Sunday, 1 April 2012

A very special relationship: NASA, BIS and the race to the moon

More years back than I care to remember I met a British satellite engineer who was part of a team investigating a loose component rattling around its latest project...which unfortunately was already in Earth orbit. By rolling the satellite via its attitude thrusters they hoped to discover the nature of the problematic item, which I glibly suggested might have been an absent-minded engineer's lunchbox. I don't believe my idea was followed up and as it was, I never did find out the outcome. Answers on a postcard, please!

The relevance of this anecdote is that as discussed in an earlier post on boffins, it's often been said that Britain stopped technologically trailblazing some decades back. Now, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, newly-released material suggests the pipe-smoking 'backroom boys' might have played a more pivotal role in astronautics than has been generally made public. Some aviation experts consider the fabled TSR2 strike aircraft (envisioned in 1956 and cancelled a decade later) as the last project where Britain took the lead, but the most recently released FoI records offer tantalising evidence otherwise.

I realise this idea requires concrete evidence, but we have to remember that despite tiny budgets by American standards, Britain is the original home of numerous technological advances, from the Hawker Harrier 'jump' jet to the hovercraft. And never forget that the USA has never developed a supersonic airliner in the forty-plus years since Concorde first flew. One reason the UK has apparently failed to keep up could be that transatlantic politics have overridden the applied science. For example, the satellite engineer mentioned above also worked on the 1980's fiasco known as Project Zircon, a British military satellite that was cancelled allegedly due to skyrocketing costs (there's sort of a jest in there, if you look hard enough). But what if an additional, if not real primary reason, was pressure from the US Government? There have been hints over the years that the European Launch Development Organisation, a predecessor of the European Space Agency, was forced to cancel its remote-controlled space tug project as NASA (and therefore the White House) deemed it too advanced and therefore a potential competitor. So if post-war British technology has been deemed a commercial or security risk to the USA, might the latter have applied pressure to cancel the project or even take over the research, lock, stock and blueprint?

This might sound far-fetched, but many a former British security officer's memoirs have mentioned that the 'special relationship' between the two nations has led the UK to kowtow to the USA on numerous occasions. This ranges from automatically offering new military-biased technology such as signals intelligence software to the US, through to diverting national security listening resources to US-specified targets at the drop of a hat. So might it be possible that political pressure rather than rising costs and technological failures has caused the cancellation of advant-garde projects, or even that the US has unfairly appropriated British high-tech wizardry?

The main thrust of this post (pun on its way) concerns the Apollo/Saturn spacecraft and rocket system (geddit now?) and how the US apparently single-handedly managed to achieve a moon landing less than a decade after the start of manned spaceflight. After all, if you consider that the Saturn V was a completely reliable, purpose-built civilian launch vehicle, unlike earlier manned spacecraft which had relied on adapted ballistic missiles, and in addition was far larger and more powerful than any previous American rocket, it seems incredible how quickly the project came together. Also, one of the chief designers was Wernher von Braun, an idealistic dreamer whose primary life-long interest appears to have been a manned mission to Mars and who a decade before Apollo had been developing plans for 160-foot long rocket ships carrying crews of twenty astronauts! Even the doyen of technology prophets Arthur C. Clarke was sceptical that NASA could achieve President Kennedy's goal for a manned moon landing before 1970.

In which case, I hear you ask, how did Project Apollo succeed so magnificently, especially when the N1, the USSR's equivalent, pretty much failed to escape the launchpad? It wasn't with the help of alien technology, that's for sure. At this point it is worth going back into Clarke's past. In 1937 the Technical Committee of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS), of which Clarke was twice chairman, began a study for a manned moon landing mission. The launch vehicle was comparatively modest compared to Saturn V and the N1, utilising tiers of several thousand small solid-fuel rockets, each step being akin to the later real-life launch vehicle stages. Then in 1949, knowledge of the German V-2 rockets (in which Wernher von Braun had played a key role) led the BIS team to switch to liquid-fuelled engines.

