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Historic rocket makes final trip to space

Scientists on Monday by launched the 441st and final "Skylark" rocket, nearly half a century after it helped start the space race.
/ Source: Reuters

Scientists drew a line under one of Britain's most successful space programs on Monday by launching the 441st and final "Skylark" rocket, nearly half a century after it helped start the space race.

The rocket was fired from Sweden, 47 years after the first Skylark mission blasted off from Woomera in Australia.

In the intervening years, Skylarks have been used to carry everything from crystals to frogs' eggs in to space to see how they react in a gravity-free atmosphere.

"Skylark was the originator of the space race for Britain," said Hugh Whitfield, who works for the company which operates the rocket and has been involved with the project for 30 years.

"It was the first British rocket of any importance to go into space," he told Reuters from Sweden after watching the final Skylark soar upwards.

"It's a good feeling," he said. "It's always a relief after a launch. It had to come to an end sooner or later and today was the day it's gone in to the history books."

Britain made its first Skylark in the 1950s when the country was competing with the United States and the Soviet Union in the fledgling race to conquer space.

The rocket was capable of flying just 90 miles (150 km) before jettisoning its load, which floated back to earth by parachute to be collected by scientists.

These days the Skylark can reach heights of 400 miles and carry four times as much as its 1957 prototype but, even so, it is a strikingly humble rocket.

It is 17 meters (50 foot) long and just 45 centimeters (18 inches) in diameter and costs between 3 and 5 million pounds (between $5.7 and 9.5 million) to launch — a tiny sum compared to the cost of most rockets.

It works on the same principle as when it was first launched. It shoots up into space and then offloads its cargo, which, after experiencing a couple of minutes of weightlessness, floats back down to earth.

The Skylark project was funded by the British government until the 1970s, when — with the Americans and the Soviets clearly winning the space race — it was axed.

Several companies continued to operate it as a commercial enterprise but, when the firm which made the rocket's engines went out of business, its days were numbered.

"We don't have any more Skylarks left in stock and we can't produce the motors in Britain any more. Unfortunately that technology is now lost in Britain," said Whitfield who, despite witnessing the end of an era, was far from downhearted.

"We'll have a big celebration here later tonight in honor of the final Skylark," he said. "The champagne will flow."