Blue Streak (rocket)

Blue Streak missile

The Blue Streak missile was a British ballistic missile designed in 1955. The ballistic missile programme was cancelled in 1960 but the rocket was used as the first-stage of the European satellite launcher Europa. Tested at Woomera test range, Australia, the Blue Streak project was finally cancelled in 1972.


Post-war Britain's nuclear weapons armament was initially based on free-fall bombs delivered by the V bomber force. It soon became clear that if Britain wanted to have a credible threat a ballistic missile was essential. There was a political need for an independent deterrent, so that Britain could remain a major post-war power. The use of an American missile would have appeared to hand control to the United States.

In April 1954 the Americans proposed a joint development programme for ballistic missiles. The United States would develop an Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) of 5,000 nautical mile (9,300 km) range, while the United Kingdom with United States support would develop a Medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) of 2,000 nautical mile (3,700 km) range. The proposal was accepted as part of the Wilson-Sandys Agreement of August 1954 which provided for collaboration, exchange of information and mutual planning of development programmes. The decision to develop was influenced by what could be learnt about missile design and development in the US. Initial requirements for the booster were made by the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough with input on the rocket engine design from the Rocket Propulsion Establishment at Westcott.

De Havilland won the contract to build the missile, and it was to be powered by an uprated liquid-fuelled Rocketdyne S3D engine, developed by Rolls-Royce, called RZ2. Two variants of this engine were developed: the first provided a static thrust of and the second (intended for the three stage satellite launch vehicle) . The engines were unique at that time in that they could be vectored by seven degrees in flight and could therefore be used to guide the vehicle. This configuration, however, put considerable pressure on the autopilot which had to cope with the problem of a vehicle whose weight was diminishing rapidly and that was steered by large engines whose thrust remained more or less constant. The vibration was also a problem, particularly at engine cut-off, and the later development of the autopilot for the satellite launcher was, in itself, a considerable achievement.

Subcontractors included the Sperry Gyroscope Company who produced the guidance system whilst the warhead itself was designed by the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston.

Doubts arose as the cost escalated from the first tentative figure of £50m submitted to the Treasury in early 1955, to £300m in late 1959. The programme was crawling along when compared with the speed of development in the US and the Soviet Union.


Eventually the project was cancelled because of its lack of credibility as a deterrent. Some considered the cancellation of Blue Streak to be not only a blow to British military-industrial efforts, but also to Commonwealth ally Australia, which had its own vested interest in the project.

The missiles used liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants. Whilst the vehicle could be left fully laden with 20+ tonnes of kerosene, the 60 tonnes of liquid oxygen had to be loaded immediately before launch or icing became a problem. Due to this, fuelling the rocket took 15 minutes, which would have made it useless as a rapid response to an attack. The missile was vulnerable to a pre-emptive attack, launched without warning or in the absence of any heightening of tension sufficient to warrant readying the missile, if such a circumstance were ever likely.

To protect the missiles against a pre-emptive strike while being fuelled, the idea of siting the missiles in underground silos was developed. These would have been designed to withstand a one megaton blast at a distance of half a mile (800 m) and were a British innovation, subsequently exported to the US. However, finding sites for these silos proved extremely difficult and RAF Spadeadam in Cumbria was the only site where construction was undertaken. The best sites for silo construction were the more stable rock strata in parts of southern England, but the construction of many underground silos in the countryside carried enormous economic, social, and political cost.

As no site in Britain provided enough space for test firing, a test site was established at Woomera, South Australia. Whitehall opposition to the project grew, and it was eventually cancelled on the ostensible grounds that it would be too vulnerable to a first-strike attack. Lord Mountbatten had spent considerable effort arguing that the project should be cancelled at once in favour of his Navy being armed with nuclear weapons, capable of pre-emptive strike. Around £84m had been spent.

The British government transferred its hopes to the Anglo-American Skybolt missile, before the project's cancellation by the USA as its ICBM program reached maturity. The British instead purchased the Polaris system from the Americans, carried in British-built submarines.

Civilian Programme

After the cancellation as a military project, there was reluctance to cancel the project because of the huge cost incurred. Blue Streak would have become the first stage of a projected all British satellite launcher known as "Black Prince": the second stage was derived from the Black Knight test vehicle, and the orbital injection stage was a small hydrogen peroxide/kerosene motor. This launcher never progressed beyond the design stage.

This also proved too expensive, and the European Development Launcher Organisation - ELDO - was set up. This used Blue Streak as the first stage, with French and German second and third stages. The Blue Streak first stage was successfully tested three times at the Woomera test range in Australia as part of the ELDO programme.

Although a total of eight launches were made of the multi-stage vehicle, the French and German components proved unreliable leading to the project's final cancellation, and the end of Blue Streak. The final launch was made at the French site of Kourou in French Guiana.

