60 years ago, Britain entered the space age with its Skylark rocket

On 13 November 1957, 60 years ago today, the fourth Skylark sounding rocket took off from Woomera Australia, following a number of test launches over the previous months. Although this was still technically a test, for many present, the success of the launch marked the beginning of the British space programme.

The humble Skylark rocket would make a further 437 flights – the last one being just 12 years ago – but the heyday of the programme was the 50s and 60s, before it was privatised in 1977. Each part of the programme’s long life is documented in a new exhibition at the Science Museum in London, which officially opened today. At the moment, it’s not clear how long it will be there for – but at least six months, I’m told.[gallery:2]

The exhibit itself is a smallish area, just three displays in an alcove of the museum’s expansive space section, with a looped video of interviews with the key players at the time. Still, in that small space, it covers all of Skylark’s key achievements, from measuring the conditions of the upper atmosphere to conducting the first ever X-Ray surveys of the southern sky.

“The challenge was enormous,” Professor Ken Pounds explains to me at the press launch. “The trajectory of Skylark was calculated by hand and took about a week – you could do it on there in about five seconds,” he adds, pointing at the phone in my hand. You really wouldn’t want me overseeing it, but I take his point.[gallery:4]

Pounds, now Emeritus professor of space physics at the University of Leicester, took a scholarship to work on the Skylark programme immediately after graduating from UCL in 1956. It was a no-brainer, though, with hindsight, Pounds concedes it could have all been very different. “I think ‘well, my goodness’: I committed myself to a project using a vehicle that didn’t exist, in a field where Sputnik was still a year away, so space research didn’t exist. NASA was two years away: it did seem like a bit of a gamble, but obviously, it worked out.”

As you might imagine from the era is was conceived, Skylark was quite limited by today’s standards. For starters, it only had a ten-minute flight time, and only the tail-end of that was useful for scientific measurements, once it had cleared our atmosphere. “It was enough to do some good measurements on a very bright source, like the sun,” Pounds explains. “It wasn’t quite so good for looking at cosmic sources because obviously they’re a lot further away and a lot fainter.[gallery:7]

“It was fine for the things we were interested in doing,” he continues. “To show the corona was indeed multi-million-degree plasma which did emit X-Rays at such an intensity that they could control the heat input to the ionospheres.”

Over the course of its life, Skylark was upgraded a number of times, pushing 12 minutes of useful flight eventually, and improvements to the control system allowed it to be pointed at the sun, then the moon then a bright star. “It transformed Skylark as an astronomical vehicle that kept it competitive for another ten years,” Pounds explains. “And for all of that time, it was better than anything the Americans had – they did sometimes come and use Skylarks.” In particular, he remembers NASA sending a UV telescope up on a Skylark because he needed to get some batteries off the world’s largest space agency. “Got some from NASA for free – appeals to my Yorkshire background,” he laughs.

Ultimately though, to do work on things other than the sun, satellites would prove invaluable, and Pounds highlights the Ariel 5 launch in 1974 as another key turning point in British space science. Even after that point, Skylark continued to be useful as a test vehicle for new experiments: “to see if they survived the launch and to see if they could operate in space.”[gallery:8]

Still, even after James Callaghan’s government released it to British Aerospace in 1977, Skylark had exceeded expectations by kickstarting X-Ray astronomy. Its legacy can be seen in the three observatories for X-Ray astronomers – Newton, Chandra and Suzaku – as well as the X-Ray Astronomy Group at Pounds’ own university in Leicester.

Does he feel the exhibition is a fitting tribute to Britain’s contribution to the space race? “I think it’s a really nice mark of what was the start of the UK space programme.” Timely though, not just because it’s 60-years-ago today, but because of the conditions of the time. “It reflects the visionary contribution of some visionary people at a time when the UK was bankrupt – the annual deficit was probably far worse than it is now – but now we just sit and worry about it,” he says.

“After Brexit, I think we are going to need more of that ‘go for it attitude’ like they had then,” he adds. Hopefully, the exhibition will still be around for inspiration in March 2019, then.

Skylark: Britain’s Pioneering Space Rocket is available to view from today, free of charge, at the Science Museum.

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