Saturday, March 16, 2024

Boom: The Space Race, 1


Everyone has a first public event they remember, and for me, it is the live television broadcast of the landing of Apollo 9. I was a bit young as these stories go, and this might have something to do with the fact that, as it turns out, this was four days before my fifth birthday. I was far too young to remember the two events sequentially, but heightened attention to the one  might have leaked over to heightened attention to the other, I dunno. The point here, such as it is, is that I will have my 60th birthday this year. I try not to blather on about work around here too much, so I won't go into the details of why I am not getting all the paid time off that the contract says I get, just to note, once again, that it has to do with the lack of younger workers at my place of employment and in the Canadian economy in general. Hence the clever double meaning of the title of this series, a reference to the baby boom as well as to the "space race" that culminated on 20 July 1964. Do the two things go together? I sure think so right now!

Even if they don't, this blog obviously can't ignore the space race, and this is the first occasion in the progression of the technological postblogging where it seems appropriate to give the space race its own series. Notice how I've cleverly begun the enumeration of this series in Arabic numerals? That's so I'm not working out the Roman notation for "47" at some point in the probably not-so-distant future. 

So speaking of the first things we remember from childhood, the picture above the fold isn't an outhouse with adequate vents, as we're still waiting on science for that. It's an "Unrotated projectile" mounting on HMS George V. "Unrotated projectiles" were solid-fuel rockets  "developed for the Royal Navy by Alwyn Crow of the Projectile Development Establishment of the Ministry of Supply at Fort Halstead," and perhaps the reason Wikipedia knows the name of the government scientist behind it is Crow's pathetic "we meant to do that" apology for confining British wartime rocket development to the UP, plus the more useful RATO, RP-3 air-to-ground rocket, PIAT, and, I think, Squid ASW mortar? Or maybe they remember, like me, his kinsman at the Foreign Office, Sir Eyre Crow, who pops up frequently in discussions of appeasement. It's certainly a family of distinctive names! 

Speaking of which, I'm launching this series today because of a working paper commissioned from the Guided Weapons Department of RAE Farnborough in "late 1954," per Desmond King-Hele's introduction to the eventual paper on reconnaissance satellites, duly submitted at some point in the next year, and enthusiastically recommending the development of such a thing, anticipating that it would be launched by the BLUE STREAK. or, as a further discussion of 1957 specified, by a two-stage rocket using a BLACK KNIGHT launched by a BLUE STREAK and carrying the satellite payload. 

The parallel lines my mind is working down here are genealogical. On the one hand, King-Hele's department is presumably the descendant of Crow's, now thinking much more ambitiously. On the other, "Hele," like "Crow" is a distinct and resonant name, and one wonders if Desmond was a relative of  "H. S. Hele Shaw," (as a man known mainly from the potted biographies attached to engineering papers, his Christian name is lost to the vagaries of inline citation), two-thirds of the  person behind the Hele-Shaw-Becham variable pitch propeller and rotary hydraulic motor. Because, of course, it was the De Havilland Propellers division that was selected to develop the BLUE STREAK.

I hope at this point that I have the bulk of the random free associating done. The paper in question was turned up by C. N. Hill, and discussed in his A Vertical Empire: A History of the British Rocketry Programme (London: Imperial College Press, 1994; 2nd Edition 2011); 180--83). King-Hele's exploration of the possible military uses of space and the space-related uses of BLUE STREAK, come very early in the history of that programme, which by the time he was writing, was intended to succeed the V-bombers as the next stage of the British nuclear deterrent from 1965 on, a silo-based IRBM that would presumably pioneer the infrastructure for the ICBM to follow. 

