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Place of the Throwing Stick

In science fiction of the 1950s and 60s, particularly British science fiction, a name recurs which may be unfamiliar to some modern audiences. Woomera, the launch ground established by Britain in the Australian Outback, was briefly emblematic of British space aspirations. Here I take a look at speculative fiction stories involving this location, and the different views of space they encapsulate.

[Note: Inevitably, science fiction of the twentieth century uses a range of terms for First Nations Australians, some of them no longer considered acceptable. There is also a deep sensitivity regarding the use of terms from local languages, and the acceptable use of land associated with First Nations tribes. I have done my best to be sensitive and respectful in these areas in surveying the SF of the time, but sincerely apologise for any offence given.]

The Anglo-Australian Rocket Project

Established in 1946, the Anglo-Australian Joint Project was an effort by Britain and Australia to develop a rocket testing and launch programme, under the umbrella of the British Commonwealth international alliance. A remote site north of Adelaide and south of Alice Springs was identified for a testing range, on land traditionally associated with the Kokatha people, and the site was named Woomera after a throwing device used by indigenous Australian peoples of the region to extend the range of a spear. Family and visitor accommodation sited within the boundaries of the base became known as Woomera village. Testing from 1949 onwards included the development of the Sea Wolf, Blue Steel and Bloodhound missiles.

Between the mid-1950s and early 1960s, the base was instrumental in the Black Knight rocket programme - a British-designed ballistic missile designed to carry nuclear payloads. Black Knight was primarily a research programme, informing the development of the Woomera-tested, British Blue Streak intermediate range ballistic missile. Despite successful launches from Woomera in 1964-5, the Blue Streak project was deemed expensive and began to wind down before being officially shelved in 1971. By the early 1960s, the connection between ballistic missile development and space-oriented rocket development was apparent to the public as well as the military. The Black Prince rocket, designed for satellite launches, was proposed as a hybrid between the military Black Knight and Blue Streak projects. The programme fed into the work of the European Launcher Development Organisation, with Blue Streak providing a stage of the Europa satellite-launcher rocket design.

In parallel with military efforts, civilian efforts to launch rockets from Woomera continued to develop. Woomera was home to a large number of launches of the Skylark scientific sounding rocket system and other civilian launches from 1957 through to the late 1970s, although most of these were sub-orbital. Skylark launches continued, in smaller numbers, through the 1980s and 1990s. In addition to this programme, the site has been used for a number of one-off missions. The first Australian orbital satellite was launched from Woomera in 1967, a number of NASA test rockets have fired from there, and the Japanese Hayabusa asteroid dust retrieval missions landed on the Woomera range as late as 2010 and 2020.

Long Tom rocket on display at Woomera rocket range (credit: wikimedia commons/binky68)

However, given a series of technically-successful but ultimately unviable design efforts, the Anglo-Australian Joint Programme began to wind down in the early 1970s and was cancelled in 1980, with the site reverting to the Royal Australian Air Force. The population of the Woomera village peaked at 7000 in the mid-1960s, but stabilised at about half this during the 1980s-90s when the nearby USAF Nurrungar Joint Tracking Facility was used for American-Australian space tracking activities. After the closure of Nurrungar, the village permanent population declined sharply but is boosted by seasonal visitors (including those interested in the test range's past) and personnel supporting the continued existence of the testing range under Australian Defence Force auspices.

British Aspirations 

For a brief period then, between the late 1940s and mid 1960s, Woomera looked like a genuine contender for the role of a British (or Commonwealth) competitor to the USA's Cape Canaveral or the Soviet Union’s Baikonur. Inevitably, this is reflected in the British space narrative of the time.

