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  • Rooted in the earth – the built heritage of Britain’s rocket industry

    Paper number



    Mr. Wayne Cocroft, English Heritage, United Kingdom



    Conventionally, museums have presented the heritage of the rocket and space industry through its most striking artefacts, rocket and missile airframes, their engines, intricate guidance systems, and satellite payloads.  The complex built infrastructure that was required to develop, manufacture and test these systems is often only hinted at by a spectacular image of a launch.  This paper will discuss the industrial archaeology of Britain’s rocket industry from its origins in the early 19th century.  In the late 1930s there was revived British government interest in the use of war rockets with cordite powered un-rotated projectiles, a versatile technology that was adapted to anti-aircraft, bombardment and strafing roles.  Less well known were Britain’s tentative steps to develop guided liquid propellant rockets.  
    Germany’s wartime rocket programmes revealed new possibilities for this technology, knowledge British engineers and scientists were keen to acquire through war booty and experimentation.  In the immediate aftermath of war dire economic conditions constrained investigations into this innovative technology.  At the former Royal Gunpowder Factory, Waltham Abbey, a former cordite magazine was converted for use as a proof stand and later a series of modest test stands were erected at the Rocket Propulsion Establishment, Westcott.  
    By the end of the decade concerns about the Soviet Union’s intentions and ways to counter new threats led to a growth in government and private initiatives to exploit rocket technology.  By the mid-1950s rocket and missile technology was regarded by its proponents as a universal panacea that could address many of the country’s defence needs.   Huge resources were committed to developing an intermediate range ballistic missile Blue Streak, which required the co-ordination of efforts by government research establishments and private contractors.  In the north of England, Spadeadam Waste was transformed into one of the world’s most advanced rocket research centres.  While on the Isle of Wight a Victorian gun battery was adapted to develop the Black Knight rocket for warhead re-entry trials.  At the same time the first air-to-air, surface-to-air and Thor intermediate missiles were entering into Royal Air Force service, all of which required dedicated infrastructure.  After the abandonment of the Blue Streak missile project the European Launcher Development Organisation took over its infrastructure.  While the Black Knight facilities were adapted to develop the Black Arrow satellite launcher.  Both projects were cancelled in the early 1970s marking the end of Britain’s involvement in large rocket development.  
    Abstract document


    Manuscript document