NEWPORT-BORN former High Down rocket technician Lionel Bassett has celebrated his 90th birthday with family and friends in Perth, Western Australia.

Mr Bassett was joined by his twin sons Richard and Jon, both 53, at the celebration at the Secret Harbour Golf Club, 40km south of Perth, last month.

His eldest son Craig, 59, still lives in the United Kingdom.

Mr Bassett was born on July 16, 1931. After leaving nine years of service with the Royal Navy - which he joined a month shy of his 16th birthday in 1947 - a chance interview at Saunders-Roe Aircraft in East Cowes led him to join those who built, tested and flew Black Knight, Blue Streak and Black Arrow rockets that took Britain into the post-war space race from the late-1950s to 1970s.

Isle of Wight County Press: Newport-orn and Island raised Lionel Bassett aged 17 at HMS Ganges in 1948.

Newport-born and Island-raised Lionel Bassett, aged 17, at HMS Ganges in 1948.

The last Black Arrow lifted the British Prospero satellite into space from the Woomera rocket range in South Australia on October 28, 1971, just weeks after the project was cancelled in Whitehall defence cuts.

“Everyone on the project was disappointed they’d decided that as we had worked on it for four years, and had been at the Isle of Wight’s test site at High Down for 11 years, but we had managed to launch our own satellite on our own vehicle and that made us proud,” Mr Bassett said from his retirement home in Perth.

The rockets were assembled at Saunders-Roe – now Venture Quays – before being tested at High Down at the Isle of Wight’s far western tip, next to The Needles.

They were flown from Bembridge Airport for a sometimes two-week trip to be launched deep in the Australian Outback north of Adelaide.

“Everything up at High Down was a replica of what was out at Woomera so we could practice launches, but when we did we would have to tell The Needles lighthouse keepers to get their permission,” Mr Bassett said.

The rocket motors’ exhausts would spill down the natural bowl of the site and over the sheer white chalk cliffs into nearby Scratchells Bay.

“No one knew anything about what we were doing because it was such new technology, new equipment at the time, and there was such a small group of us.”

In the Royal Navy, Mr Bassett was a telegraphist petty officer in the home fleet, Far East and ashore at a radio relay station in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka.

“I didn’t fancy the army or the air force because my dad Frank was in both before and during the war, and the Royal Navy was the best choice because it moved around the world,” Mr Bassett said.

While firing rockets he also refereed many Isle of Wight Football Association games, after qualifying while in Ceylon.

He was on leave from the Royal Navy playing football for Seaclose Park-based Barton FC when the game he still loves left a life-long mark in the early-1950s.

“I had a collision with another player in a match against Ryde FC that I still remember well because of my team mate Vic Sheath saying ‘It’s gone’, and I had broken my nose,” Mr Bassett said.

Isle of Wight County Press: Lionel Bassett (centre) with sons Jon (left) and Richard at the 90th birhday celebration in Perth, Western Australia.

Lionel Bassett, centre, with sons Jon, left, and Richard at the 90th birthday celebration in Perth, Western Australia.

In 1974 he was able to take his family to Woomera for another rocket project for two years.

But after returning to the Isle of Wight they migrated to Sydney to escape Britain’s economic downturn of the early 1980s, before shifting to the city of Perth on the west coast of the continent.

They were moves Mr Bassett has not regretted.

“It’s been great to experience Australia and have a lifestyle where you have freedom and opportunity, and to travel the country to see what everyone has been talking about,” he said.

The Isle of Wight is still the home of his sisters, Sue and Marion.

It is the resting place of his elder sister, Pat, and her husband, long-serving county councillor Keith Lacey, while his younger brother Den, who played for Parkhurst FC before emigrating to Australia recently passed away in Sydney.

Despite the many years away, apart from a summer back with siblings in the 1990s, the Isle of Wight still holds a special place for Mr Bassett.

”It’s because I was born and grew up there, and like many Islanders living across the world believe were are lucky to have had lived a life there too,” he said.