Extract from Radio Times article on Orbiter X from September 1959Orbiter X was a radio drama written by B D Chapman and produced by the BBC in 1959. It followed the efforts of the Commonwealth Space Programme (CSP) to build a Wehner von Braun-inspired wheel-shaped space station in orbit, by first sending the components by uncrewed rocket and then launching crewed space capsules to carry construction teams. Curiously, in this scenario, there seem to have been no crewed launches to orbit before the components were sent, so the construction crews believe themselves to be the first men in space. Unfortunately for the CSP, across 14 episodes we learn that an international organisation of rogue scientists known as Unity have reached space first and are determined to prevent others from joining them. The crew of Orbiter 2, led by Bob Britton, must avert the Unity Organisation’s bid for technocratic world domination.

In an article about the series for the (television and radio listings magazine) Radio Times, Chapman noted that:

When I first suggested the idea of the series to the BBC, I was asked what age group of listeners I would have in mind when I started writing the scripts. I said that I felt the programme could interest listeners of all ages, so long as the technical details and the action were kept within the realms of possibility. (Radio Times, 27th Sept 1959)

That may be why he sited the Commonwealth Space Programme, and a fair amount of the action in the story, at the Woomera rocket site. While we see little of the town beyond the project control centre, it gives the impression of a busy and active research centre - and one defended by missile installations! We are also shown a little of the near-desert outback surroundings when Orbiter 2 crashes some miles from the base.

Image of the Australian wilderness from Man in the Moon (1960)Near contemporary with Orbiter X is the 1960 feature film Man in the Moon (dir. Dearden). This was a science-fiction comedy film in which an unsuspecting man, William Blood (played by Kenneth More), is selected as a guinea pig for a British moon shot, based on his ability to tolerate extreme conditions without falling ill or suffering physical stress. After training at the research establishment at Farnborough, both in centrifuges and climate controlled boxes, he is transferred to Woomera, from where his moon rocket launches. After several days Blood is able to report a safe landing… and it only gradually becomes clear that the barren, lifeless wilderness surrounding him is in fact the Australian Outback - his capsule was ejected from the rocket during launch and landed only a short distance from its departure point rather than on the Moon. Here Woomera is shown very much as a British site, and the little we see of Australia (in the form of an unexpected encounter between a lone uranium prospector and the protagonist) is played for comedy rather than context.

The cover of Blast Off from Woomera by Hugh WaltersWe see a little more of Woomera itself in Hugh Walters’ children’s novel Blast off at Woomera (1957). In this first story in a series featuring Walters’ young hero, Chris Godfrey, he begins as a bright schoolboy about to leave for university. When the Anglo-Australian Space Programme finds itself with an urgent need to convert a planned uncrewed rocket to one carrying an astronaut, in order to claim the kudos for first man in space against their rivals, a chance meeting with the head of the programme means that Chris is picked for his interest in rocketry, school grades, unusually small stature and lack of close family ties. Like William Blood in Man in the Moon, although with a lot more pain and stress, he is trained and conditioned at Farnborough before being sent to Woomera for the launch. Where the stories differ is that Chris is shown spending a significant amount of time in the village at Woomera, staying with the project’s Australian chief engineer and his family.

Woomera was operated jointly by the British and Australian governments. It had been selected because it was in the largest uninhabited area in the Commonwealth that was, at the same time, reasonably accessible. In the early stages of its construction every nut and bolt, every grain of flour, even every gallon of water, had to be ferried in by a great airlift. Later, a railway was built crossing the hundreds of miles of arid scrub.

The Australian government, in an effort to soften the landscape, had planted twenty-five thousand gum trees. It was also hoped that the rainfall would be improved. Most of the inhabitants of the little town—scientists, technicians, administrators, and their families—had entered into the spirit of the thing by laying out lawns and flowerbeds around their concrete or prefabricated bungalows. Water, still scarce, was pumped and piped from artesian wells.

Chris sees little of life outside of the family and to what extent his experience represents a realistic Australian family home is hard to say - Walters was British and writing from that perspective, the narrative focuses on the rocket programme, and the Woomera settlement and its personnel was international by design - but it does at least acknowledge the international nature of the project. Unusually for juvenile science fiction of this era, the novel does not end with an unqualified success: Chris Godfrey’s rocket crashes disastrously and he faces a long recuperation after his orbital trip.

