Back in the 1950s the British rocket programme – revolving partly about their ‘Blue Steel’ missile – was in a bit of trouble. This Mach = 3 stand-off weapon was designed to arm Britain’s V-bombers but had a repute as the ‘public servant’ of missiles. You know, it didn’t work and couldn’t be fired.
This is only a slight exaggeration: actually Britain’s ‘boffins’ figured it would work, half the time, providing up to seven hours were spent preparing each one for launch.
The main problems were finance and scale, which also killed the Black Arrow and Black Knight rocket projects. All of this was expected: Britain was impoverished after the end of the Second World War, and the national aero industry consisted essentially of fewer engineers than Boeing’s hydraulics division alone, most of them sitting in leaky Nissen huts making parts for supersonic aircraft using vice-grips and hacksaws.
Well, all right, it was a bit better than that – but not much. The words ‘Bristol Brabazon’ probably sum up the main problems, a gigantic turboprop passenger aircraft that had its own cinema, cocktail bar, cloakroom, dining room and dressing rooms, but which completely missed the nature of the emerging passenger market and was never going to compete with DC-6’s and Constellations, still less the Boeing 707.
But that wasn’t to reduce the incredible machines British designers came up with in the 1950s. Donald Campbell’s CN-7 Bluebird, for example, a million quid’s worth of car designed to go 500 mph using the very latest aircraft construction techniques and technologies, including the same Proteus turboprop powerplant as the unbuilt Mk II Brabazon – a tour de force of British know-how and tech. (Campbell broke the land speed record with it at 403 mph in 1964, with peak speed of 440, but that was well below what the car was designed for – and yeah, it’s still the fastest wheel-driven car design ever).
Aircraft along these lines included the incredible TSR.2, a twin-seat supersonic fighter-bomber that was years ahead of its time and had every potential but was killed by budget cuts. The English Electric Lightning had better luck. It was a point-defence interceptor which had a climb-rate and acceleration that wasn’t decisively beaten until the North American F-15 arrived in the mid-1970s. And the first Lightning F.1 production batch, rolled out from 1959, was a grand total of (wait for it) 19 aircraft. (As a kid I had an Airfix 1/72 kit of the F.3, a much more numerous variant with a production run of 70, which means the largest Lightning manufacturer in the world wasn’t English Electric, it was Airfix).
Another promising idea that founded on the rocks of post-war penury was MUSTARD – ‘Multi-Unit Space Transport and Recovery Device’ devised by a team under Tom Smith of the British Aerospace Corporation in the mid-1960s. This consisted of a triple lifting body – three identical spaceplanes – strapped together for launch. Various configurations were tried, but in all designs, two of the MUSTARD units acted as boosters, gliding back to base after their propellant was exhausted. The third carried on into orbit.
The coolest part was that because fuel was transferred between stages, the final stage could arrive in orbit with a fair fuel load, depending on payload, meaning it was capable of then flying around the Moon. (Captain W. E. Wrigglesworth: “I say, Algy old bean, got your noddy suit on? What about a quick jolly around the old moon over there, before we drop in on the Pongoes for a spot of tea?” Flight-Lieutenant Lacey: “Sorry, Wriggles old boy, I’m afraid I don’t understand your banter.”)
The problem was, once again, no money – so MUSTARD only existed on paper. But imagine a world where it had been built – where, as some of the British sci-fi of the day insisted, space was going to be conquered not from the Americas or Russia, but from the all-British, all-Empire space base at Woomera, Australia. And that space… well, it’d be British, just like Madras curry powder, chicken tikka masala, the Taj Mahal and, of course, America before they went all independent. That’s progress for you, innit.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018
(nb: Jolly – a trip at taxpayer expense: pongoes – army: noddy suit – protective gear.)