Engineer reunited with ‘old friend’ as rocket returns to UK after 50 years

The Black Arrow programme from 1969-71 saw the first and only successful UK-led orbital launch.
The Black Arrow programme from 1969-71 saw the first and only successful UK-led orbital launch.

An engineer who worked on the only British rocket to launch a satellite into orbit described seeing it again as meeting “an old friend”, as it went on display after almost 50 years languishing in the Australian Outback.

The Black Arrow programme completed four rockets between 1969 and 1971, with the third flight marking the first and only successful UK-led orbital launch.

A six-metre section of the projectile crash-landed in South Australia, and it remained there for 48 years.

Black Arrow rocket
Former engineer Derek Mack said seeing the rocket again was like meeting an ‘old friend’ (Jane Barlow/PA)

Derek Mack was among those in attendance as the rocket was unveiled in Midlothian on Friday, following a 10,000-mile journey back to the UK.

The 86-year-old, from the Isle of Wight where the Black Arrow was developed and tested, was a senior trial engineer on the rocket project.

He said: “(Working on the scheme was) very interesting, the best time I’ve ever had in my life as an engineer.

“It was unique and in those days it was very advanced. We tended to get a bit of a reputation, like what an astronaut might get today.

“I have seen it, on photographs, it was interesting to look over it to see the actual detail of the damage and the various things that survived.

“But really it was like meeting an old friend, because the last time I saw it was as it lifted off the launcher to take Prospero (the satellite) up to orbit.”

Black Arrow rocket
Former engineers Derek Mack, left, and Mike Kelloway inspect the projectile (Jane Barlow/PA)

Mike Kelloway had been a site inspector during the project’s development.

The 75-year-old, also from the Isle of Wight, said: “It was good fun, it was always up against the clock – I’ve spent a night with this thing.

“To see it now, when I can think of all the people I knew that worked on this – close friends some, colleagues, and a lot of them are no longer with us.

“To be here now and see it – I never expected to see it again.”

Speeches were made by representatives from the UK Space Agency, the Royal Air Force and the London Science Museum.

The rocket, which is being exhibited in a storage facility in Penicuik, was returned to the UK by Edinburgh space company Skyrora to be used for educational purposes.

Black Arrow rocket
The rocket was unveiled during a ceremony at a storage facility in Penicuik, Midlothian (Jane Barlow/PA)

Skyrora director Daniel Smith said: “With the UK Government’s aim to make us a launch nation again, it seemed like the perfect time to bring Black Arrow back.

“We hope it’s a reminder not only to our own team, but to everyone that’s part of the new commercial space race of what’s been accomplished before.

“It has been some journey – we wouldn’t have been able to do it without the support of the William Creek Progress Association and the Australian Government, so we’re extremely grateful to both.

“We really hope the rocket will help to inspire current and future generations of scientists and engineers.”

In July last year, the UK Space Agency announced £2.5 million of funding for a proposed vertical launch spaceport in Sutherland, in the far north of Scotland.