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.

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