Last updated March 6, 2018 at 4:37 pm
At 2.19 pm on 29 November 1967 Australia became a spacefaring nation. WRESAT, the first Australian satellite, was launched into orbit from Woomera in South Australia, making Australia only the third nation to design and launch a satellite from its own territory.
The lead up to this game-changing launch is a story of international collaboration, Aussie ingenuity, and an epic effort by engineers and scientists.
In 1966, Australia’s Weapons Research Establishment (WRE, today’s DST Group) was involved in the joint US-UK-Australia Special Anti-missile Research Tests (SPARTA) project to investigate the physics of missile warheads as they re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. To launch dummy warheads for the tests, the US shipped ten modified Redstone rockets (right) to the Woomera test range.
The Redstones were converted ballistic missiles that had already been used to launch Explorer 1, America’s first satellite, in 1958, and Alan Shepard, America’s first astronaut, in 1961.
As the experiments progressed, the project team found that only nine of the ten rockets would be needed to complete the tests. The WRE staff smelled an opportunity, realising the spare rocket could be used as a launcher for an Australian satellite. The WRE approached the US SPARTA team and pointed out there was no point shipping the unused rocket all the way back home, to which they got the response they were hoping for — the US would officially offer the rocket to Australia.
Next, the WRE had to get official approval from the Australian Government, which had not previously shown any support for the idea of an Australian space program. Initially there was resistance, however when the US SPARTA team offered to prepare and launch the rocket, NASA offered to track the satellite for free, the University of Adelaide contributed part of the cost of the satellite, and many other costs of the project were absorbed within existing project budgets, the project was given the official go-ahead. This was an opportunity for Australia to gain international prestige as a member of the ‘Space Club’, and for the Government to gain a huge political windfall at almost no additional cost to the taxpayer.
The satellite was named WRESAT, short for Weapons Research Establishment Satellite, but the American offer had placed the project on a tight schedule. With the US team returning home in 11 months, WRESAT would have to be designed, built, tested, and launched before they left.
Design and construction began in early 1967 at the WRE and the University of Adelaide, but the project wasn’t only about launching a satellite into space. No, the team had much bigger plans in mind. They had previously carried out experiments probing the upper atmosphere using sounding rockets, and they intended to use WRESAT to extend these experiments into orbit.
The University of Adelaide team developed an instrument to measure the effect of solar radiation altering the temperature and composition of the upper atmosphere. Further instruments measured ultra-violet light and x-ray emissions from the Sun. A photocell fitted with a special filter was able to measure light at frequencies absorbed by ozone. As it orbited the Earth, WRESAT would see a sunrise and sunset every 90 minutes, so another detector was designed to determine the density of oxygen in the atmosphere by measuring the absorption of sunlight during sunrise and sunset. A magnetometer would monitor the satellite’s orientation with Earth’s magnetic field, and a small telescope was added to study the geocorona, the very outermost part of the atmosphere.
With time ticking there was no time to develop a solar panel array for the satellite, so it would have to be battery powered. With so many instruments crammed into the satellite, this would severely limit its operational lifespan, however it was seen as a compromise that would need to be made.
To save time and effort developing a new aerodynamic model, WRESAT and its equipment were built into an existing SPARTA rocket nosecone. The cone was 1.56 m tall with a base 76 cm in diameter, and with all of the batteries and equipment installed weighed 45 kg.
Using the rocket’s nosecone introduced new challenges however. Not intended as a satellite, it had to withstand aerodynamic forces, heating, and vibration that most satellites don’t, so WRESAT had a sturdy aluminium internal structure and a special paint job to reduce the internal temperature – black on the outside and white on the inside. A special-purpose, expensive white paint was ordered from the US to maximise its insulating ability, however it was later found that the wrong paint had been sent. Too late to fix it before launch, WRESAT flew painted with white household enamel paint. It worked well enough.
As if WRESAT was not already enough of an example of Australian resourcefulness and ability to make-do with whatever resources are available, most of the test facilities used to ensure the robustness of the satellite had to be improvised. To ensure WRESAT could withstand rapid torsional loads, a prototype was supposed to be rapidly spun up to 200 rpm. The WRE did not have a motor strong enough to do this so they did the reverse – spinning the prototype satellite to 200 rpm slowly and then applying brakes to stop it rapidly. This, they surmised, would do the job just as well. To test the satellite’s resilience to shock loads, the prototype was dropped onto a block of lead. In order to achieve the careful finely tuned balance of the satellite, the WRE team modified a machine normally used for balancing truck engines. Finally, a mobile telemetry station to monitor the launch was improvised from equipment available in the WRE warehouses, and from bits begged and borrowed from a NASA tracking facility outside Canberra.
With launch day approaching, the Redstone rocket was made to look a little more Australian. Its olive drab military paint scheme was repainted white, mostly to make it easier for the tracking cameras to see, and a logo of a jumping kangaroo superimposed over a woomera and the Australian seven-pointed star was painted on the side of the rocket. The same graphic was added to WRESAT.
