Tuesday, 25 July 2017

British Rockets in the 1950s - (Black Knight, Blue Streak and Black Prince)

The British Research and Development branch of the military first sought to understand the German aptitude for rocketry in the spring and summer of 1945. A secret branch of the British Army, named T-Force, sought to locate and capture German scientists and technology.
Around this time and continuing after the war was Operation Backfire.

Operation Backfire was an Allied effort to gather and exploit German rocket technology, conceived by Junior Commander Joan Bernard of the British Auxilliary Territorial Service and with the support of the American government, (the operation was overseen by Maj, R. Staver of the Rocket section of the US Ordanance offices R&D dept who had been on the ground in Nordhausen in Germany in the spring, Staver himself searched laboratories looking for technicians and scientists working on the V2 rockets.)

Throughout the majority of the war Bernard held a number of posts all related to ballistic missiles in some form or other. To highlight this clearly I’ve constructed the following time line for Joan Bernard:

  • 1940 - Joined ATS, posted to Anti-Aircraft Command
  • 1941 - (30th May) Promoted to Second Subaltern, first officer rank of ATS
  • 1944 - Based at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force - SO Air Defence Division
  • 1945 - (Jul) Special Projectile Operations Group (tactical planning of defence against V1 and V2 rockets)
  • 1945 - (Aug) - Promoted to Junior Commander

Following the end of the war in Europe, Bernard left the military, but Operation Backfire continued.

Just to the north of Arensch in Germany in October 1945, Allied forces ordered a demonstration of at least three V2 rockets to be launched. The potential of this frightening weapon must have been evident as the basis of the V2 went on to inspire the first space rockets on both sides of the Atlantic.

Blue Marker points to Cuxhaven
Cuxhaven germany.jpg
Cuxhaven and surrounding region

The V2 rockets were mostly built in the famous underground Mittelwerk factory, hidden in the Kohnstein hill, by slaves taken from the nearby concentration camp.
American forces had already removed much of the technology when, just before the Soviet forces took control of the area, the British were allowed to go and remove as much material as they could. They found enough equipment to build nearly eight V2 rockets. Realising that some vital parts were missing, specifically battery packs for the guidance systems, a huge search was conducted throughout Germany. Finally, to get the some 250,000 parts back to Cuxhaven, further north west of Arensch, 400 railway cargo carriages and 70 flights took place.

The hydrogen peroxide fuel and rocket motors were already in British hands thanks to the efforts of the T-Force earlier in the year and the missing tail assemblies were provided by the Americans who had also already acquired them.
Whilst at Cuxhaven, three demonstration launches took place by German personnel for operation staff.

  • Date: 2 October 1945
    • Time: 14:41
    • Height of Flight: 69.4 kilometres (43.1 mi)
    • Distance of Flight: 249.4 kilometres (155.0 mi)
  • 4 October 1945
    • Time: 14:16
    • Height of Flight: 17.4 kilometres (10.8 mi)
    • Distance of Flight: 24 kilometres (15 mi)
    • Engine failure shortly after launch
  • 15 October 1945
    • Time: 15:06
    • Height of Flight: 64 kilometres (40 mi)
    • Distance of Flight: 233 kilometres (145 mi)
    • Press and Allies were invited to attend

In 1946 the British Interplanetary Society chaired by Ralph A. Smith, learning of the government's interest in rocket technology, submitted a proposal for a suborbital flight based on a modified V2 rocket. As we learned in the previous post; this was, sadly, rejected.
The more cynical might speculate that with no overt military application, Smith's proposal was an expense that the government had no interest in.
Coincidentally or not, the British government went on to research and develop a launch system capable of carrying a nuclear warhead from 1950 onwards. This included the Black Knight and Blue Streak rockets, tested and launched from sites in the UK and in Australia.

List of test and launch sites:
  • Isle of Wight, UK - Test
  • RAF Spadeadam, UK - Test
  • Woomera, Australia - Test and Launch

In 1955 the British government approached the company Saunders-Roe to develop and produce the Black Knight rocket. Saunders-Roe was approached due to its close relationship with the Royal Aircraft Establishment.

Image: Wikipedia

Black Knight itself was to be an experimental rocket to see how it would cope, primarily with re-entry into the atmosphere. This came about following fears that the Blue Streak nuclear ballistic missile programme that had recently been initiated might simply burn up when re-entering the atmosphere; an unknown due to the fact that Britain had never developed a ballistic missile, it being a relatively new field of scientific study.
The first Black Knight was launched from Woomera on 7th September in 1958 and was launched a further 21 times until 1965 with zero major failures.
Data gained from this programme was invaluable to the future of rocketry and the scientific community as a whole in the UK and America and enabled Britain to continue to develop the Blue Streak programme.