Chris Godfrey would return to Woomera - with expanded activity due to its previous success - in the next couple of books in the series (The Domes of Pico, 1958; First on the Moon, 1959) which focus on getting to the Moon. However by that point the project has come under the auspices of the United Nations Exploration Agency (Unexa) and the later books in the series involve launches from Cape Canaveral instead.


Woomera appears, often in passing or as a barely-described location, as a rocket launch site in an extensive range of other (mostly British) science fiction in the late 1950s and 60s. Examples include short story “The Long Ellipse” by Scottish author Donald Malcolm (New Worlds, Jan 1958), the television series Doctor Who (“The Tenth Planet”, 1966; “The War Machines”, 1966), the comic series Dan Dare (for instance in the 1963 Dan Dare Space Annual), children’s short stories (e.g. Runaway Rocket by H B Gregory, in the Boys’ Own Paper, Sept 1959) and the juvenile novels of James Muirden (Space Intruder, 1965; The Moon-Winners, 1965), E C Elliott (Tas and the Space Machine, 1955; Tas and the Postal Rocket, 1955, in which the Woomera site is vastly expanded) and Patrick Moore (e.g. Mission to Mars, 1955; Domes of Mars, 1956).

The novelisation of Journey Into Space: Operation Luna, as reprinted by fantom publishingFor British science fiction of this period, the radio series Journey Into Space provides an interestingly different point of view to many of these examples by explicitly not using Woomera. Written and produced by Charles Chilton for the BBC in 1953, it imagines a 1965 in which the race for space and towards the Moon is in private rather than government hands. The original version of the story began with four episodes describing an endeavour by the British inventor Sir William Morgan to launch to the Moon from New Mexico in the United States. After the failure of that effort, attention shifts to a private enterprise led by an Australian engineer, Stephen Mitchell, who has designed an atomic rocket motor and built a launch site at Wongawalla in Australia [1]. Mitch recruits Jet Morgan, son of the inventor, as his pilot. While more of the launch site might have been seen (or heard) in the original, we learn very little about it in the surviving broadcast episodes. However, as an remote Australian outback site it was undoubtedly influenced by Woomera - with the different name chosen perhaps to emphasise the independent nature of the moon rocket project. Indeed, an exchange between characters Jet and Doc in the novelisation of the series (published by dramatist Charles Chilton in 1954) makes this clear:

“Is there another rocket proving ground out here then besides Woomera?”

“You might call it that. Launching ground would be a better description.”

“It amounts to the same thing.”

“Not exactly. This is something quite new. It has revolutionised the whole business of rocket construction.”
(2011 fantom publishing edition, pg 18)

It also provides some description of the location:

The launching ground was set in the centre of a mountain range high up on the plateau of the Central Desert. The Horseshoes, as these mountains are called, are part of the Macdonnell Range and are some 250 miles east of Alice Springs. [...]
What struck me at once about this peculiar formation was its similarity to the ringed plains on the Moon. It had the same crumbly, eroded look and, had any telescope-equipped Selenite been able to regard this freakish, terrestrial feature, he would have declared it the one thing on Earth that most nearly resembled his barren world.
(pg 22)

The launch site is called “Luna City” in the novelisation - a term never used in the radio drama (at least in the surviving recordings of a later 1950s restaging which omitted the rather slow first four episodes). After the first story, the second and third adventures of Jet Morgan and his crew (to Mars and back) are set a few years later, appear to operate under the auspices of a larger governmental organisation and are launched instead from a large moonbase. While this series does not involve Woomera as such, it follows the prevailing wisdom in the 1950s that identified rural outback Australia as perhaps the most suitable launch site for British and Australian space aspirations.

The View from Australia

Of course, British science fiction does not provide the only window into perceptions of Woomera and its work.

