The Long Range Weapons Establishment at Woomera, SA, came into existence as a consequence of Britain's defence requirements following World War II. A large, remote area in which to test new weapons systems was required. Various sites were considered, including one in Canada. In the end, Australia's vast and virtually unpopulated inland won the day, and the Woomera rocket range came into existence on 1st April 1947 as a Joint Project between Britain and Australia. The range was surveyed by the legendary Len Beadell and his team. The facility was named Woomera for an Aboriginal word meaning spear-launcher.
Woomera's history is one of weapons testing, satellite launches, and tracking of early lunar and planetary spacecraft, as well as the Mercury manned spacecraft. The name Woomera selected for the new town associated with the rocket range in April 1947. The first missile was launched from Woomera on 22nd March 1949. The first Skylark rocket was launched on 13th February 1957 followed by the first Black Knight launch on 7th September 1958 and the first Europa launch on 5th June 1964. Blue Streak rockets were also launched at Woomera as well as Bloodhound and Thunderbird missiles. In April 1969, a decision was made to build US Nurrungar, a defence satellite monitoring station, near Woomera. The monitoring station remained operational until October 1999 when it was closed down.
TIsland Lagoon Deep Space Station
The first deep-space station to be established outside the United States by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was at Woomera. In February 1959, a survey team selected a location in a natural depression near the Island Lagoon dry lake bed, about 56 kilometres south of the rangehead of the Woomera Rocket Range. In August 1960, negotiations were completed for a US-Australian agreement to operate NASA stations in Australia. The station was operated by the Australian Department of Supply (DOS), whose Weapons Research Establishment (WRE) managed the Woomera range. The tracking station participated in various projects involving spacecraft which ventured more than 16,000 kilometres from Earth, including the first successful mission to another planet - the flyby of Venus by Mariner 2 during December 1962 - and the first successful flyby of Mars (Mariner 4 in July 1965). It also played a key role in the Ranger and Lunar Orbiter missions which provided valuable information in the lead-up to the Apollo missions to the Moon. The antenna was also available to Australian astronomers for astronomical research between missions. In December 1972, the deep space tracking station was closed.
When Australia launched a satellite on 29 November 1967, it was the third country in the world ever to have launched a satellite from its own land (the other two were the Soviet Union and the United States). Australia's Project WRESAT (Weapons Research Establishment Satellite) was fired into the air and into orbit from the Woomera Rocket Range. The payload was shaped like a cone and was just over two metres long, weighing more than 70 kg. It carried scientific tests for measuring the composition of the atmosphere and solar radiation. The satellite was in orbit for about six weeks before it re-entered the atmosphere. Australian scientists continued important space research using rockets fired from Woomera until it was closed in 1980.
The European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) was established to develop a satellite launch vehicle for Europe. Woomera was chosen as the launch site for the test vehicles. The "Europa" vehicle designed by ELDO was developed in a series of three stages, the first of which originated from the British "Blue Streak" vehicle designed by the ICBM in 1960. France provided the second stage of the vehicle development and Germany the third. Italy worked on the satellite project, while the Netherlands and Belgium concentrated on tracking and telemetry systems. Australia was the only non-European member - a status granted in return for providing the launch facilities.
The ELDO project was divided into three phases:
- Phase 1 involved launching northwest toward Talgarno in Western Australia. Three successful launches (F-1, F-2, and F-3) of the first stage (Blue Streak) were conducted in 1964/65.
- Phase 2 saw northerly launches into the Simpson Desert in the Northern Territory. Launches (F-4 to F-6) were conducted in 1966/67.
- Phase 3 involved northerly launches with the target of reaching orbit and eventually orbiting an operational satellite. Launches (F-7 to F-9) were conducted between 1967 and 1970. The Final F-10 flight never took place.
Ten launches in total occurred in the program - the first involved the first stage only on 5th June 1964. Unfortunately, no successful satellite launch was achieved and the final all-up launch of ELDO's Europa 1 vehicle which took place on 12th June 1970 with the satellite failing to reach orbit. European satellite launch activities then shifted to the French site at Kourou, in French Guiana, which is now home to Ariane launches.
In November 1999 it was decided to establish a detention centre for illegal immigrants at Woomera.
Woomera Blue Streak Launch Pad
Very little remains today of the two Blue Streak/ELDO launch sites that were used in the late 1960's and early 1970's. This structure (above) is the main blast deflector. The metal launch towers are long gone. Most of the facilities have been completely destroyed. It appears that they were used as an aerial bombing range target. These days, the range is used as a nuclear waste dump. The Missile Park displays a fine collection of rockets, missiles and aircraft used in the testing range. The Woomera Heritage Centre includes a museum which displays historic groupings of fossil and stone, Aboriginal artefacts and homestead items. Models, rocket-relics and plenty of pictures emphasize Woomera's value as a satellite launch site and joint initiatives with NASA, but the reasons for the creation of the Prohibited Area - weapons-testing and the British-run 1950s atomic bomb tests, contaminated dust from which is still being scraped up and vitrified - are skirted around.
Europa 1 being launched by Woomera Rocket Range Launcher 6A, 1973
Remains of the first Blue Streak Rocket launched from Woomera, 5th June 1964. It was discovered 50 km SE of Giles, Western Australia, in 1980. It is on display at Giles
Remains of a Black Arrow R3 Stage 1 rocket (rear) fired from Woomera Rocket Range which landed near William Creek, South Australia