Rockets in the desert

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In the 1960s, Simon Black was left to tinker away in obscurity, as Ivan Southall pioneered a new realism in children’s storytelling. But would-be rocketeers found some inspiration still, in Southall’s accounts of life and work on the Woomera rocket range. In Rockets in the desert, written specifically for children, Southall encourages his young readers to consider a career in rocketry. ‘There are jobs for people who love adventure’, he notes enthusiastically, ‘and for studious people who are not very interested in heroic deeds’. However, the recommendation comes with a warning, for there is ‘danger in…impatience’. ‘It would be foolish’, Southall explains, ‘to try to learn about rockets by building one yourself’. ‘No!…You must never do it’, Woomera’s chief scientist exclaims in support, ‘If you’re interested in rockets, read all you can about them, but be patient’. 1 There was no place for Simon Black in this modern world of science. Rockets were not to be built in barns, but in large government facilities staffed by ‘properly trained’ scientists. It seemed the time for tinkering was past.

Knowledge is defined in terms of barriers and boundaries. It is wrested from nature, it is staked out along the frontiers of experience, it separates people into initiates and outsiders, it sets the limits of participation and membership. In wrestling over the meaning of practical knowledge we similarly tend to focus on boundaries rather than ambiguity, to seek meaning in contrasts rather than complexity. It is much easier to assume that our enemies are ill-educated, that stupidity hinders the acceptance of our own world-changing ideas. We take comfort in the idea of progress as a journey of enlightenment, where ground is claimed and won from society’s ignorant rump. But perhaps we should be looking at means of developing understanding that involve, not the annexation of territory, but the encouragement of exchange.

In his grown-up version of the Woomera story, Southall also ends with a warning: not the dangers of playing with rockets, but the dangers of science itself. ‘Never before has any weapon presented to men so grave a choice between good and evil’, he remarks. 2 Should the research continue? Southall solicits the opinions of scientists, who reflect upon the effectiveness of deterrence and the potential of satellite communication. But these, he observes, are not the most important issues for ‘the layman who knows little or nothing of the sometimes extraordinary side-effects of defence science’. No, it is ‘the survival of his own family, and the challenge of deep space’ that most concern the ordinary man. 3 Can life be sustained on earth? Does life exist in space? For the layman in his ignorance, the question of life was uppermost. What counted as practical knowledge in a world where the progress of science brought ever more effective means of annihilation?



  1. Ivan Southall, Rockets in the desert, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1964, pp. 77-8.
  2. Ivan Southall, Woomera, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1962, p. 248.
  3. Southall, Woomera, p. 249.

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