Opening of Place of the Throwing Stick, from New Worlds, March 1956Australian author (and later magazine editor) Frank B. Bryning was amongst the earliest to confront the Woomera project from an Australian perspective in his 1956 short story “Place of the Throwing Stick” (New Worlds, March 1956). Bryning’s first published story “Operation in Free Space” (Fantastic Universe, Feb 1955) had actually begun with the words “Woomera calling Satellite Space Station Commonwealth Three!”. While the story itself did not involve Woomera, except as the voice of Earth in the story, other examples of Bryning’s work continued to mention the rocket launch site, and the vision of a Commonwealth space station programme also recurred.

In “Place of the Throwing Stick”, we see a far bleaker view. The title of the story references the origin of the name Woomera, and the story itself is told from the perspective of Munyarra, a warrior member of a First Nations tribe who has travelled a large distance by foot to challenge the monster that he has heard is being bred there. As is to be expected, a lot of the language is outdated, and the portrayal may have its flaws, but the story is respectful of Munyarra’s ancient traditions and perspective. Munyarra is a fully equipped warrior, supplied both with the knowledge of his people’s legends and with its physical trappings:

There, in a shallow depression, he laid down his great war boomerang (which could break a man’s leg) his two light hunting spears, and his deadly shovel-nosed spear. With his spears he laid also his woomera, or throwing stick, notched at one end like a crochet hook to take the haft of a spear, and so add its length and leverage to his throwing arm.

The symbolism of the end - when Munyarra’s war boomerang proves woefully unequal to the power of a rocket launch and he is himself destroyed - is unambiguous. Bryning effectively captured the destruction and harm caused to the old ways in Australia, while also hinting at the country’s technological future. In this context, it’s interesting to note that New Worlds was a London-based publication.

Cover of the Corgi edition of New Writings in SF 5 (including Takeover Bid)Takeover Bid by Australian author John Baxter (first published in New Writings in Science Fiction 5, 1965) also presents the Woomera site from a very different perspective. It is set in a vision of the 1990s in which Woomera has become a rocket launch site for “Common Europe” and run by the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO). Both this and continued American occupation of a military site at North West Cape (the lease for which was agreed in 1963) are resented by the Australians. While we don’t see the Woomera site directly, it’s presented as a scar on the face of Australia, and a cause of resentment rather than an aspirational vision for the future.

“Security,” he explained. “They cleared the whole area for eighty kilometers around and sprayed it with a metallic solution. It gives Woomera a sort of radar mirror, a neutral surface that shows up anything that moves on it. Their scopes can pick up anything that walks out onto that area. And there’s no cover. They ground up the rocks, and cleared every bit of vegetation.”

The story focuses on an Australian space project at risk of a take-over by the supposedly-friendly ELDO. The white-Australian director of the project and his aboriginal-Australian assistant are centre stage as they mull Australian identity, place in the global community and independence - and attempt to unravel a mysterious problem with their project.


The 1975 World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) was held in Melbourne. In recognition of this, science fiction and fantasy author John Brosnan wrote a history of Australian Science Fiction for the Science Fiction Monthly magazine (July 1975). In it, he quoted an earlier article:

John Baxter, in the first issue of The Australian Science Fiction Review in 1966, wrote: Australian SF is rare. Only a handful of stories by Australian sf writers have had any distinctive Australian background—Frank Bryning's Place of the Throwing Stick, Lee Harding's Sacrificial [2], my own Takeover Bid— and all have been failures to some degree. Place of the Throwing Stick let an interesting image, the primitive aboriginal faced with a modern rocket ship, stand in for plot and, perhaps more important, any real evocation of the conflict the story was supposed to be concerned with. There is certainly a contrast between Australia's untouched nature and the imported sophistication of places like Woomera, but it needs to be dramatised to become art.

As Brosnan noted, the field had evolved substantially since that comment was first published, but it is certainly interesting to see this contemporary critique and the explicit recognition of Woomera as “imported” rather than native sophistication.

