Located 486 km north of Adelaide (180 km north of Port Augusta) and positioned some 165 m above sea level, Woomera is a purpose built town designed by the Long Range Weapons Board of Administration to provide an isolated experimental ground for testing rockets. It is located in the middle of a desert terrain where the average annual rainfall is only 190 mm. The visitor enters Woomera via Pimba which is little more than a rather old style roadhouse, pub and service station near the railway line. The old rolling stock and age of the roadhouse give Pimba a rather antiquated appearance.
Woomera, the word describes a short stick used to launch a spear in the language of the local Aborigines, came into existence in 1947. At the time it was preferred over a site which had been nominated by Canada. In 1946 the Australian government received a formal request from Britain to establish a rocket range 1600 km long and 300 km wide. This was possible given the vast wastelands which existed in northwestern South Australia.
The decision to build a rocket range was made in the postwar environment when the world was still recovering from the slaughter of World War 11. As a result of German rocket attacks on Britain during that war the British had decided they needed a rocket testing range and the isolation of Woomera combined with its proximity to the railway siding at Pimba made it an ideal location.
In June 1946 the first Dakota landed on the first temporary airstrip. A regular RAAF courier service was inaugurated which provided travel, food, mail and supplies for people who were building the range. On 1 April 1947 Arcoona leased the land to the Department of Defence and the Woomera village was surveyed and built.
From 1947-1970 Woomera was an important centre. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s a number of rockets were launched culminating in the launching of the Prospero satellite in 1969.
Today there is a real feeling of decay as you enter the town. The first sight to strike the visitor is three blocks of units which have been left unoccupied as the town has contracted in size. At its peak Woomera had a population of over 5000. Today it has a population of a little over 1900 and probably half of those people are US military personnel working at nearby Nurrungar.
At the moment Woomera is a base used to support Australian armed service and the US Air Force. NASA and West Germany are launching a series of sounding rockets to gather data from the Supernova. This is part of a ten year cooperative agreement between NASA, The Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce. The Woomera Test Range is operated by Defence Research Centre in Salisbury SA.
The official literature declares that Nurrungar is a joint US - Australian Ground Station, that it is located 19 km from Woomera, and that it is not open to the public.
Things to see
Woomera Aircraft and Missile Park and Heritage Centre
The main attraction in Woomera is the excellent Lions Club of Woomera Aircraft and Missile Park and the Woomera Heritage Centre.
The Woomera Heritage Centre is open from 9.30 to 4.30 from March to November and closed December to February. It is part of the Woomera Board Project. Telephone number: (08) 8673 7810. It has a superb collection of Aboriginal artefacts from the area as well as a comprehensive display of rocket technology and 'artefacts' from the more recent past.
Outside the building are well preserved examples of most of the rockets which were launched at Woomera.
There's the Black Arrow, a large rocket which was launched four times from June 1969 to October 1972. The first launch was destroyed almost immediately because it was unstable. The second and third launches were experimental firings. The fourth put a Prospero satellite into orbit and the satellite is still circling the earth.
There's a superb Meteor Mark 7 a British jet aircraft which was used against German V-1 rockets. This particular trainer aircraft joined the RAAF in 1951 and in 1960 joined trials at the Woomera Range. Powered by two Rolls Royce Derwent Engines it flew at over 500 mph (800 km/h) which seems remarkably slow by the standards of the 1990s.
There's a famous Jindivik (the name is said to mean 'the hunted one'), the Australian designed and built pilotless target aircraft, which was first manufactured in 1952 and completed over 100 flights.
There is also the Ikara, an Australian developed anti-submarine weapon, which will deliver an American 44 type homing torpedo by means of radio tracking and guidance systems. It flight trials were conducted in Woomera in 1961 to 1969.
As well as the rockets displayed outside The Heritage Centre has a number of interesting Aboriginal artefacts including sharpened stones and grinding tools. As the woman who runs the Heritage Centre remarks 'There's a lot of interesting things out there in the desert when you go looking'.
About 30 km north of Woomera is Arcoona an old goldmine which has opened and closed according to the price of gold. Recently the owner found a significant gold lode and sold out for over $1 million. It is now in full operation.