John Scott-Scott: Black Arrow, the British-built satellite launch vehicle

Mechanical, aeronautic and maritime engineer John Scott-Scott, filmed at the Rolls Royce Heritage Centre in Derby, discusses the British-built satellite launch vehicle Black Arrow.

This that you’re looking at is the bottom end of the power bay in fact of a Black Arrow rocket. The vehicle itself would've been bolted on at that flange there, and that’s the tanks and the upper stages and all that sort of thing. But the real grunt if you like in the thing has to come from the bottom stage, which here we’ve eight thrust chambers, 6,000 pounds each chamber, so it’s nearly 50,000 pounds thrust. It was called the Black Arrow Satellite Launcher, and it took payloads of about 120 pounds, 150 pounds, something quite small, and when you see all this other machinery and you think all it does is launch a thing Prospero, which was like smart radio set, it literally wasn’t very big. And that is what Black Arrow was called upon to do and in fact it did it. Two of them hit trouble, the third one, which had little modifications in it, put the thing straight into orbit and it is there to this day. And only last week I said to somebody, ‘Well, all right fine, but how is it going to stay there?’ and they said, ‘Another 100 years.’ So I think we did the job reasonably well. Unfortunately the Ministry man eventually came round to see us. And this thing was in its orbit by then, everybody happy. Ministry man comes in grinning, ‘cause they always did, and everybody thought he’d come to say, ‘Well done, lads, now’s the time to start making them all like that and we’ll have half a dozen or something.’ ‘Cause apparently, I don’t know the figures, but Black Arrow was one of the cheapest satellite launchers that there’s ever been, and the thing to do was to make lots of them ‘cause the electronics are coming down in size and it would've gained a little bit in performance too, you know, with somehow or other, we would’ve done something. The second stage has extension nozzles on, for instance, and maybe we could get more out of that, I don’t know. But when he came to see us, he got up on the platform in the drawing office and said, ‘I have sort of come to see you today, lads, you know, and it’s all good stuff this is and well done for that.’ And they were all sort of standing there saying, ‘Yeah, now you’re going to announce work on a Mark II version.’ He says, ‘So I thought I’d come and tell you we can’t afford any more so we’ll just have to sort of scrap all the stuff you’ve got, write up your reports and forget about it.’ And he was seen to exit from the drawing office, about this far off his trousers and things because everybody was going to give him a real sort of scragging, and he sort of rushed out from the building altogether and jumped in his car and we haven’t seen him since. But that was the sort of welcome we got for making this thing work.

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