Blue Streak: the UK’s Cold War rocket

The Blue Streak rocket was an advanced British missile of the 1950s which nearly became a space rocket before ending up a casualty of government apathy. Let’s look at Blue Streak’s rise and fall.

image of a Blue Streak missile

Once upon a time in the sixties, a Blue Streak is prepared for test (Image Credit:BROHP)

 

 

These days most British economists agree that designing and manufacturing things are rather icky tasks best left to people in India and China. Retailing, service industries and media careers are the way forward and successive British governments have embraced this enlightened view strongly. Before too long, we will all make our livings by selling groceries to each other or by presenting TV programmes about cookery or begging on street corners, and so it will be for ever more. Things were not always thus; inside living memory the UK was a leading manufacturing nation. Come with me back to the days when high-technology was represented by aerospace products such as jet aircraft and rockets rather than games consoles and mobile ‘phones; let us look at a British space rocket.

Blue Streak was a Cold War era experimental British missile, later it became the vital first stage of the first European space launcher. The project to develop the vehicle began in the mid-1950s. Described as a Medium Range Ballistic Missile with a 2000 nautical mile (3700 km) range, it was designed to carry a nuclear warhead to vaporise a target in the Soviet Union (let us be honest, in its original form Blue Streak would have been a WMD; its targets would have been Russian and Ukrainian cities). Hopefully the existence of a force of Blue Streaks would deter Communist aggression against the UK. Launched from an underground base, or silo, in the UK, a Blue Streak’s trajectory would take it outside the Earth’s atmosphere for most of its flight.

Why was it called Blue Streak? The name does not actually mean anything. It fits into a post-World War 2 sequence of codenames (the so-called ‘Rainbow Codes’) for UK military and aerospace projects. Each codename was made up of a colour plus a randomly selected word (for example, at the same time there were other projects called Green Garlic, Orange Poodle and Brown Bunny). Strategic missiles were ‘Blue’ projects (for example, the air-launched Blue Steel missile which served with the RAF in the 1960s) and ‘Streak’ was just the luck of the draw. (Or was it? If the randomly chosen word had been something wildly inappropriate, say ‘Iguanodon’ or ‘Lettuce’, it is hard to believe that the officials on the appropriate committee would not have just ignored it and tried again until they eventually picked something more redolent of power or speed.)

The missile was designed and built by the de Havilland Aircraft Company, and Rolls Royce provided the rocket engines. The project required very new technology for the time. For example, to make the rocket as light as possible its stainless steel skin was so thin that the rocket had to be kept pressurised to keep it rigid. Were a leak to occur the rocket could have potentially collapsed under its own weight! Unsurprisingly the development project made slow progress. Years passed and Blue Streak was not ready to test. Other missile projects in the USA and Soviet Union were overtaking it and there was a danger that the Blue Streak missile would be obsolete by the time it was ready for production. This is no bad reflection on the design team; the state of the art and the political background were moving very fast. The costs to develop the missile increased alarmingly. What was more, the underground launch silos would be colossally expensive to build. The wealthier USA and USSR could afford, with their apparently bottomless military budgets, to buy missiles of similar concept, such as the Atlas and R-7, along with their support infrastructure knowing they would be out-dated inside a couple of years but the UK could not. Eventually, in April 1960, Blue Streak was suddenly cancelled as a weapon (eventually the American-built Polaris and Trident submarine-launched missiles performed its deterrent role). By this time it ended £84 million had been spent on the project, a huge sum by the standards of the time.

However the project was not cancelled outright. Instead Blue Streak would be a vital element of the British space programme (an idea which was pursued with deadly seriousness at the time). Blue Streak could be used for the more civilized purpose of launching payloads into space. Both the US and Soviet Union were doing the same with their obsolete missiles. Blue Streak could be used as the first stage of a projected all British three-stage satellite launcher known as Black Prince (another ‘rainbow’ codename –space rockets were Black in the scheme ). After some consideration this rocket was not built as it was decided instead to work in co-operation with other European countries.

The European Launcher Development Organization (ELDO) was formed in the early 1960s as a partnership between the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy and Holland. Australia was also a member as it contributed the launch facilities at Woomera. ELDO’s first rocket, Europa 1, was basically a redesign of the Black Prince. A Blue Streak was used as the first stage, the French built the Coralie second stage and Germany produced the very advanced Astris third stage. The rocket would launch satellites built in Italy, Belgium and Holland making it a truly European project.

So work continued on Blue Streak, and the first Blue Streak was launched from Woomera on 5 June 1964. It worked perfectly. Three more test flights took place with no failures- a rare distinction among space rockets at the time. The next step was to combine Blue Streak with the French and German stages.Eight Europa rockets were tested, but sadly problems with the French and German stages destroyed every one of the rockets in flight. The British government grew impatient with the continuing problems and in 1968 it was announced that Blue Streak was to be cancelled completely. This marked the start of the UK government’s antipathy to launch vehicle development which has continued to the present.

The other nations in the ELDO consortium continued to develop the Europa series without Britain and Blue Streak, with the four stage Europa 2.They persevered without success until the early 1970s when the consortium abandoned the Europa series for an all-new design. This would eventually become the very successful Ariane. ELDO itself combined with the European Space Research Organisation to form today’s European Space Agency (ESA).

Blue Streak, whether as a first stage or flying independently, always worked perfectly on every one of the eleven times it was fired, a 100% success rate matched only by America’s Saturn V. Today, two Blue Streak rockets survive.One is displayed at the National Space Centre in Leicester and another has been preserved at the Museum of Flight, East Fortune in Scotland.

Image of Blue Streak rocket motor at Armagh

Space history at Armagh (Image credit:Colin Johnston)

We at Armagh Planetarium had in our collection one of the RZ2 engines designed for this historic vehicle on loan from the Science Museum, London. This Rolls Royce engine was based on an American rocket engine built under license. To speed up the development phase Rolls purchased the technology of the Rocketdyne S3D engine and improved it by making it lighter, more powerful and more efficient. This rocket motor was designed to run on a mixture of kerosene (paraffin) and liquid oxygen (at -183ºC) and it was developed to eventually generate an impressive 85 000 kg (150 000 lb) of thrust. Even today this is still a very respectable performance. Two RZ2 motors were used in each Blue Streak or Europa 1 rocket. Sadly we returned this very rare piece of space history to the Science Museum in 2015.

(Interesting material on British space projects can be found in Francis Spufford’s ‘Backroom Boys’ and C.N. Hill’s ‘A Vertical Empire’. The definitive book on the Blue Streak project is ‘De Havilland Blue Streak’ by Charles H Martin, published by the British Interplanetary Society.)

Facts and Figures

Blue Streak Medium-range ballistic missile specifications
Diameter 3.04 m (120 inches)
Length 18.28 m (720 in)
Range 3700 km (2300 miles)
Warhead 1 megaton thermonuclear device

Rolls Royce RZ2 rocket motor specification

Thrust (in vacuum):836.30 kN

Burn time 156 sec.