The Skylark was an incredibly successful British sounding rocket, with over 400 successful launches. Despite sounding like the title of an Enid Blyton book, at the time of the final launch it was the longest running rocket program in the world, bar none. First launch was 1957, and the 441st final flight in 2005.
Why have you not heard of it? Well, sounding rockets don’t carry people and don’t reach orbit, so they don’t get the publicity the more glamourous programs receive. Despite this, a huge amount of valuable science was done.
One of the main advantages of sounding rockets is that they come back to Earth – this made returning exposed film, samples, and instruments much easier. Sounding rockets are cheaper than orbital rockets, and time from concept to launch is much shorter too.
To quote Wikipedia: The Skylark was first launched in 1957 from Woomera, Australia and its 441st and final launch took place from Esrange, Sweden on 2 May 2005. Launches had been carried out from sites in Europe, Australia, and South America, with use far beyond the UK by NASA, the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO), and German and Swedish space organizations.
Skylark 12, (from 1976), could lift 200 kilograms (440 lb) to 575 kilometres (357 mi) altitude. That’s a lot higher than the International Space Station
The London Science Museum, (at the time of writing), have just opened an exhibit celebrating the 60th anniversary of the first launch of a Skylark. It includes various artefacts, and a large model.
You can read more about the exhibit here: Skylark Exhibit
After visiting the exhibition, I wanted more information, and came across the book: Britains First Space Rocket, by Robin H Brand.
This is perhaps the most comprehensive coverage in a book of any space program that I have ever read, densely packed with many, many photographs, covering every mission, and running to a massive 700 pages.
Particularly impressive when you consider how little information is available online.
Is the book for you? Well, it is not really aimed at the general reader – though it does have excellent sections on the history of British rocketry from WWII onwards, and is very readable. The sheer scale and depth of the coverage is a factor the general reader will find offputting. But if you have a serious interest in the history of rocketry in general, or in British space projects in particular, it is absolutely definitive. Packed from start to finish with photos, diagrams and facts, it really shows how to do an in-depth book on a space program correctly.
Also worth mentioning, there’s some useful coverage of related projects in here too, such as Black Arrow, and the UK’s Ariel 1 satellite.
No prizes for guessing what my next CGI project is going to cover!