It's hard to believe that this wasn't posed deliberately.
 Some ver small posthumous revenge from Viscount Watkinson
By Godfrey Argent - Original publication:
back=Immediate source:
jsp?articleid=60347&back=, Fair use, https://en. 
Hill has a pretty good discussion of the 1960 death of BLUE STREAK, finding the fingerprints of Lord Mountbatten and Solly Zuckerman all over it, a subtle, even diabolical trap for Duncan Sandys in it, a bathetic picture of  Harold Watkinson, the new Minister of Defence and virtual political neophyte who was tasked with wielding the knife, and, at the end of the day, a plausible defence of the pretextual cancellation. In the last analysis, a land-based deterrent is a weapon of pre-emption, inviting launch on warning and impossible to recall. It may make sense as part of a strategic triad, but gives way to air or sea-launched systems. Hill then busily moves along to what he regards as the real tragedy, the slow death of the space programme that was built around the various BLUE STREAK commitments, particularly to Australia, and, within this more general failure, a more specific one in the failure of that programme to utilise the hydrogen-oxygen motors under development at the Rocket Propulsion Establishment.

The news here is that there was a Rocket Propulsion Establishment, which is now famous for being obscure, "not marked on Ordnance Survey maps." This seems like an important part of the story of Britain "ignoring" rockets in the years after the war! As it turns out, Britain's V-2 men were less impressive than Britain's Me163 men, and the fist thing RPE Westcott jumped on was rockets based on hydrogen peroxide oxidising jet fuel. We've already heard about that around here in the form of the De Havilland Sprite, and by the end of the decade it had given rise to the BLACK KNIGHT, a very successful - but unambitious suborbital rocket programme testing  re-entry  vehicles.

Along with SKYLARK, BLACK KNIGHT might be the most unambiguously satisfactory programme of the Colour Code era. Which is bizarre. What made the British political establishment's wind so sound for  British political establishment's wind proved far more sound for ICBM re-entry  systems? I mean, let's recall the political capital spent on CHEVALINE! And the money, too. The overarching theme of the space programme decade was ceaseless complaints about the cost of rocketry and suggestions that if it were such a good idea, the private sector would be doing it. 

Beyond that, though, I am struck by the fact, now that I know that RPE Waldcott existed, that work was going on with solid-fuel, hydrazine, and hydrogen-oxygen motors there, and that much of the reason that this work didn't come to anything was the constant refrain that the Americans were doing it, so why bother? Departing from his neutral tone at one point, C. N. Hill calls this for what it is: "Sponging."

And it began with the decision to cancel the V-1000, not the "Sandys Axe." Meaning that we can't blame it on the Conservative government,
because there was no Conservative government between Churchill's stroke and his resignation. 

Is that fair? It seems hard to argue that the lesser NATO powers, Britain included, needed to duplicate what the United States was doing anyway in terms of capability. It is very tempting to make this about a recent American President, but in fact there have been complaints from America about European "sponging" from the beginning. It's not wrong, it is invidious, and the only alternative one can imagine is a political break between the United States and the United Kingdom that tests the limits of my willingness to entertain counterfactuals. Maybe if Dewey had been in charge when the Chinese counterattack began in Korea? 

I will, however, entertain the possibility that the economic fates of North America and the rest of the world began to diverge with the Space Race rather than with WWII.  The  Eisenhower Recession is about to begin, while Britain is enjoying a period of prosperity. These things can happen. 

Births, UK

1950: 818,00

1951: 796,000

1952: 793,000

1953: 804,000

1954: 795,000

1955: 789,000

1956: 825,000

1957: 851,000

1958: 870,000

1959: 879,000

1960: 918, 000

1961: 944,000

1962: 976,000

1963: 990,000

1964: 1,014,672

. . . And there it goes:

from 1965, at 997,000, the number of live births declines to an absolute historic minimum of 676,000 in 1977. The historic pattern is the same as North America, so it is the amplitude of the swing from low to  high count that explains the differing demographic history of the tight little island and the big old continental countries. Understanding it would also seem to require pairing these numbers with the central birth cohort of the parents, which will depend on their average age, and that data might be out there, but I am not looking for it today. Also, it is very definitely a cultural moment and not  just some wacky thing that happened. A million babies out of 54 million people is a lot! (Although the United States managed 4 million, and Canada, 400,000.)



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