Tempestuous Times

The other day I caught part of a short play on the radio. Prospero, Ariel, Reith and Gill told the story – partly imagined – of sculptor Eric Gill’s contretemps with BBC Director General John Reith in 1932. The occasion was the unveiling of Gill’s Ariel and Prospero on the edifice of Broadcasting House, the BBC’s newly built headquarters.

Prospero and Ariel, Broadcasting House, London.

Prospero and Ariel, Broadcasting House, London (Doug Millard, 2010).

Prospero and Ariel are leading characters in Shakespeare’s The Tempest but their names were also used for two of Britain’s earliest satellites. Ariel 1 was launched in 1962 as the world’s first international spacecraft: the United States provided the satellite structures and launching rocket, Britain designed the on-board experiments. A further five Ariel satellites were launched with Ariel V one of the most successful early X-ray observatories.

Ariel 1 flight spare (now at The Royal Society) in the Science Museum, 1990

Ariel 1 flight spare (now at the Royal Society) in the Science Museum, 1990 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

The Prospero satellite, on the other hand, was an entirely British affair with Britain also providing the launch vehicle – Black Arrow – to boost it into orbit in 1971. Its successor – Miranda (daughter of Prospero) – was launched in 1974 by a US Scout rocket, Black Arrow having been cancelled.

Prospero satellite flight spare on its Black Arrow third stage motor, 2000

Prospero satellite flight spare on its Black Arrow third stage motor, 2000 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

Shakespeare’s original characters endure turbulent times before Prospero renounces sorcery and releases the spirit Ariel from the magical bondage he had cast it into.

Britain’s Ariel 1 satellite did not enjoy quite such a happy outcome as much of its successful scientific capability was lost just three months after launch following the test detonation of a high-altitude nuclear bomb.

Prospero, which will continue to orbit throughout the century – may yet exhibit a flicker of life when scientists attempt to make contact with it next year during its 40th anniversary.

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