Britain’s First Space Rocket 60th anniversary celebrated

On Monday 13th November 2017, sixty years to the day since 1957 when Skylark sounding rocket SL04 became the first British rocket to reach space, the Science Museum in London celebrated by opening a small exhibition exploring the story behind this remarkable achievement. Over a period of 48 years, a total of 441 Skylarks were fired, launching into space thousands of instruments that made pioneering measurements of the Earth, Sun, stars and galaxies. It was one of the longest and most successful rocket programmes in the world.

Doug Millard, exhibition organiser and Deputy Keeper of Technology and Engineering at the Science Museum, being interviewed before the opening. Behind him is the 1/4 scale model of Skylark, complete with Cuckoo boost motor and payload.  Credit: Robin Brand

Doug Millard, exhibition organiser and Deputy Keeper of Technology and Engineering at the Science Museum, being interviewed before the opening. Behind him is the 1/4 scale model of Skylark, complete with Cuckoo boost motor and payload.
Credit: Robin Brand

The exhibition was organised and formally opened by erstwhile BIS member Doug Millard, Deputy Keeper of Technology and Engineering at the Science Museum, who explained that many astronomical observations can only be made from above the Earth’s atmosphere, and how Skylark had laid the foundations for everything that the UK now does in space.  His introduction was followed by short talks from Professor Ken Pounds and Professor John Zarnecki; two of the many scientists who worked on Skylark in the early days, and who have since gone on to have distinguished space-related careers.

Pioneering scientists from the early Skylark days. (Robin Brand). From left to right: Professors Chris Rapley, John Zarnecki, Alan Smith and Ken Pounds. Credit: Robin Brand

Pioneering scientists from the early Skylark days. (Robin Brand). From left to right: Professors Chris Rapley, John Zarnecki, Alan Smith and Ken Pounds.
Credit: Robin Brand

As well as interviews with some of the space scientists involved, the exhibition includes two large display cases, the first of which looks at Skylark itself, including some of the payload instruments used for cutting-edge science of the day. The second case looks at the legacy of Skylark, because as indicated above, so many of today’s leading space scientists (including those present at the opening) cut their teeth on Skylark missions when gaining their PhDs.

The display case looking at Skylark itself (Robin Brand).  In the top centre is a Cuckoo boost motor, on the top right, part of a “priming unit” used to power and test the vehicle before launch. Lower down can be seen an “egg-box” type X-ray detector, instruments that made pioneering surveys of the southern skies in X-radiation.  Picture credit: Robin Brand

The display case looking at Skylark itself (Robin Brand).
In the top centre is a Cuckoo boost motor, on the top right, part of a “priming unit” used to power and test the vehicle before launch. Lower down can be seen an “egg-box” type X-ray detector, instruments that made pioneering surveys of the southern skies in X-radiation.
Picture credit: Robin Brand

The exhibition is located in the main “Exploring Space” gallery, at the London Science Museum in South Kensington, SW7 2DD, and is expected to be open at least six months. For further information visit:   www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/see-and-do/exploring-space#skylark , and to hear Doug Millard being interviewed by the BBC’s Science Correspondent Jonathan Amos, visit www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/science-environment-41963980/science-museum-celebrates-the-skylark , and for his BBC news item  www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-41945654 .

Meanwhile in Bristol

The 60th anniversary was also marked in Bristol, where on Monday the newly opened Aerospace Bristol Heritage Centre (see Spaceflight cover date November 2016 pp.416-417) welcomed two engineers who had worked on Skylark. Here BIS member Terry Ransome, the Aerospace Bristol volunteer responsible for refurbishing the Skylark 12 on view, was joined by Ray Foss, who originally joined the Skylark programme in the mid-70s, where he was involved in getting the scientific instruments to operate within the tight size and weight confines of the rocket.  Still passionate about Skylark to this day, Ray said it was “fantastic that the museum is raising awareness of Skylark, preserving memories and anecdotes, and celebrating the Skylark team’s achievements”.

Terry Ransome was also interviewed about Skylark on BBC Radio Bristol that morning, and on the following day, the Bristol Post newspaper featured his experiences working on Skylark at Woomera, as part of a splendid full page article on the rocket by Peter Gibbs.

Diagram of Skylark Mark II space rocket with annotations, c.1960s, as on display at the exhibition. Credit: Science Museum Group collection

Diagram of Skylark Mark II space rocket with annotations, c.1960s, as on display at the exhibition. Credit: Science Museum Group collection

Skylark article by Peter Gibbs in Bristol Post newspaper Tuesday November 14 2017.

Skylark article by Peter Gibbs in Bristol Post newspaper Tuesday November 14 2017.

Ray Foss (left) and Terry Ransome by the Skylark 12 exhibit at Aerospace Bristol on Monday 13th. Cradit: Adam Jones

Ray Foss (left) and Terry Ransome by the Skylark 12 exhibit at Aerospace Bristol on Monday 13th. Cradit: Adam Jones

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