Finally after much hard work, perseverance and battling against the odds, the planned launch day arrived. It was Tuesday 28 November 1967. The rocket was ready, the satellite perched on top, and Woomera inundated by politicians, VIPs, and the media to observe the launch. Preparations proceeded smoothly, and the countdown started. Then, 30 seconds before the launch, a small heater-cooler unit drop tank attached to the side of the rocket failed to detach. The launch sequence was aborted and the flight rescheduled for the following day, to the great embarrassment of the American launch crew.
The drop tank had rusted itself on to the side of the rocket. A few heavy whacks of a spanner and the problem was fixed.
The next day, the countdown proceeded without a hitch. The troublesome drop tank separated from the rocket as planned, and at 2.19 pm on 29 November 1967, WRESAT lifted off through the shimmering heat of the desert on its way to orbit. It became the day that Australia would join the space race.
The modified Redstone was a three-stage rocket. Two minutes after launch, the first stage had exhausted its fuel, shutdown, and separated itself. The second stage continued onwards to carry WRESAT into space, with a third stage providing a final boost.
As the rocket disappeared over the horizon, all the WRE team could do was wait to hear if the flight had been successful and WRESAT had withstood the stresses of launch. Ninety-nine minutes after launch, a NASA tracking facility in Carnarvon, Western Australia, announced that WRESAT had successfully entered orbit. Australia was now a fully-fledged member of the space race.
WRESAT was inserted into a polar orbit that varied from just 169 km to 12,445 km in altitude above the Earth’s surface. Although WRESAT’s polar orbit meant it was able to gather atmospheric data from all latitudes pole-to-pole, the lack of solar panels meant that its scientific output was limited, transmitting data for 73 orbits (5 days) until its batteries were drained. With such a short operational life, WRESAT was really only able to confirm what the WRE’s smaller sounding rockets had already discovered. On the third day of WRESAT’s mission, a sounding rocket was launched to meet it at the low point of its orbit. Measurements from WRESAT and the sounding rocket were in agreement, showing that WRESAT’s instruments were working properly.
At its minimum altitude of 169 km WRESAT was experiencing substantial drag from the upper atmosphere, which slowed it down with every orbit. Bit by bit, its orbit decayed. WRESAT re-entered the atmosphere and burnt up over the Atlantic Ocean on 10 January 1968 after circling the globe 642 times.
The launch of WRESAT made Australia only the third nation to build and launch a satellite from its own territory – the first two were space powerhouses the United States and the Soviet Union. France, the UK, Canada, and Italy had all launched satellites before but they did not launch from within their own borders, even though France used a rocket of their own design rather than a US-supplied one. Nonetheless, launching a satellite only ten years after the space age had started with the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union, was still a major technological achievement, even with US assistance. Congratulations were received from around the world, with the Soviet Union welcoming Australia to the “Space Club”. The successful launch also stirred a media frenzy locally, and a WRESAT display toured around the country.
From the launch, the first stage of the rocket was lost, crashing somewhere in the Simpson desert. More than 20 years later, in 1989, Dick Smith located the wreckage and, in 1990, the rocket was recovered and put on display in Woomera township, where it still stands today.
Unfortunately, the story of WRESAT ends there. WRESAT was officially designated WRESAT 1 because it was hoped that the success of the mission would be the start of an Australian space program, but the Australian Government was not interested in space. Even though the US offered to supply more Redstone rockets at a substantial discount, the Government thought there was little political gain to be had from an Australian space presence and no further funding or support was provided. The program, and our presence in space ground to a halt.
Thanks to a bit of luck, a friendly offer from the United States, and a lot of Aussie ingenuity, WRESAT made Australia one of the earliest members of the ‘Space Club’. It was a significant technological achievement and was an outstanding demonstration of Australian expertise and capabilities. Despite the fact that its scientific contributions were limited by its short operational life, WRESAT was a complete success. It should have been the start of a greater Australian presence in space, but the Government’s lack of interest in space and inability to perceive the benefits that such a program would bring meant that the nation failed to capitalise on that success.
Fast forward 50 years and, today, Australia relies on other countries to develop and launch its satellites, but that is changing. Australian universities and start-ups are already building nano- and pico-satellites for scientific and communications purposes. Micro-electronics and affordable launchers are continuing to open up access to space, and once again Australian industries and institutions are going to find themselves working on the final frontier. And 50 years after WRESAT took Australia into space, it was announced earlier this year that Australia will finally get its own space agency. We’ve been waiting.
For more about the history of WRESAT, watch Fifty years since Australia beat the world to space
To find out about Australia’s first satellite OSCAR-5, read The challenger to WRESATs crown
Why doesn’t Australia celebrate WRESAT? Find out in Alice Gorman’s article From the outback to orbit: Why doesn’t Australia celebrate our achievements in space?