Blue Streak – Success, Failure and … Extraterrestrials?
The story behind one of our most iconic artefacts and its connection to the infamous ‘Solway Spaceman’.
The story of the Blue Streak rocket is one of both triumph and missed opportunity.
First designed as ballistic missile, then adapted to launch satellites, Blue Streak was Britain’s contribution to the Space Race. First launched in 1964 at the Woomera test site in South Australia, Blue Streak performed as planned for eleven successful launches. Few rockets achieve such a clean record during the early stages of development. In fact, Blue Streak had a comparable success rate to the famous Saturn V rocket. Yet Blue Streak never became such a household name. Politics and economics conspired against Blue Streak and the programme was cancelled in 1971.
Yet for a brief moment in 1964, Blue Streak was thrust into the spotlight. This was not for its engineering pedigree, but for its unwitting connection to a mysterious photograph that captured the world’s imagination.
Cold War missile and European rocket
Blue Streak started life ten years earlier as a top secret military programme. With Cold War tensions high, Britain and the United States forged a plan to develop missiles that could reach targets within the Soviet Union. Britain called their missile Blue Streak. This followed the military’s ‘Rainbow Codes’ where each code name began with a colour, followed by a noun selected from a list. Blue Streak would carry a nuclear warhead, capable of mass destruction.
About 3,240 hectares of uninhabited moorland in Cumbria were chosen as the site for the Spadeadam Rocket Establishment. The role of this facility was to test each of the 60 Blue Streak missiles that the government intended to place in underground silos across the east of England. However, as Britain is only a small island, the silos would inevitably be located near towns and villages. This proximity would leave the local population vulnerable to nuclear attack. This fact combined with soaring costs caused enthusiasm for the project to wane before other silos were even built. Blue Streak as a missile was cancelled in 1960.
Eager not to let the technology go to waste, the British government explored ways to use Blue Streak to launch satellites. The European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) was a collaborative effort to create a European rocket called Europa to rival the US and Soviet Union. Britain agreed to provide Blue Streak as the first stage, with France and Germany providing the second and third stages. The launch site was in Woomera, South Australia. Each country was responsible for the production of its own stage, so development of Blue Streak continued at Spadeadam.
Meanwhile, on a summer’s day in 1964, a Carlisle fireman named Jim Templeton took a walk with his family on Burgh Marsh, overlooking the Solway Firth in Cumbria. This was just a few miles away from the Spadeadam Blue Streak test site. Being a keen photographer, Jim decided to stop and take a few snaps of his five-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. What he captured on film became famous across the world.
In just one of his photographs a mysterious figure looms behind Elizabeth, dressed all in white with what appears to be a helmet and visor. The figure’s appearance was a complete shock to Jim. He was adamant that his family were alone on the marsh and that his wife stood behind him out of shot. Jim shared the photograph with the local press. From there it escalated. It was picked up by national newspapers and even made the front page in Australia. The unexplained figure became known as the ‘Solway Spaceman.’
The fact that the ‘spaceman’ appeared close to the Blue Streak test site may seem an unremarkable detail, but Jim was soon to learn that this was not the only sighting. On the other side of the world at the Woomera launch site in Australia, a Blue Streak launch was reportedly aborted due to the presence of two unidentified figures on the firing range. Jim claimed to receive this information from a technician at Woomera. Having seen the Solway Spaceman on the front page, the technician was compelled to call Jim due to the striking resemblance it bore to the mysterious figures at Woomera.
Was there something about Blue Streak that was of interest to extraterrestrials?
The plot thickened as Jim claimed to have been visited by two men who identified themselves as government agents. They requested Jim take them to the spot where the photograph was taken. They then abruptly left when he told them he hadn’t actually seen an alien, that it just appeared in the picture, leaving him to walk the 5 miles back to his work.
The Solway Spaceman remained the subject of speculation for UFO enthusiasts for years to come. In an article for the BBC coinciding with the photograph’s 50th anniversary, Dr David Clarke, an expert in UFO folklore goes as far as to say:
“For me, it’s one of the most impressive anomalous images in supernatural investigations and people will still be talking about it in another 50 years.”
Having met Jim Templeton in person while researching one of his books, Dr Clarke was convinced that Jim was genuine in recounting his version of events. Furthermore, he offered a convincing explanation which discounts extraterrestrials without questioning Jim’s integrity:
“I think for some reason his wife walked into the shot and he didn’t see her because with that particular make of camera you could only see 70% of what was in the shot through the viewfinder.”
Whatever the truth, the development of Blue Streak continued until 1971 without further reports of alien visitors.
Blue Streak at the National Space Centre
Unfortunately, Europa as a whole was not successful. There were problems with the separation between the stages and it never managed to launch a satellite.
With mounting costs, the British government decided to pull out of the project in 1971. Having not realised the potential for a lucrative satellite launching industry, Britain bowed out of the Space Race just as it was on the cusp of becoming a key player.
The Blue Streak on display here at the National Space Centre was rescued off the production line by the National Museums Liverpool and remained in storage for many years. It was loaned and transported to the National Space Centre in the year 2000 in what looked like a giant blue sleeping bag.
Today it stands vertically in our Rocket Tower, as if it were on the launch pad ready to blast off.
To our knowledge Blue Streak has not been visited by any beings from outer space since being on display at the National Space Centre. Except perhaps the odd Storm Trooper…
Sci-Fi Shorts: This blog is part of a series of posts about our historic space artefacts to inspire writers for our Sci-Fi Shorts competition. Find out more here!
About the author: Hannah Baker is the Collections Officer at the National Space Centre.
Blue Streak Missile Guidance Bay (nosecone) on loan courtesy of National Museums Scotland
Blue Streak Rocket on loan from National Museums Liverpool, World Museum