Woomera after the Anglo-Australian Era

From the 1970s onwards, mentions of Woomera tend to be less frequent and differently focussed. In Edmund Cooper’s The Tenth Planet (1973), remote Woomera is the last operating space port on a dying Earth, but is soon left behind and forgotten. In later science fiction, Woomera is more often mentioned in its role as a tracking station, appearing briefly to report on a rocket launched from elsewhere, usually as one of a series of tracking stations. This reflected reality to a large extent. The Woomera site had tracked a number of space missions launched by NASA as well as the USAF and this activity increased over time.

An interesting relatively late example here is the short story “Lost Explorer” by Australian author and science fiction magazine editor Frank Bryning, whose “Place of the Throwing Stick” is discussed above. Published in 1975 in Science Fiction Monthly, it positions Woomera as Moon Robot Control, a location from which semi-autonomous robot moon probes are directed. An interesting feature is that it uses the terminology of colonialism and empire as the robots explore and take scientific measurements - gently satirising the nationalistic previous efforts of crewed moon landings.

A handful of examples (mostly from long-established writers) take a more positive view. Anglo-Australian author A Bertram Chandler, for instance, wrote about Australian culture and the Aboriginal Australian worldview in several stories, notably including "The Mountain Movers" (short story, Galaxy magazine, March 1971). He imagined a very different future for Woomera in his John Grimes series (of which “The Mountain Movers” forms part) including examples such as The Anarch Lords (novella, 1981) and Star Loot (novel, 1980). This imagines Port Woomera as a huge and well-developed space port, with an associated technologically-advanced Woomera City evolved from the small research town of the 1950s. This is an Australia which makes abundant use of solar power and which has towed icebergs into port to irrigate the Outback. However, although Australia is the protagonist John Grimes’ home, Port Woomera is usually no more than a port of call for Grimes and his spaceship in these novels.

Cover of The Firebird Rocket by Franklin M DixonAnother interestingly late Woomera-focussed story - and one that’s unusual for forming part of a series from the USA - is the Hardy Boys mystery adventure story The Firebird Rocket, written by Vincent Buranelli under the series' pseudonym Franklin W Dixon in 1978 [3]. In this story the two teenage detectives and their friends try to track down a kidnapped scientist whose contribution is crucial for the successful launch of a nuclear rocket from Florida. Early in the story, we’re told that the scientist was en route to the Woomera Monitoring Station in Australia when he vanished.

“Australia?” Chet spoke up. “Why there?”

“When a rocket is fired into orbit from our Space Flight Centre, its path over the Southern Hemisphere is followed at tracking stations south of the equator. Woomera is one of the best of these installations. We are co-operating with the Australian government in monitoring our missiles, and our people go there frequently.” (pg 32, 1979 UK edition) 

So the view here is primarily that Woomera exists for tracking. However when Joe and Frank Hardy arrive at the site, there’s evidence for some broader activity:

They drove to the central installation and saw rockets of all sizes as launch-sites. Some stood upright, ready to fly into orbit. Others were set at an angle that would keep them from reaching outer space. (pg 128)

Indeed the boys are permitted to watch one rocket, called Wallaby, launch a satellite into orbit to monitor the upcoming Firebird flight. Interestingly, there is no mention of the former British involvement in the site.

A Window into Space History

Woomera has largely faded into science fiction history, as the launch site has largely faded into this history of both commercial and military spaceflight. Despite that, the narratives captured in contemporary science fiction provide an interesting window into this phase of space science history.

The frequent crewed-rocket narratives, particularly in juvenile science fiction from the UK, indicate a sense of optimism and aspiration regarding the pursuit of space. It also contains echoes of a colonial and imperial past which was already well on the wane before the Anglo-Australian Joint Project was established. While Australian personnel appear, for instance, in the novels of Hugh Walters, they are notably absent from other examples such as Man in the Moon and Orbiter X. Although technically under Commonwealth auspices these often portray British projects, run by British scientists and engineers [4]. Later stories would often emphasise cooperation within Europe or with America instead, or focus on British scientific innovation rather than practical spaceflight.

The changing attitudes towards Woomera is perhaps demonstrated in the changes astronomer and space enthusiast Patrick Moore made when he rewrote his 1955 juvenile novel Mission to Mars, for a new edition published in 2003 entitled Voyage to Mars.


