The South African Rocket & Space Programme

The South African Rocket and Space Programme

The story of the RSA rockets

South Africa's Rocket ProgrammeSouth Africa's Rocket & Space Programme

It is a well-known fact that South Africa is a great engineering nation, but the space programme of the late 80's and early 90's must surely have been a surprise to even the harshest sceptic.  The story of the RSA rockets reads straight from the pages of a James Bond spy novel.  It has all the elements:  From international conflict to engineers living double lives in order to conceal what they were truly working on.  Even to this day, details on the programme remain sketchy, but the following article reveals some information on this coup de grace for the local industry.

The RSA-3 satellite launcher (illustration seen on the left) began development as a launch platform in the 1980's because of the perceived threat around the borders of our country.  The objective of the satellite launcher was to place a small surveillance satellite of 330 kg mass into a 41 degree, 212 x 460 km orbit around the earth.  The launcher was also capable of delivering nuclear payload.  Development continued even after South African renunciation of its nuclear weapons. The programme concluded around mid-1994. The RSA-3 was developed by the Houwteq organisation. The Overberg Test Range near Bredasdorp was used for test flights. The engine test facility was at Rooi Els. At the peak of development in 1992 50 - 70 companies in the public and private sector were involved, employing 1300 -1500 people.

The first and second stages of RSA-3 used the same rocket motor loaded with 9 tonnes of propellant. The first stage used vanes in the exhaust for steering during the first 16 to 20 seconds of flight, after which the fins at the base of the vehicle provided aerodynamic control. The second stage had a higher expansion nozzle and may have been equipped with TVC for steering. Atop the second stage was a guidance / orientation / spin-up bus for the third stage and payload. Total mass of this bus and the payload shroud was 583 kg. After second stage burnout, the upper stage package entered a 148 second ballistic coast. A sideways trajectory deflection was made and the shroud was jettisoned. Then the third stage and payload were spun up, following by separation of the bus. The spin-stabilised third stage then made the 4,555 m/s burn to place the payload into orbit.

The South African space programme has now been concluded, having successfully served its purpose.  This proudly South African programme will forever stand proud in the pages of aviation history...

The composite payload fairing for the RSA-3 was 4.5 m long, 1.3 m in diameter, and had a mass of 57 kg. The solar array for the satellite had a mass of under 7 kg and with three panels could supply 295 W of power. The fairing could resist temperatures of up to + 100 degrees C during ascent and the thermal satellite blanket insulated the payload from temperatures ranging from -80 degrees C to + 100 degrees C.

As an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile), it is estimated that the three-stage version of the RSA-3 could have delivered a 340 kg warhead on cities as remote as Washington DC or a 400 kg warhead on Moscow!

Today one example of the RSA-3 (complete with satellite in the final stage) rests at Swartkop museum.  This exhibit is truly a must-see for aviation and space enthusiasts.

The following is the detailed launch trajectory of the RSA-3:



Time from Launch -sec

Height -km

Slant Range - km

Vehicle Mass - kg

Velocity - m/s







Separation Stages 1/2






Separation Stages 2/3






Bus maneuver and shroud ejection






Ignition of Apogee Kick Motor (AKM)






Burnout of AKM






Separation of Payload







The South African space programme has now been concluded, having successfully served its purpose.  This proudly South African programme will forever stand proud in the pages of aviation history...

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