put a star-centred former down it and withdraw it and then you
trim the charge afterwards. It is de-aerated, at that time you can let
Non-Destructive Testing (NDT) is a air back in, you take it off to NDT*, you can x-ray it, you can check
set of Quality Assurance (QA) proce-
dures that gave confidence of con- it for flaws and voids and whatever and if it is not very good you
formity to requirements without ‘hot
firing’. can put it back in the pressing factory and repress it. There is no
production loss as such in that system. Okay, the repress is a quality
cost. So we thought well, this is the technology we have at West-
cott, how can we exploit it again. The idea really was to use an
HTPB-type system. You can partially cure it and we have used this
on other, smaller, weapons systems. What we wanted to do was to
load the motor case with a partially cured charge and that partially
cured charge would have the geological property that it could suc-
cessfully take a pressing, and that point you could take it away and
do your NDT on it. Then if the NDT was successful you could put
it back in the curing oven and cure it off completely; if it wasn’t
successful, just like the plastics, you could put it back in the press-
ing factory and they would put a bit more propellant in, de-aerate
and repress.
We put a business case to British Aerospace management. The on-
cost was quite small, because most of the infrastructure was there,
but again they asked where was the market. And again we had to
say, having lost the OSSA contract, we are not sure. We had no
guarantees. We weren’t looking for a million pounds, we weren’t

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87 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

looking for half a million pounds, but it was not enough and at that
point extrudable curables as a propellant technology in the UK
nearly died apart from small anti-tank, that sort of type, size – you
are talking grammes, not tonnes. That is the area we failed in. So,
we didn’t bite the bullet. Our management looked at the business
case and for them it didn’t hold up, so we lost and that was the end
of Westcott’s filling factory, literally, at that point.

STACEY The other point that must be recognised in the loss of this pro-
gramme is that the political environment of the late 1960s wasn’t
space-favourable. We had all sorts of programmes: the political will
wasn’t there to fund any of them. Skylark sort of just drifted on, it
was there, it worked, so it drifted on and on and then petered out.
If it hadn’t been as good it wouldn’t have lasted, but the political
will didn’t motivate it and therefore the companies weren’t willing
to jump in, in the hope that in the future …

TWIGGE Why wasn’t the political will there? The Americans were always in
On 20 July 1969 the American Apollo the papers, moon landings,* one would have thought it would have
11 landed human beings on the sur-
face of the moon. been the ideal time to get budgets.

SPURR Don’t ask an engineer about that!

HARLOW The Australians also had a programme that used Westcott motors
initially and they actually developed their own afterwards. They had
high altitude density/high altitude temperature, HAD/HAT-type
High Altitude Density/High Altitude
Temperature (HAD/HAT) was a programmes, Aeolis and one or two others,* Long Tom was
series of generally 2 stage, small,
sounding rockets flown from another one perhaps. Can I ask whether there was any interrelation
Woomera. These rockets were
developed by the Australians using
between the results the Australian government achieved on their
British motors.
own, albeit with our motors, and Skylark?

STACEY There was no overlap in programme, because they had their own
corner of the range and they went and did their own thing. They
didn’t use the Skylark facilities that the UK programme used.

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88 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

TWIGGE Informal sharing of information?

STACEY I don’t know. I was the engineering side, so about general politics
and sharing I don’t know. I was not aware of it.

DOMMETT I am not aware of any UK initiative after the 1970s with sounding
rocket type things. We were certainly asked on at least two occa-
sions what the UK could do with its available technology, and there
is no doubt that it had marked time in the backend of the 1960s,
and what we could offer in terms of a ballistic rocket or a satellite
launcher and so on, which was pretty old hat technology. But it
didn’t mean we stopped looking for rocket-based solutions to other
problems, going back to Blue Water for a battlefield weapon. There
were studies to see whether we could use rocket-based systems,
including in the 1980s the replacement for WE177, a sort of air-
launched ballistic missile hanging under the Tornado, which was a
problem really, under project 1244 studies. The rocketry was given
a fair run for the money, as it were, it just wasn’t the solution that
people were looking for. And that is as much the reason why we
don’t have the capability now.

HARLOW Did we have a champion, that was the point. I don’t think rocket
propulsion had a real champion in the UK at a high enough level. A
political champion, someone with real clout. Okay, we had a good
breed of engineers that had grown up, but I think it is part of the
bigger story.

TWIGGE Nobody in the Ministry of Technology?

STACEY Harrie Massey started it, but he was not a flag-bearing terrier.

TWIGGE Going back to Harrie Massey – this is where we started so in a

sense it is good to finish on it – his role as an individual in the pro-
gramme, how important was that? Was it pivotal, it sounds like that

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89 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

for those who knew him? You were saying it was almost pivotal for
the beginnings of the Skylark programme?

STACEY That was the information that drifted back down to the very low
levels. He seemed to be an icon in the 1950s.

BOYD Oh yes, he was the sine qua non. I mean, Massey started it and kept it
going and kept our courage up when all sorts of questions were
being asked that I see were being asked, but I never heard them.

TWIGGE So when he departed the project also did?

BOYD No, the project had gone a long time before.

TWIGGE But its impetus?

BOYD Well, we all got involved with other really exciting things. I have
made it clear that the successes that the UK had in satellites – and
they have been considerable – really are ultimately based on the
work that we were introduced to by Skylark.

TWIGGE So it has its place in history.

BOYD Oh indeed, yes.

HARLOW What about the haemorrhage of technical staff at the various RAE
departments. Again, if there is no support within the establishment,
then I think there is no clout coming up through the Civil Service,
the technical Civil Service, as well. That failed at about the same
time, so it was all going downhill.

TWIGGE There appears to have been a political decision not to fund space

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90 Skylark Sounding Rockets 1957–72

NICHOLAS HILL Looking at a lot of the papers in the Public Record Office, when
the Wilson government came in they gave the remit to the new
Department of Economic Affairs to study a variety of areas, includ-
ing the space programme. And it was uniformly hostile, all the
reports prepared by economists. You can pick out lots of phrases,
such as ‘Competing with America and Russia would be a wanton
waste of resources’. These phrases are not uncommon, they echo
throughout the reports. It is clear from about 1964 onwards that
the government, certainly the Treasury and related departments,
wanted absolutely nothing to do with any form of space research.

TWIGGE It was left to wither on the vine.

HILL Yes, and the only reason we kept going in any sort of form was that
ELDO, the European Launcher Devel- we had the ELDO* Treaty, which we were held to by the French.
opment Organisation, was established
in 1964. ELDO was the body which
was formed to develop the British Blue
Streak ballistic missile as a satellite

TWIGGE And without that Treaty one assumes it would have withered

HILL Yes.*
Whilst it is true that the Treasury and
other sections of the Government were
sceptical about the merits of participa-
tion in high-cost space activities, it
should be noted that in relation to
space science there was generally uni-
form recognition that Britain needed to
maintain a capability in this field. As
such participation in the European
Space Research Organisation was
regarded as important, and indeed
continued membership of ESRO
(which was largely considered to have
been a useful body by the British
authorities) was seen as a way of miti-
gating the eventual British withdrawal
from ELDO in 1969. The ELDO and
ESRO treaties were entirely separate
and the ELDO treaty had no direct
implications for the Skylark programme
in terms of treaty obligations (in point of
fact the ESRO treaty also placed no
obligations on the Skylark programme).

© Centre for Contemporary British History, 2005. Not to be reproduced without permission.