Recently found fragments from a Europa rocket launched at Woomera 42 years ago are a poignant reminder of Australia’s glory days in the space race but also point to future possibilities, according to Flinders archaeologist Dr Alice Gorman.
Dr Gorman said several test launches of Europa rockets were made from the Woomera complex between 1964 and 1970, a period when Australia provided the launch site for Europe’s pioneer space program. The experimental rockets were a collaborative project of the UK, Germany and France, with each country contributing a part of the three-stage rocket to carry an Italian made satellite.
While none of the launches succeeded in the program’s aim of placing a satellite in space, Dr Gorman said the Europa project laid the basis for the later development of the Ariane, one of the most successful launchers in the world.
Descriptions of the metal wreckage, found north of the Simpson Desert by a geological survey team, suggest it is from the upper end of the first stage rocket, the UK built and designed Blue Streak. A pencil inscription dates the launch to 1966, a year when two Europa rockets were launched.
Since the scaling-down of Woomera with the end of its role in Europe and America’s military and civil space programs in the early 1970s, Dr Gorman said there has been a tendency to forget the level of space-related activity in Australia, including the successful launch of the Australian-made WRESAT-1 satellite in 1967.
“There was a tremendous excitement and optimism about it all,” Dr Gorman said.
“When the Europa program ended and the Apollo missions wound down, Woomera really fell in a heap: suddenly we went from being a big player in the space industry to almost nothing.”
Dr Gorman said the lack of a local space program has left Australia completely dependent on other countries in vital areas of security and telecommunications, but with a Senate Inquiry currently considering the re-establishment of an Australian space agency, there is a possibility that Australia’s prominent role may yet be revived.
While space junk is very collectible, the debris is legally likely to be government property. Dr Gorman hopes it will end up on display either at the Woomera Heritage Centre or the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.
“Unlike most other space museums, which have a strong emphasis on the USA, the Powerhouse has some Russian and Chinese material, but doesn’t have a lot of Australian material,” she said.
“To be able to see the dramatic differences in national technologies and design is really interesting.”