The full launch history of Blue Streak is as follows, (Taken from the "Europa SLV Historiograph", produced by HSD Ltd):

Flight No. Second stage (Corali) Third Stage (Astris) Payload Launch date Mission Notes
F1 n/a n/a n/a 5 June 1964 Successful flight
F2 n/a n/a n/a 21 October 1964 Successful flight
F3 n/a n/a n/a 23 March 1965 Successful flight
F4 untested untested untested 24 May 1966 Successful flight
F5 untested untested untested 15 November 1966 Successful flight
F6.1 failed untested untested 4 June 1967 2nd stage failed to ignite
F6.2 failed failed failed 6 December 1967 2nd stage failed to separate
F7 successful failed failed 29 November 1968 3rd stage failure after separation
F8 successful failed failed 3 July 1969 3rd stage failure after separation
F9 successful successful failed 24 June 1970 Fairing failed to separate
F11 successful successful failed 5 November 1970 Guidance system failed
F12 untested untested untested n/a Delivered to French Guiana
F13 untested untested untested n/a Delivered to Scottish Aeronautical Museum, Edinburgh
F14 untested untested untested n/a Delivered to Deutsches Museum, Munich
F15 untested untested untested n/a Delivered to Euro Space Center, Redu, Belgium
F16 n/a n/a n/a n/a Not finally assembled
F17 n/a n/a n/a n/a Parts only completed
F18 n/a n/a n/a n/a Parts only completed

Related projects

A range of proposals were made between 1957 and 1972 for a carrier rocket based on Blue Streak., however, none of these were ever built in full and today only exist in design. The Blue Streak was eventually tested as the first stage of the Europa rocket, designed by the European Launcher Development Organisation, although this too ended in failure due to lack of funds, despite the fact that Blue Streak itself worked almost perfectly. Most, although not all, designs were based on using Blue Streak as a first stage, and a usually modified Black Knight as a second stage.

Royal Aircraft Establishment proposals

1957 proposal

In 1957 a carrier rocket based on a simple combination of Blue Streak and Black Knight was proposed by Desmond King Hele and Doreen Gilmour of the Royal Aircraft Establishment. This was at a time before either rocket had even been tested. Payloads were estimated to be around 1,034 kg (2,280 lb) to a 370 km (200 nmi) orbit and 960 kg (2,117 lb) to a 740 km (400 nmi) orbit. However, the design was considered to be inefficient and difficult because of the large differences in the diameters of the 3 metre (10 foot) wide Blue Streak and the metre-wide (3 feet) Black Knight. Fitting satellites into a three foot payload fairing could also have been a challenge. Nevertheless, these difficulties were also encountered with successful American rockets including the Thor and Atlas.

1972 proposal

In 1972, RAE suggested using Blue Streak as the first stage of a two-stage to orbit rocket, with an American Centaur upper stage. The Centaur second stage would have either been built in the UK under licence or imported directly from the USA. Both the Centaur and Blue Streak had proved to be very reliable up to this point, and since they were both already designed development costs would have been low. Furthermore, it had a payload of 870-920 kg to a geosynchronous orbit with, and 650-700 kg without the use of additional booster rockets.

De Havilland/British Interplanetary Society proposal

In 1959 de Havilland suggested solving the problem of the Blue Streak/Black Knight geometry by compressing the 10 by 1 metre (30 by 3 foot) Black Knight into a 10 foot diameter sphere. Although this seemed logical, the development costs proved to be too high for the limited budget of the programme.

Saunders Roe proposals

Black Prince

In 1959, a year before the cancellation of the Blue Streak as a missile, the government requested that the RAE and Saunders Roe design a carrier rocket based on Blue Streak and Black Knight. This design used Blue Streak as a first stage and a 137 centimetre (54 inch) second stage based on the Black Knight. Several different third stages would be available, depending on the required payload and orbit. Examples of orbits suggested by Saunders Roe and the RAE were a 556 km (300 nmi) orbit for 'experiments in stellar UV spectroscopy', a 556-1,296 km (300-700 nmi) orbit for 'enabling investigations of the Earth's radiation belts,' and a 556-185,200 km (300-100,000 nmi) orbit for a 'Space probe.'

There were some problems with the design, however. The relative power of the rocket reduced with altitude. The solution requested by the government and provided by Saunders Roe was to use a high-energy cryogenic upper stage which would increase the payload to 408 kg (900 lb) to a 9,260 km (5,000 nmi) orbit, and 272 kg (600 lb) to a 16,670 km (9,000 nmi) orbit. The cost of developing the upper stage stage was estimated to be £5-7 million.

It was planned that Black Prince would be a Commonwealth project, however since the government of John Diefenbaker in Canada was already spending more money than publicly acknowledged on Alouette and Australia was not interested in the project, these two countries were unwilling to contribute. South Africa was no longer a member of the Commonwealth New Zealand was only likely to make "modest" contributions.

France, however showed an interest, although they were suspected of trying to gain technical information for their own missile programmes. Despite this, Saunders Roe continued to design new configurations even after the formal cancellation of the Black Prince programme.


Saunders Roe later proposed a design where Blue Streak would form the first stage, the second stage would be a slightly stretched version of the second stage used on the Black Arrow rocket, and the third stage would be a Waxwing solid motor, which was also used on Black Arrow. It would have been capable of putting around 1360 kg (3000 lb) into low Earth orbit and a few hundred kilograms into a geostationary orbit. It is thought that Saunders Roe were considering communications satellites as a possible payload for this rocket, since they designed a pair of solid motors under the payload that would be able to accurately place a satellite in the correct geostationary orbit. They believed such a rocket would be a success since access to both Russian and American rockets was restricted. The proposal was known as Satellite LAunch VEhicle, or SLAVE.

Blue Streak today

Following the cancellation of the Blue Streak project some of the remaining rockets were preserved at:

An RZ2 engine is on display at Armagh Planetarium, Northern Ireland.

Footage from the Blue Streak launch was briefly incorporated into The Prisoner's final episode, "Fall Out". A part of the Blue Streak rocket launched on June 5, 1964 from Woomera, Australia, found 50 km SE of Woomera in 1980 is on display at Giles Weather Station. Another piece was located in 2006 but its exact location has been kept secret by the finders. The titanium structure of a German third stage was, for some time, sited on the edge of a gravel pit in Gloucestershire.

See also

External links


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