Skylark was the first British rocket to reach space. It was developed by the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, in collaboration with the Royal Society. First fired in 1967, Skylark operated for 48 years, launching into space thousands of instruments that made pioneering observations of the Earth, Sun, stars and galaxies. It carried instruments to altitudes higher than those attainable by balloon, but lower than satellite orbits. Launched some 8 months before the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik1, it became a relatively inexpensive but highly efficient way of carrying scientific experiments into sub-orbital space, and helped researchers with everything from X-ray astronomy to study of the fertilisation of frogs’ eggs in microgravity. Despite its success, the government ended public funding of the programme in 1977, after which it was operated on a commercial basis, first by British Aerospace, then by Matra Marconi Space, and finally by Sounding Rocket Services Ltd until its final launch in 2005.
One of the crucial developments in Skylark’s design was the introduction of Attitude Control Units (ACU), which in 1972 led to the launch of the world’s first Earth Resources Rocket. During this pilot flight, Skylark’s payload was stabilised with horizon sensors, and an aerial reconnaissance camera was launched 250 km above southern Australia, obtaining imagery of 250,000 sq. kms for analysis. This set the precedent for a successful aerial survey of Argentina the following year.
The collection documents development of the Attitude Control Units, and comprises progress reports, meeting minutes and correspondence, as well as an ACU test schedule, reference handbooks, user manuals, and a photo album of the 1972 flight. It also contains 2 photographs of rocket launches in 1961and 1962, and a presentation album relating to Skylark flights from Woomera, Australia.