Des Barnsley

Des Barnsley
Desmond Barnsley
09 May 1926 – 16 July 2013


Des Barnsley was born in Yorkshire, England on the 9th of May 1926 and when he was eighteen months old his family immigrated to Australia. In Des’ words this was the first of many strokes of good fortune which occurred in his life. The family settled in the Port Macquarie area as share farmers on dairy farms. He went to a one teacher school in Huntington near Wauchope, NSW, where the teacher, Mr Gray, persuaded his parents to let Des sit for a bursary which allowed him to attend Kempsey High School. At eleven years of age he left the farm to board with the Saul family near the school.

He was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to Sydney University after completing his Leaving Certificate and studied Aeronautical Engineering there. Des graduated with honours and after a year post graduate work at the University was employed at the then Long Range Weapons Establishment at Salisbury in South Australia. This led to a two year deployment to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough in UK in 1948 to learn the basics of rocket science and technology; and on the weekends he enjoyed playing cricket.

He returned to Australia in 1950 to work at the LRWE, later Weapons Research Establishment, conducting research in guided missile technology and trials at Woomera, including flying as an observer in RAAF aircraft such as Beaufighters and Lincolns on specific projects and also having his first jet flight in a Meteor MK 7 two seater trainer. Whilst in Adelaide he married his wife, Barbara, and began a family. He also continued playing cricket, with the Kensington ‘Browns’ first team and he was proud to have played with Sir Donald Bradman’s club.

In 1962, he went to Washington DC, USA as the Defence Research & Development Attaché at the Australian Embassy where he liaised with US defence organisations and NASA on Australian support to its scientific and manned space programs. He was honoured to represent the Ambassador when John Glenn presented his Mercury capsule to the Smithsonian Institution.


Des Barnsley

John Knott (Secretary to the Department of Supply), Allen Fairhall (Australian Minister for Supply) and Des Barnsley (Defence Research & Development Attaché at the Australian Embassy in Washington) at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston in 1965 or early 1966.

They were about to be given briefings by top NASA officials, and a tour of MSC.

Screenshot and identification by Colin Mackellar from Department of Supply footage held in the National Archives of Australia, with thanks to Brian Larwood.


On return to Australia he was chosen as the Project Manager for the WRESAT project to launch a satellite into orbit on a US Redstone rocket, which was already in Australia for Project Sparta.

On 29 November 1967 WRESAT was successfully launched from Woomera in South Australia, and it remains the first and only Australian designed and developed satellite to reach orbit. It was designed for upper atmosphere and space research and its launch was acknowledged by the United States, France and Russia (among others) as a great achievement, as it saw Australia join that elite group of nations to successfully launch a satellite from their own country. Des and the team of scientists and technicians from WRE and the Physics Department of the Adelaide University developed the satellite in under a year, which was quite an achievement.

WRESAT people

L-R: Des Barnsley, Project Manager; Professor J H Carver, University of Adelaide; Mr Bryan Rofe, Officer in Scientific Charge; Dr. Don Woods.

See also the WRESAT section.

Photo: Adelaide Advertiser, November 14, 1967.

Following the successful launch of WRESAT Des was posted to Woomera where he was in charge of all trials activities at the Range. This was a busy and fascinating time for Des, who nevertheless found time to play cricket, often in over-the-century temperatures.

In mid-1970 he moved, on promotion, to Canberra to the Head Office of the Department of Supply. There he was responsible for the co-ordination of the Research and Development programs at various laboratories in support of the Australian Defence Force and our international partners, predominantly through the Technical Cooperation Project.

A further term in Washington as Counsellor Defence Science in the Defence Staff at the Australian Embassy in USA followed in the early 1980s. Once again these three years were hectic and fascinating, as Des interacted with senior US defence personnel on a large number of projects of mutual interest.

Des retired in 1987 when he obtained a private pilot licence – a lifelong ambition – and a four-wheel drive modified for camping, and he enjoyed travelling around Australia before he settled in Canberra with his family and grandchildren nearby.

Des was an engineer who loved his work and was proud of the impact of science and technology on modern society. He was admired for his integrity, sense of humour and humility. He died on 16 July 2013. His wife Barbara, children – Susan, Michael, David, Joanne, six grand-children and the extended Barnsley family have a wonderful example to follow and remember.

– Barbara Barnsley.



An edited version of this tribute was published in The Canberra Times on 8th November 2013.

Special thanks to Barbara Barnsley for sharing her text and the photo of Des.