Initially outlined in 1955 and design proposal completed by 1957, Blue Streak was to be the nuclear deterrent that Britain felt that it needed. Having proven concepts with the Black Knight programme, further work was done to make Blue Streak a reality.
de Havilland Propellers won the contract to produce Blue Streak. Utilising an uprated Rocketdye S3D engine which was to be developed by Rolls Royce and designated the RZ.2

Image Credit: Wikipedia
Blue Streak

The engines were unique for the time by being able to be vectored by up to 7 degrees, allowing for controlled flight by autopilot. The spiralling cost of the programme (£50m in 1955 to £300m by 1960) led to the military project being cancelled.

On 13 April 1960 Defence Minister Harold Watkinson announced the cancellation of Blue Streak as a military programme and stated:

"the Government will now consider with the firms and other interests concerned, as a matter of urgency, whether the Blue Streak programme could be adapted for the development of a launcher for space satellites.”

This meant that the initial 1957 proposal for a combined Black Knight/Blue Streak launch vehicle was again proposed and, this time, met with a positive reaction.
The new project was named Black Prince but was referred to as the Blue Streak Satellite Launch Vehicle (BSSLV) in official documentation.

The first designs of this was to make use of existing technology to cut costs. The proposed design was to have Blue Streak as the first stage with Black Knight making up the second stage. The third or ‘Vernier’ stage would then travel the remaining distance to orbit to deposit the payload.

Proposed Design for Black Prince

Sadly by late 1960 it was realised that there wasn’t a large enough Budget for both satellite launcher AND satellites. With many British military satellites already having placed into orbit by American launchers, Black Prince was also abandoned not long after several alternative designs were considered and Britain had approached, unsuccessfully, other commonwealth nations to help them make up the shortfall. Instead, Britain joined the multinational Europa Launcher project
Britain finally launched their own satellites in the 1960s which we will get to in a later post...

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The British Interplanetary Society - 1940s (Megaroc)

In 1939, with the advent of World War II, the BIS became very inactive; as one would expect!
Of course this didn't stop it's members brains from considering space travel when they got time to themselves. Following the end of the war the Society re-convened in 1945 and very quickly continued with their activities.
A prominent member and future society president, Arthur C. Clarke, published an article entitled 'Extra Terrestrial Relays' in Wireless World magazine.
The first draft of this hugely important article was rather cumbersomely named 'Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?' and can actually be seen in the Smithsonian. From this he is quite rightly considered the ‘conceiver of the geostationary telecommunications satellite’.

Between 1945 and and 1950 the BIS continued to develop and publish important ideas and designs for the future of space travel ranging from Space Stations down to Space Suits and, more feasibly, sending men into space using the technology gleaned from V2 rockets that were captured during the war.

1948 BIS Space Station as designed by Harry Ross and Ralph Smith

The Lunar Space Suit by Harry Ross and Ralph Smith Approx. 1949

The name given to the rocket for use in the sub-orbital flight project that utilised the captured V2 rockets was Megaroc. It was, once again, the brainchild of Harry Ross and Ralph Smith. After Smith surmised that a V2 was ‘nearly big enough to carry a man…’ the pair set to work in 1946 to design a proposal based on these rockets. The proposal was submitted to the British Government in Dec 1946 but was ultimately rejected.

N.B. It is worth noting at this point that the greatest minds in America were also thinking along such lines and there are a large number of similarities between Megaroc and the Mercury project. The American project was much grander however and their ultimate goal was orbital flight.

What if Megaroc had been given the go ahead?

The aim of Megaroc was to carry a man to 304 km above the Earth's surface where studies of the Sun and of the Earth itself would be carried out by the single human occupant.
Megaroc itself was to be a bigger and ‘beefier’ version of the German V2. Although the original rocket motor was to be used, the tank volume was increased and reinforced so as to accommodate more propellant. The motor was to burn at full thrust for nearly 2 mins (110 secs) at 9.8 m/s² and after reaching an altitude of approx. 46,000m it would fire for a further 38 secs at a constant acceleration of around 20m/sec². (The single pilot would be experiencing 3g at this point in comparison to Mercury pilots hitting up to 9g.)

Smith and Ross discussing Megaroc

The jet control vanes at the base of the motor were enlarged and adapted so as to give the rocket a slight roll or ‘spin’ during flight. The stability provided by this meant that the designers could do away with the large and heavy fins at the base of the rocket.

German V2 Rocket

In the image above; where you see the warhead, automatic gyro control and guidebeam and radio command transmitters, a single pilot was seated in a pressurised pod wearing a standard pressurised high-alt flight g-suit. The pod, or capsule, was accessible via a pair of hatches, one each side of a single round viewing porthole. The capsule was to be jettisoned from the hull for safe return to Earth and, for that purpose, a ‘strobo-periscope’ was also included to allow the pilot to view behind themselves after detaching from the main hull.

