WRESAT – Australia’s First Satellite

Just ten years after the start of the space age, Australia became a world player in the space race with the launch of WRESAT, our first home-grown satellite, in 1967.

In her brand new book Australia in Space, historian and author Kerrie Dougherty traces the history of Australia’s involvement and achievements in space from the earliest rocketeers to the latest satellite projects and the inspired entrepreneurs making a splash today. And it all began with WRESAT – the relatively unknown achievement that put Australia on top of the world. Read the excerpt below.

In late 1966, Australian upper atmosphere research took the step from sounding rocket to satellite as the result of a fortuitous combination of circumstances, which allowed Australia to launch its first satellite in November 1967, a not insignificant achievement just ten years after the beginning of the Space Age.

In 1966, Britain and Australia were involved in a US-led project to investigate the physics of high velocity warhead re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, dubbed Project SPARTA (Special Anti-missile Research Tests, Australia), which will be further discussed in Chapter 5. This program used American Redstone boosters (the same type of rocket that had been used to launch the United States’ first astronaut, Alan Shepard) with two small upper stages, to launch its re-entry test heads. Ten Redstone rockets were brought to Woomera for this program, but by the latter part of 1966 it was obvious that only nine would be needed to complete the research.

 

Three senior WRE officers realised that this spare vehicle could make an ideal satellite launcher (and, in fact, a modified version of the Redstone had been used to launch the first American satellite, Explorer 1). They became excited by the possibility of extending the WRE’s upper atmosphere research into orbit with the development of an Australian satellite. An informal approach to the US SPARTA team received a positive response: instead of being shipped back to America, the vehicle would be formally offered to Australia. In addition, the US team offered to prepare and fire the Redstone for the satellite launch. However, taking advantage of the US offer placed the project on a very tight schedule, because it meant that the satellite would have to be ready for launch by the end of 1967, when the SPARTA project would be complete and the Americans returning home. Thus, in the incredibly short span of only 11 months, Australia’s first satellite, WRESAT (WRE Satellite) was designed, constructed, tested and finally launched on 29 November 1967.

To proceed with the project, Australian government approval would be necessary. However, the Liberal government of the period had not shown any particular support for developing an Australian space p

rogram and had already declined to take up an earlier US offer to launch an Australian built satellite. Fort

unately, the Minister of Supply obtained Cabinet approval for the satellite project to proceed, primarily on the basis that WRESAT would offer Australia the chance to gain international prestige and become a member of the ‘Space Club’, at a very low cost: the launch vehicle and launch services were being provided free; the University of Adelaide was contributing part of the cost of the satellite’s experiment package; NASA and ELDO agreed to provide free tracking of the satellite, and many other expenses could be absorbed within the Joint Project budget.

With such a short development period available for the satellite, WRESAT became an excellent example of Australian skill at ‘making do’ in order to have the satellite ready in time.

The WRESAT Project enabled Australia, by taking advantage of a generous gesture from the United States, to become one of the earliest nations to build and launch its own satellite. Although WRESAT’s scientific contributions were negligible, it was a significant technical achievement and demonstrated the WRE’s level of engineering expertise in being able to design and construct a satellite in so short a time. The fact that WRESAT had no successors was not due to any failure on the part of its technical and scientific development teams, but to government disinterest and an inability to perceive the long-term benefits to Australia that could have accrued from a home-grown satellite program built upon the success of WRESAT 1.

This is an excerpt from Australia in Space, written by Kerrie Dougherty.

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