First, a little history:
High test peroxide is a very nasty chemical indeed, 85% H2O2 and 15% H2O. It needs only the least excuse to break down into water (so hot it turns instantly into superheated steam) and nascent oxygen, single oxygen atoms that are ravenous for something to oxidise. If it finds a hydrocarbon, methanol for example, it really goes to town, more water, more CO2 and lots and lots more heat.
If you arrange things so the mixing happens in a rocket nozzle then the steam shoots out the back and you’re off to space. The Me 163 rocket fighter used it as the oxidiser in its 3,000 lbf engine. In manned aircraft the disadvantage of the stuff became very obvious – humans are made of hydrocarbon. Dip your finger into a flask of HT peroxide and you pull it out as a bone. Crash a 163 with any fuel left in it and the pilot was likely to dissolve.
Wernher von Braun, a man who aimed for the stars but often hit London, thought it too dangerous for his V2 vengeance weapon and used the LOX/hydrocarbon mix that eventually sent man to the moon, but the UK was using HT peroxide right into the 60.
When we got the first briefing on our Blue Steel missile – a standoff nuclear bomb delivery vehicle with an HT peroxide and kerosene Stentor rocket – the armourer who gave us the safety lecture put an oily rag on a steel tray and held up a beaker of clear liquid. Two drops onto the rag sent up a flame five feet high with a deep whoomph! and we all stepped back. HTP. After that we took the procedures very seriously indeed.
Which brings me to Mr Johnson and his space program. There have been reports that he is moving us into the space age for the first time. Wrong. (The newspaper reports were probably written by the girlie reporter who wrote about the silver Spitfire’s circumnavigation and described it as a jet, a degree of ignorance that… but I digress.) It is not for the first time. We’ve been in space before.
BLACK ARROW was a UK designed and built rocket that had four launches, one unsuccessful. When the fourth one was being shipped to the Woomera launch site in Australia together with a real satellite rather than the previous dummy loads, the (Conservative) government decided it was all too difficult and opted to buy Usian instead. As a sop to the engineers who had brought the Black Knight/BLACK ARROW programme to fruition they graciously allowed them to poop off the last round. It worked perfectly.
The Prospero satellite, in an orbit so precise it is expected to be circling the Earth until the 23rd century, is still the UK’s only contribution to the greatest growth industry of the 21st. The decision to embrace failure and manage decline was made by the Minister for Aviation Supply and Aerospace (1970-1972), Frederick Corfield, a man with extensive farming experience. May his name live in infamy together with Duncan Sandys and all the incompetents and forelock-tuggers who have conspired to ruin the UK’s aviation industry since WWII. The United Kingdom is the only country to have successfully developed and then abandoned a satellite launch capability.
Reaction Engines Ltd, a tiny aerospace company, has been developing a revolutionary engine which, if successful, will enable the great dream of space flight, single stage to orbit, real Dan Dare stuff. Basically, it’s a jet engine with a cooler on the front that lets it work up to 100,000 ft and Mach 5. After that it closes up and converts itself into a rocket and off it goes into orbit. Because we no longer (OK, not ‘no longer’, “still don’t” would be better) have any understanding of the need to maintain a technological lead over our trade rivals, Reaction Engines was so starved of funds that the technology has already been shared with NASA. Invented in the UK, developed abroad – sound familiar?
Thirty years ago, at the UK’s premier Tornado base, we had a visit from the French Air Force staff college. They were shown round the electronics bay where the ECM pods for the Tornado were serviced, and one of our officers who spoke French overheard two of their engineers. “We’re 20 years behind,” said one in dejected tones.
Not any more, mon ami. And if we ever show signs of rebuilding our vital aerospace and electronics industries you can rely on the UK government to ruin it.
The Prospero satellite originally had another name. It was called Puck, but when the British government decided to turn its back our UK space industry, the BLACK ARROW team decided to rename it after the magician who at the end of Shakespeare’s play renounces all ambition, all influence, all power, casts aside his book of spells and opts to fade away.
Let us pray that our new power, the rough magic which conquest of space would give us, is pursued with more vigour. Our Prime Minister assures us it will be. Do we trust them in this? Johnson, an Oxford classics graduate with extensive journalistic experience? The current Minister of State for Defence Procurement, an Oxford history graduate? Or even the power behind the Johnson throne who has a degree in the history of theatre and extensive experience in backstairs politics?
Damned if I do.