Peter Snow looks at the untold stories of British scientists and engineers who developed some of the modern world’s most incredible technology.

This week’s show focuses on a rocket programme that put Britain’s first satellite into orbit using chemicals more commonly found in a hair salon.

Peter Snow is on a quest to track down the people who made the UK a world leader in science and industry. He is searching for the unsung heroes of modern British history – the media-shy scientists and engineers whose resourcefulness and determination shaped much of today’s incredible technology.

The series focuses on the true backroom boys of British engineering – men who worked in their bedrooms and backyards to make inspirational breakthroughs in technology and kick-start whole industries. These people battled against the odds, taking on sceptical governments, hostile unions and indifferent corporations to make their vision of tomorrow’s world a reality.

In the third part of the series, Peter recounts a little-known chapter in the history of the space race. The great rivalry of the Americans and Russians is well documented, but Peter learns that the British also participated in the contest when he meets Jim Scragg and John Scott. These canny engineers were part of the team behind Black Arrow, Britain’s very own steampowered rocket programme that launched the country’s first satellite almost 40 years ago.

Back in the 1950s, Britain was producing its own nuclear missiles capable of hitting Moscow within 20 minutes of launch. But when the government decided to buy American submarinelaunched missiles, it looked as if Britain’s rocket men would soon be looking for new jobs. Instead, they lobbied the government to allow them to change their technology into a satellite-launching system called Black Arrow.

Unfortunately, the government of the day had no idea what purpose these satellites could serve. Their only concession was a three-month funding package totalling £9 million. With this comparatively small sum, the ingenious scientists built four Black Arrow rockets powered by hydrogen peroxide – the same chemical used by hairdressers to create platinum blond colouring. Mixed with a catalyst, the chemical instantly explodes into steam with enough spare oxygen to burn paraffin at 2,300 degrees Celsius and blast a rocket into orbit.

The Black Arrow team managed to fire three test rockets before the project was cancelled by the government. The fourth and final rocket successfully blasted Britain’s first satellite into orbit, where it remains today. With the cancellation of the Black Arrow project, Britain’s hopes of playing a major role in the space race ended and the glorious work of the backroom boys was forgotten – until now.

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