But if the rocket seems highly impractical to modern eyes*, the manned component of the BIS scheme was remarkable for its similarity to NASA hardware, being a combination of the Apollo CMS and LM craft. Many of its features are fundamentally identical to the real thing, from carbon dioxide scrubbers to landing parachutes. Even the EVA suits bear a striking similarity to the NASA design, albeit using less advanced materials. The only big difference I can see was the lack of an onboard computer in the BIS design: hardly surprising, considering the first programmable electronic computer, the room-sized Colossus at Bletchley Park, didn't become operational until 1944 (beat that, ENIAC!) I assume the poor navigator would be stuck with a slide rule instead, provision having been made in the ship's larder for coffee to keep them awake.

*Since then, real launch vehicles have used the modular approach, including the private company OTRAG in the 1970s and '80s and even the Saturn V's predecessors, Saturn 1 and 1B, which used a cluster of eight boosters around the core of the first stage.

But the moon landing project wasn't totally restricted to paper: several instruments were actually built, including an inertial altimeter and a coelostat that was demonstrated at the Science Museum in London. The competence of the Technical Committee members shouldn't be underestimated, as in addition to Arthur C. Clarke they included A.V. Cleaver (another sometime BIS chairman) and R.A. Smith, both of whom later worked on British military rocket and missile projects.

British Interplanetary Society moon lander
The British boffin's ultimate pipe dream

It might not appear convincing that these British speculations could have been converted into NASA blueprints, but a combination of carrot and stick during the dark, paranoid days of the Cold War might have been enough to silence the BIS team's complaints at the appropriation of their work. After all, the project generated a lot of attention even before the Second World War, with coverage in Time Magazine and a visit from a presumed Nazi agent in 1939.

What's more, by the early 1950s Clarke was communicating with now US-based ex-V-2 rocketeers von Braun and Hermann Oberth, whilst R.A. Smith's son later worked for NASA on the Apollo programme! There is even an intriguing suggestion that the very idea of launching early satellites on adapted military missiles (a technique utilised by both the USA and USSR) was promoted in the former country by Alexander Satin, then chief engineer of the Air Branch of the Office of Naval Research, US Navy, after he witnessed a satellite project at the 1951 Second Astronautical Congress in London. And of course, that project's team included Clarke and Cleaver; the space community in those days must have been rather on the small side.

Despite the organisation's name, there have been many American BIS members over the decades, including senior NASA figures such as Dr. Kurt Debus, Director of the John F. Kennedy Space Center during the 1960s; and Gerald Griffin, a Lead Flight Director during the Apollo programme. NASA's primary contractors for Apollo were equally staffed with BIS members, including Grumman's project manager for the Lunar Module (LM), Joseph Gavin Jr. I'm not suggesting that every blivet and gubbins (to use Clarkian terms) on the BIS lunar ship was directly translated into NASA hardware, but the speed with which Project Apollo succeeded, especially compared to the USSR's failure despite its' initial head start, smacks of outside assistance. For an example of how rapidly NASA contractors appear to have cobbled together their designs, Thomas Kelly, Grumman's LM Chief Design Engineer, admitted he was one of only two employees working on LM designs for several years leading up to the NASA-awarded contract in 1962.

In addition to the BIS material, there are X-Files style hints that the British Government was making strides of a more nuts-and-bolts nature with its own lunar landing programme. In 1959 the UK's rocket launch site in Woomera, Australia, appears to have begun construction of a launch pad capable of handling the two- and three-stage man-rated rockets then under development by various British aerospace consortiums, the most prominent of which included winged orbiters akin to more recent NASA lifting body designs. (Incidentally, five UK companies at the time were involved in spacesuit development, with the final Apollo EVA suit owing a lot to the undergarment cooling system developed in the UK.)

Just to put a spanner in the works, one negative piece of evidence for my technology censorship hypothesis is that NASA clearly took no notice of the BIS crew menu. Even after Apollo 11 large strides in technology continued to be made, but the work of the food technologists was not amongst them: all Apollo astronauts lost weight and suffered electrolyte imbalance, which clearly would not have happened if they had stuck to the wholesome fare - ham and cheese sandwiches, porridge, and the like - envisioned by the British boffins. It's a shame that their health temporarily suffered, but at least Neil Armstrong and co. could take music cassettes of everyone from Dvorak to the Beatles on their journeys; imagine being stuck in a small cabin with scratchy recordings of Flanagan and Allen or Vera Lynn...