As the pilot hit 3g they were to manually reduce thrust to keep the g reading constant. In case of emergency where the pilot were to suffer blackouts or be otherwise incapacitated, the thrust control doubled as a dead man's lever, giving ‘ground control’ radio control of the rocket should the pilots grip relax.
Once the atmospheric pressure had reduced to a set point, the nose cone sections would release, leaving the pilot to activate a small pressurized air charge to separate the capsule from the main body of the rocket. On separation a delay timer also kicked in which would deploy the parachute for the rockets hull at the correct time.
The apex of the flight was expected to be achieved at 6 mins and 16 secs, giving the pilot a limited time to make observations and studies at a variety of different g-forces. After aligning the capsule correctly for re-entry, the pilot would then deploy the constant drag parachute at 113 km, the main ‘chute deploying as they approached the Earth and detaching on impact to stop the capsule being pulled along the ground.


Edit: I have since found the following online.

Megaroc Stats:
Hull diameter:                   2.18 m
Length of rocket:              17.5 m
Launch weight:                 21.2 tonnes
Cabin return weight:         586 kg

Other Stats:
Maximum ascent acceleration imposed on pilot:    3 g
Maximum deceleration imposed on pilot:               3.3 g

Launched from a tower inclined at an angle of 2° from the vertical

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

The British Interplanetary Society -1930s

As mentioned in my first post, I want to learn more about the history of Britain in space travel and exploration and to share that with anyone that may be interested. It’s not as well known as the American or Russian, or even Chinese for that matter, programs but it exists and has done for over 80 years.

As I said, the best place to start is at the beginning. So here we are…

In 1933 Britain was very much in recovery. Following the economic downturn of the late 20s and early 30s, the government budget deficit was beginning to improve, unemployment had almost halved from 15% to 8% and inflation was recovering well. It was an impressive rebound from the slump that had preceded.This positive air was reflected in the industry of the country at that time, including in aviation where great strides were being made.

A Scottish woman, Winifred 'Winnie' Drinkwater, was hired to fly the first domestic route to Scotland; making her the world's first commercial airline pilot. Winnie was just 20 years old.
Her plane for this route was a DeHavilland Fox Moth though she later flew a DeHavilland Dragon between Glasgow and London.

Winnie Drinkwater in 1932

Further south the Rolls Royce Merlin engine was run for the first time which was later to prove crucial to the RAF through the use of them during World War II in the Spitfire, Hurricane, Lancaster and many more.

With so much promise it seems only natural that those interested in flight would turn their eyes even higher and start to contemplate what might lie beyond our own blue canopy.

Founded by Philip E. Cleator when aged 25, his interest in space had been ignited when as a teenager he’d seen a film about radium and how it could potentially be harnessed as a nuclear fuel. The final scene was of a rocket like ship, heading for the heavens and leaving a blazing trail in its wake.

P.E. Cleator
As he learned of the American Interplanetary Society (AIS) and the VfR in Germany, it spurred him on to pursue his curiosities. Contacting the AIS in 1931 he was put in touch with fellow enthusiasts across the globe. In early 1933 he published a letter in the local newspaper, the Liverpool Echo asking people interested in the same to get in touch.

As well as promoting the ideas of Astronautics, the BIS were keen to conduct experiments with rockets much like the AIS and VfR had been. This goal was broken when, in 1936, the Explosives act of 1875 prevented the BIS from going any further. The act prevented private individuals or organisation from testing any liquid fuel rockets anywhere in the United Kingdom.

Later, in 1936, Cleator published his book ‘Rockets Through Space: The Dawn of Interplanetary Travel’ which was met with disdain by the future Astronomer Royal Richard Woolley who stated in his review of the book:

"The whole procedure [of shooting rockets into space]...presents difficulties of so fundamental a nature, that we are forced to dismiss the notion as essentially impracticable, in spite of the author's insistent appeal to put aside prejudice and to recollect the supposed impossibility of heavier-than-air flight before it was actually accomplished"

Even upon Woolleys appointment as Astronomer Royal in 1956 he re-iterated these feelings by saying:

"It's utter bilge. I don't think anybody will ever put up enough money to do such a thing . . . What good would it do us? If we spent the same amount of money on preparing first-class astronomical equipment we would learn much more about the universe . . . It is all rather rot"

Undeterred the BIS continued their research and in 1939 made a proposal for a project to land 3 people on the surface of the moon. They were to stay for 14 days and then take off and return to Earth. This involved a multistage, solid fuel rocket. Which they named the Lunar Spaceship.

