British Rocket Scientists

· technology ·

After the last episode of Space Odyssey last night, there was a great documentary on BBC4 about the British rocket science pioneers in the post-war period. They developed a wonderfully elegant propulsion system powered by hydrogen peroxide. Some shots of these engines firing showed a lovely clean blue flame like a blow-torch, which seems futuristic even today in comparison with conventional rocket engines. It was the usual story of chronic underfunding of brilliant people that we're very familiar with in this country; because they were so financially constrained, they had to find elegant and innovative ways to side-step technical problems. They developed a wonderful rocket called 'Puck' (gloomily renamed to Prospero after funding was pulled just before its maiden flight), which would probably have made a good profit putting satellites into orbit if the project hadn't been pulled. One contributor to the programme contrasted the hordes of people working at NASA with the small, focused teams working on the British projects, and said that they used to refer to NASA 'trampling a problem to death'.

However, the old footage did provide some great film of men in badly-fitting duffle coats retiring to rickety-looking sheds before test firing enormous rockets. It reminded me of the films I've seen of the early development of the jet engine by Frank Whittle's group. Their testing area looked exactly like a yard out the back of their building, where the bins are stored. As this enormous jet engine roared and spat flames, they stood around (in badly-fitting duffle coats or brown overalls), smoking pipes (with all that kerosene nearby!), and nodding in a proud but modest way. Technical brilliance on a shoe-string, that's what it was.