Stevenage: for readers outside of the UK it may not ring much of a bell, and indeed, with no disrespect to Stevenagians, for most UK readers it is not one of our most famous and glamorous metropolitan areas. Located around 50 km north of London, Stevenage has Roman and Saxon roots and has been a market town for more than a millennium. Its name may originate from the Old English for ‘place of the strong oak’, but exactly why its coat of arms depicts a sword thrust through the heart of the oak remains something of a mystery to me.
But Stevenage has one claim to fame that originated close to a century ago and continues today: what is sometimes referred to as a military-industrial complex. The English Electric Company established a facility for making aircraft parts and engines there in 1918, and continued to do through the Second World War. Furthermore, according to the Royal Aeronautical Society, “it is also thought that… there was a secret explosive weapons establishment which designed and created sabotage devices.” In the 1950s and 60s Britain’s very own intercontinental ballistic missile, Blue Streak, was assembled at Stevenage and shipped to Australian desert where the requirements for its testing (along with nuclear devices) emptied the land of its native inhabitants and changed the outback forever. The remains of the first missile launched from Woomera on June 5th, 1964, were discovered not far from Giles Meteorological Station in Western Australia in 1980 and are on display there (after a hardly intercontinental journey of perhaps a thousand kilometers):
For more of the story of the British militarisation of the Australian desert, I recommend my next book, but enough advertising and back to Stevenage. The aerospace facilities there continue to thrive and are now the location for Airbus Defence and Space and Paradigm Secure Communications, housing “Airbus Defence and Space’s spacecraft design and build facility and the headquarters of Paradigm Secure Communications.” They are also now the location for the very large sand pit that is affectionately referred to as ‘Mars Yard’. As the European Space Agency reported recently:
A state-of-the-art ‘Mars yard’ is now ready to put the ExoMars rover through its paces before the vehicle is launched to the Red Planet in 2018.
ESA, the UK Space Agency and Airbus Defence and Space opened the renovated test area in Stevenage, UK, today.
ExoMars is a joint endeavour between ESA and Russia’s Roscosmos space agency. Comprising two missions for launch to Mars in 2016 and 2018, ExoMars will address the outstanding scientific question of whether life has ever existed on the planet, by investigating the atmosphere and drilling into the surface to collect and analyse samples.
Extended Mars Yard opening
The programme will also demonstrate key technologies for entry, descent, landing, drilling and roving.
Filled with 300 tonnes of sand, the 30 x 13 m Mars yard at the Stevenage site of Airbus Defence and Space mimics the appearance of the martian [sic] landscape. Its walls, doors and all interior surfaces are painted a reddish-brown colour to ensure the rover’s navigation cameras are confronted by as realistic a scenario as possible. … The yard will also be available after the rover has landed on Mars in 2019, to help overcome any challenging situations that might be encountered on the Red Planet.
The sand pit was honoured by a visit by a leading politician, the Secretary of State for Business – how often does a political photo-op feature suits in the sand?
The ExoMars rover represents the best of British high-value manufacturing… The technologies developed as part of the programme, such as autonomous navigation systems, new welding materials and techniques, will also have real impacts on other sectors, helping them stay on the cutting edge.
Not only is it hugely exciting that Europe’s next mission to Mars will be British-built, but it is incredibly rewarding to see the benefits of our investment in the European Space Agency creating jobs here in the UK.
Bravo for the sand pit!