BIS Lunar Spaceship

The BIS with a model of the Lunar Spaceship. On the far left we see Cleator while on the far right we see Arthur C. Clarke; an early member

So we can understand the challenges facing the BIS, the following explanation is what was understood at the time:

To achieve lift off, a single stage would require more than 99% of the mass of the rocket to be propellant to achieve total velocity changes greater than 16km/s (more than 4 times the capacity of known propellants of the time), the ‘stepped’ idea was developed. This meant that each stage of a four stage rocket would only have to provide total velocity changes of greater than 4km/s thus, they surmised that the propellant mass would be reduced to a more reasonable 75%

Unfortunately, the final payload would suffer as a result,and would have to be reduced inversely proportionally to some number raised to the power of the number of stages. If we optimistically assume that number to be 10 then with the above mentioned four stages, the payload itself might only constitute 0.0001% of the lift-off mass.

Essentially the more more informed opponents of this endeavor would argue that the ship would more than likely have required at least five stages if not more.
To carry a final payload of one tonne then, the initial ship would have rivaled the largest ocean going vessels of the time in sheer size and mass and would have been financially and physically impossible for the time.

To get around this problem, the BIS designed their ship following the principles laid out in R. Goddard's paper of 1919, ‘A method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes’ wherein he described a multistage rocket that shed excess structure after each stage, reducing the thrust required each time. This would mean that the final payload percentage of the rocket would be significantly higher.

The BIS Lunar Spaceship was described in the January 1939 Journal by H.E. Ross:

‘The vessel was divided into six tiers (steps) of equal hexagonal cross-section and the six sections were made up of an array of tubes each consisting of a separate rocket motors. Each of the lowest 5 steps was made up of 168 motors, intended to impart sufficient velocity to achieve escape from the Earth’s gravitation. The remaining stage consisted of 45 medium motors and 1200 smaller tubes intended to land the remainder of the vessel on the Moon; allow for subsequent escape from the latter (leaving redundant structure on the surface of our satellite), and for reduction in velocity prior to entering Earth’s atmosphere.’

BIS Lunar Spaceship, Lunar Lander

As a result of the Lunar Spaceship study, the BIS concluded a method for landing on, and taking off from the moon.

N.B. - Mr R.A. Smith published an article after World War II in 1947 - ‘Landing on an Airless World’ Where he further developed this idea. He was actually to go on to accurately depict the procedure that Apollo 11 and subsequent landings were to use with their Lunar Excursion Module.

This effectively brings us up to the close of the 1930s. In the next decade the BIS would go on to look towards suborbital flight and more which I will look at in the next post.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Space Guy UK - An Introduction

Having been born in Bristol in the South West of England; during my school days I was taught of the past glories (and shame I later came to understand) of the Great British Empire. At one time the Sun never set upon the Empire; such was its reach!
Our achievements included such things as the Magna Carta in 1215, the genesis of modern democracy. Shakespeare in the late 1500s, then Born in 1642 was Isaac Newton, the Father of modern physics and the first in a long line of ground breaking scientists even to this day, thank you very much Mr Hawking. The industrial revolution steamed on from about 1760 until around 1840, changing the landscape of our planet as we know it. I could go on for hours!

So it came to be that, when at the age of 8, upon discovering a large book ‘The History of Space Travel in 1988 I assumed that NASA were a British organisation. And quite rightly so!
I must admit that I started to get suspicious when my demands to go to Cape Kennedy and Houston were met with laughter from my Dad, telling me that it was too far and his car couldn’t fly. That was how I learnt to read maps, trying to plot a way to famous sites listed in my new favourite book.

When I discovered NASA was a wholly American undertaking, it didn’t shake my curiosity or wonderment, only cemented them even further. It made Gods of Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins that they were so far removed from my understanding of my own place in the world, And when I read even further back, through Grissom, Glenn, Cooper, Shepard, Schirra, Slayton and then I saw Carpenter. I can remember to this day, the sharp intake of breath - - ‘That’s MY name!! Is he my uncle??’ Sadly not as it transpired.

It’s interesting to note here that this fantastic book, ‘The History of Space Travel’ published in the early 80s made little to no reference to the Soviet space programme. I’m sure it mentioned Sputnik and Laika but I would swear blind that I didn’t hear the name Gagarin for at least a year in another book called (I think) ‘The Encyclopaedia of Space’ that I received from my Nan, along with a very basic telescope for my 9th birthday. (It was blue!)

And so to today. Now in my mid 30s I have rediscovered my love and passion for all things space. I have a new telescope (It's black!), am enjoying reading a whole range of things to do with the history of space and have been reminded of that feeling I had when I was 8. - 'Why weren't Britain more involved?' which has prompted me to research this history and stick it on a blog to share with whoever wants to read it!

There's no better place to start than the beginning so keep your eyes peeled for something coming soon!

Image Credit: P. Carpenter

Cheers guys :)

Black Arrow - Britain’s First Satellite Carrier

Hi to all!  I have recently been having some time off which is why there haven’t been any posts for a couple of weeks but I am now back...