Cover of Mission to Mars by Patrick Moore (credit: SF Encyclopedia)In 1955, Mission to Mars told us the Australian outback was selected…

“simply because you can’t do risky experiments in a crowded country like England. Quite apart from the fact that everyone would know just what you were doing, atomic motors give off dangerous radiations that would cause a lot of trouble, and when you start experimenting with what are called “step-rockets” there’s always the chance of one of the lower steps landing in somebody’s back garden. That’s why we chose a desert in the wildest part of Australia.” … and after a little discussion of multistage rockets continued…

“Well, there was a good deal of trouble in the years after the end of the war, and eventually the Americans joined forces with us - scrapped their own ground at White Sands, and came over to Woomera. That’s the position to-day. We’re scientists of pretty well every nationality here - Britons, Americans, Danes, Norwegians, Frenchmen - the whole lot.” (pg 11-12)

Cover of Voyage to Mars by Patrick Moore (source: isfdb)By contrast 2003’s Voyage to Mars suggested that it was instead…

“simply because we couldn’t do much in a crowded country like England. That would also wake up the environmentalists, and they’d be down on us like a ton of bricks, so we chose a desert in the least populated part of Australia. At first, we all thought that Woomera would be as big as Canaveral. But it didn’t work out that way.”

“Why not?”

“Two reasons: First, the Americans had all the money, and we hadn’t. Then the British Government decided to go along with Canaveral instead of developing things here, and for a long time there was almost no activity in Woomera at all. It only started up again less than five years ago - when what’s called nuclear-ion propulsion rockets started to come along. No way of testing those in Florida, so we got together with the Americans and others and decided on Woomera.” (pg 6)

Here, in two versions of the same text written five decades apart, we see both the shift in expectations for British world leadership, and a recognition that only the invention of a new, cleaner atomic rocket technology would make a return to deep space launches from Woomera feasible (with a grumpy-old-man’s complaint about environmentalism thrown in for good measure).


However, as the Australian works mentioned above show, even at the height of Woomera’s operations there from other perspectives was a recognition that the Anglo-Australian Joint Project was seen as an imposition and an invasion. Both “Place of the Throwing Stick” and “Takeover Bid” are unambiguous in presenting Woomera as an occupation by a presence alien to the Australian outback. While A Bertram Chandler became an Australian citizen in middle life, he was born and raised in Britain, so his contrasting vision of a shimmering modern city in South Australia is not seen from an entirely disinterested viewpoint. It is certainly a vision which never reached fruition.

Despite its complex place in the history of two nations, Woomera is still fondly remembered by the generation who remembers the optimism of the Anglo-Australian rocket-launch years. It left a deep mark on the children raised on tales of moon rockets and dashing air-force officers reaching for the stars. And the science fiction it inspires provides a time capsule of the attitudes and expectations of both nations during that brief period where knowledge of rockets was seen as crucial for the education of young boys, and the future lay in space flight - a future where Woomera was just one of a network of launch sites around the world that would take humanity into space.

“Place of the Throwing Stick”, Elizabeth Stanway, Cosmic Stories. 5th May 2024.


[1] This site is apparently not related to the district of Wongawallan in Queensland, which, based on text descriptions, is several thousand kilometres away from Journey Into Space’s Wongawalla. [Return to text]

[2] The story Sacrificial mentioned in this quote was a horror story about an old house built by convict labour taking its revenge. [Return to text]

[3] Other mystery adventure novels featuring Woomera which skirt the fuzzy borders between science fiction and contemporary spy drama include Subterfuge by Eric Charles Maine (1959) and Mettle at Woomera by James Macnell (1964). [Return to text]

[4] Indeed, many Woomera stories from British authors in the 1950s are indistinguishable from the Scotland in Space narratives which involve no Australian involvement at all. [Return to text]

All views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Warwick. All images sourced from public websites online, credited where possible and used here for commentary and criticism.