Black Knight test vehicle

In April 1955, the United Kingdom undertook the construction of a strategic missile, named Blue Streak, capable of carrying a 2 tons payload to a 4500 km range. British industry did not master at that time the techniques specific to the realization of such a project, in particular those relating to the problems of long-range missiles guidance and warheads atmospheric re-entry. One month later, the RAE (Royal Aircraft Establishment) Guided Weapons Department emitted a call for tenders for an experimental rocket intended to develop these various techniques. In July, Saunders Roe Aircraft Company was retained to build this vehicle which was named Black Knight.

Single-stage Black Knight Black Knight

Single-stage Black Knight

In its first version Black Knight was a single-stage rocket propelled by a liquid propellant Armstrong-Siddeley Gamma 201 engine equipped with four swiveling nozzles. It was supplied in kerosene and hydrogen peroxide (HTP = High Test Peroxide) by vapor turbopumps and developed a 75 kN thrust during 140 to 145 seconds. This rocket was 10.2 m high and 91 cm in diameter, and weighed 5.4 t at takeoff. It comprised four 1.8 m span wings for aerodynamic stabilization. Two of them were equipped with small pods in which was placed tracking aid equipments.

In this configuration, it could launch a 115 kg warhead mockup to 800 km altitude, and make it re-enter at speeds between 11000 to 19000 km/h. After two development launches in September 1958 and March 1959, three re-entry tests were carried out between June and October 1959 form the Woomera rocket range.

Two-stage Black Knight Black Knight

Two-stage Black Knight

In April 1960, the British government decided to cancel the Blue Streak missile project and proposed to the other European countries to transform it into a first stage for a space launcher.

Black Knight could have been abandoned in its turn if it had not found an application as part of the Gaslight program, carried out in co-operation with the United States and Australia. The objective consisted in studying the phenomena at the origin of the of radar reflectivity variations during the re-entry. This study required a two-stage version of Black Knight in order to accelerate the warhead during the descent. The rocket was then equipped with a Cuckoo engine (Skylark booster) 44 cm in diameter, carried inverted under the fairing. This version was 11.6 m high and weighed 6.35 tons. The Cuckoo-IB (360 kNs) put into service in 1960, was replaced by the Cuckoo-II (396 kNs) as from 1964.

The first two-stage Black Knight was launched in May 1960, but the Cuckoo stage did not ignite. Five other Gaslight flights were carried out until June 1961.

In 1962, the tests continued as part of the Dazzle program, in co-operation with the United States, Canada and Australia. In August 1962, a 95 kN Gamma 301 engine replaced Gamma 201 on the first stage. Eight flights were carried out with this more powerful engine. The last of the 22 Black Knight flights took place in November 1965.

Black Knight variants

Black Knight
Scale in meters

Black Knight launches

07 Sep 1958WOOBK01 (201)TechnologyPS (225 km)
12 Mar 1959WOOBK03 (201)TechnologyS (537 km)
11 Jun 1959WOOBK04 (201)Re-entry testS (803 km)
29 Jun 1959WOOBK05 (201)Re-entry testPS (442 km)
30 Oct 1959WOOBK06 (201)Re-entry testPS (732 km)
24 May 1960WOOBK08 (201/C1B)GaslightPF, separation failure (563 km)
21 Jun 1960WOOBK09 (201/C1B)GaslightS (484 km)
25 Jul 1960WOOBK07 (201)GaslightS (531 km)
07 Feb 1961WOOBK13 (201)GaslightS (687 km)
09 May 1961WOOBK14 (201/C1B)GaslightPF, separation failure (415 km)
07 Jun 1961WOOBK17 (201/C1B)GaslightPF, separation failure (582 km)
01 May 1962WOOBK15 (201)GaslightS (795 km)
24 Aug 1962WOOBK16 (301/C1B)DazzleS (573 km)
27 Nov 1962WOOBK18 (301/C1B)DazzleS (576 km)
17 Oct 1963WOOBK11 (201)ELDOS
11 Mar 1964WOOBK12 (201/C2)DazzleS
06 Aug 1964WOOBK19 (301/C2)DazzleS
06 Nov 1964WOOBK20 (301/C2)DazzleS (631 km)
21 Apr 1965WOOBK21 (301/C2)DazzleS
28 Jul 1965WOOBK23 (301/C2)DazzleS
29 Sep 1965WOOBK24 (301/C2)DazzleS
25 Nov 1965WOOBK25 (301/C2)DazzleS (644 km)
Notes: All launches from Woomera Rocket Range, Australia
S: success; PS: partial success; VF: vehicle failure

External resources
British Rocketry Program
Australian Space

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Please contact Jean-Jacques Serra <> for comments, corrections or questions