Okay, maybe not Rocket Town but we did camp north of Woomera at Lake Hart which was one of the testing areas for the Australian and American Joint Defence Facility Nurrungar (JDFN). Nurrungar is an Aboriginal word meaning ‘listen’ and the base’s mission was to provide a reliable satellite-borne surveillance system to detect and report missile launches, space launches and report nuclear detonation in near real-time. The base was opened in 1970 and mothballed in 1999.
We spent a few hours in the Rocket Park and while the MOTH (Man of The House) may already have known most of this information I learned a lot. Because this information has absolutely zilch to do with quilting, craft or writing I am confident that in the hours and days ahead it will become something I once knew. Therefore, most of what is written here is paraphrased from the information brochure the nice young air force officer gave the elderly dumb blonde me.
The MOTH (my hunk of spunk) with the British designed Black Arrow
This three-stage British rocket was designed to carry a satellite into orbit. Fully loaded it stood 13 meters tall and weighed about 18 tonnes at take-off. It was preceded by the Black Knight which needed to be larger and more powerful. The first and second stages Black Arrow engines burned a HTP (hydrogen test peroxide and kerosene mix while the third-stage had a specially designed slow-burning and lightweight waxwing solid propellant motor. The satellite was housed in the nose cone and sat in the protective nose cone when the Black Arrow carried it up and away on a gradually curving ascent until, nearly ten minutes after lift-off and 1, 700 kms from Woomera, the nose cone part would be flying parallel to the Earth’s surface at a height of 560kms. At this point, approaching a speed of 8kms per second, the red nose cone halves would separate and the satellite would be released into permanent orbit.
Four Black Arrow rockets were launched from Woomera between June 1969 and October 1971. The final launch placed the satellite “Prospero” into permanent orbit as a tribute to the project. It circles the Earth every 100 minutes and unless tampered with, will continue to do so for a century.
The 6 meter shipborne surface-to-air anti-aircraft guided missile, the Seaslug was developed and acceptance trials conducted in Britain and Woomera between 1949 and 1973. “In 1960 during acceptance trials on HMS Girdleness, 13 target aircraft were destroyed from 21 firings.” If they were defending me I’d be happier with a better strike rate, just saying. Each exhibit had an information plaque with lots of facts and figures. I noticed the men enjoying the outdoor display were engrossed while the women continued chatting, pausing to snap an interesting photo here and there. This is definitely a boys’ day out.
The Australian developed shipborne anti-submarine weapon was named after the Aboriginal word for “throwing stick”. It makes use of the longer detection range of 20km or more which, in 1959, were available to ships using sonar. Launched from a ship, Ikara would, when near the target, parachute into the sea a 2.5 m long American MK44 torpedo which homed in on the guided weapon. Flight trials were conducted at Woomera between 1961 and 1969 and the Ikara went into operation with the Navies of Australia, Brazil, Chile, English, and the Royal New Zealand Navy.
MK 10 Bomb
The 1, 000lb MK10 bomb is fitted with a special tail, closed in the photo. When the tail is opened after bomb jettison parachute sections were deployed. The small parachute bomb was designed by British engineers and remain in operation. Trials were conducted up to 1982 on this piece of weaponry.
The Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA) is a large Australian Defence Force aerospace and systems testing range covering an area of approximately 127, 000 sq kms in northern South Australia: and operated by the Royal Australian Air Force. The area was set aside by Australia’s Prime Minister, Ben Chifley, in the post WWII-era of ‘Cold War paranoia’ to test war materials that included British long-range weapons. A second site was designated in the Pilbara area of Western Australia. Interestingly, Woomera and Pilbara are the same distance from each other as London is from Moscow …
In the 1950s an area within the WPA was earmarked for British nuclear bomb-testing: Maralinga, an area in which Aboriginal people resided although no-one checked with them if it was okay to test nuclear bombs in their backyard. The locals that could be mustered were moved to missions in South and West Australia although many remained. The impact of those trials may not have been publicised but local Aboriginal people remember that ‘after the blasts they caught kangaroos that they couldn’t eat because they were yellow inside.’
At its peak more than 4, 000 rockets were launched as well as nine devastating atomic-bomb trials, some as powerful as that dropped on Hiroshima.
It is mainly pastoral country that was/is used for weapons tests, rocket launches and other experimental programmes. In 2002 The Challenger goldmine opened in the middle of the WPA and early miners at the site had ‘no idea they’re in an active weapons-testing area … I thought we were just on a station.’
(Source: Australian Geographic: Issue 83)
Vegetation in the area is a mix of mallee bush, spinifex, open tracts of mulga woodland, shrublands on red sandhills, white tip and kerosene grass alongside glistening saltpans. While looking for our campsite we crossed over railway tracks to be confronted by a large sign advising us the area is a prohibited area.
We cleared off quickly, retraced our steps and found a suitable spot beside Lake Hart, a salt lake. It wasn’t until researching information for this post I became aware of the historic facts of the area. Most of the WPA is off limits but certain areas have been opened to the public: like our campsite at the Lake Hart rest area.
Once off limits to the public, Woomera Village remains a military town, owned and managed by the Department of Defence. Although once off limits it now welcomes visitors – but there are limitations. The school has about 50 children of local military staff and other facilities that once helped keep the population of 2, 000 military personnel and their families from feeling a sense of isolation included a theatre, ten-pin bowling set up, tennis courts. In the well maintained museum across from the missile park, scrapbooks We were welcome to wander the streets, check out the Visitors Centre, shop in the local (military) grocery store and even purchase alcohol.