The Canadian Genius Who Attempted to Launch Satellites Using an Absolutely Ginormous Gun

On the beach just outside Grantley Adams Airport on the island of Barbados, five large naval cannons sit overgrown and rusting in the tropical heat, lying where they were abandoned fifty years ago. These relics are all that remain of Project HARP, an audacious 1960s attempt to launch satellites into space using giant guns – and of the grand ambitions of an eccentric Canadian genius whose dreams of outer space would ultimately end in tragedy.

The idea of launching objects into space using cannons is as old as modern physics itself. In his groundbreaking 1687 work Principia, Sir Isaac Newton imagined firing a cannonball from a tall mountain at such great velocity that the curvature of its flight matched that of the earth, allowing it to circle the planet indefinitely. From this simple thought experiment Newton was able to link his theory of gravitation to orbital mechanics. In his classic 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon and its 1870 sequel Around the Moon, French author Jules Verne also used a giant cannon to get his protagonists into space. Indeed, for much of history guns were considered the only feasible means of space travel, the primitive gunpowder rockets of the time being seen as little more than glorified fireworks. It would not be until the Twentieth Century that the pioneering work of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Hermann Oberth, Robert Goddard, Wernher von Braun and others made rockets the preferred means of reaching outer space.

But some still believed guns had a place in space exploration, and none more so than Canadian engineer Dr. Gerald Bull. Bull first became interested artillery in the 1950s while working at the Canadian Armaments Research and Development Establishment, or CARDE. There he was tasked with designing the outer casing for the Velvet Glove, an air-to-air missile being developed for the Canadian Air Force. While ordinarily this research would be performed using a supersonic wind tunnel, Bull found CARDE’s tunnel unsuited to his needs and looked for an alternative means of studying the missile’s aerodynamics. His solution was an elegant one. CARDE had among its facilities a 120-metre-long tunnel for testing artillery shells, the air pressure inside which could be adjusted to simulate different altitudes. Bull made scale models of the Velvet Glove and encased them in wooden sabots to allow them to fit inside a gun barrel. When the gun was fired, the sabot would fall away, leaving the model missile to fly freely down the tunnel. At first Bull simply hung paper screens at regular intervals along the tunnel to track the flight of the missile, but later he developed special hardened electronics capable of withstanding the extreme acceleration of launch which could be fitted into the model missiles themselves. These innovations would prove instrumental to Bull’s later endeavours.

But what truly cemented Bull’s interest in big guns was the launch of Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, on October 4, 1957. Fearful of the new threat posed by Soviet ballistic missiles, Bull began thinking up ways of shooting down nuclear warheads. As guided missile technology was not yet advanced enough for this purpose, Bull wondered whether the job could be done using guns. One of his schemes involved using what was essentially a giant shotgun to fire a cloud of shrapnel into the upper atmosphere; if an incoming warhead, travelling at nearly 20 times the speed of sound, touched even a single piece, it would disintegrate. Another scheme involved using a giant gun to fire model warheads to the edge of space so their reentry could be studied and methods of tracking and destroying them developed.

Unfortunately, Bull had what could charitably be called a ‘prickly’ personality and deep-seated hatred of politicians and bureaucracy, referring to those running Canada’s research and defence establishment as ‘Cocktail Scientists.’ This attitude increasingly brought him into conflict with his superiors until in 1961, frustrated by the abrupt cancellation of the Avro Arrow interceptor and Canada’s timid and reluctant attitude towards space research, Gerald Bull quit CARDE in disgust.

But he was not without allies. During his time at CARDE, Bull had made the acquaintance of Lieutenant-General Arthur Trudeau and Dr. Charles Murphy of the US Army, who shared his enthusiasm for space exploration and big guns. And shortly after leaving HARP, Bull also accepted a professorship from Dr. Donald Mordell, Dean of Engineering at McGill University. Together, Bull, Trudeau, Murphy, and Mordell began dreaming up a research project that would satisfy each of the men’s scientific interests. In March 1962, Bull and Mordell announced the creation of the High Altitude Research Project, or HARP, a collaboration between McGill and the US Army. The stated goal of HARP was to develop the technology to launch small research probes into the upper atmosphere using large guns. This would allow for the collection of data on high-altitude winds and other phenomena for use in weather forecasting – at a fraction of the cost of using conventional sounding rockets. But the Project was also about so much more. For Bull and Mordell, HARP was an opportunity to develop a low-cost means of launching small satellites into orbit, granting Canada a place among the spacefaring nations. As he later stated:

“The general attitude towards the research scientist in this country is that he’s some sort of parasite… Canadians won’t gamble on research unless it’s aimed at earning a dollar. I don’t see Canada engaging in massive research programmes, but I do see us operating in highly imaginative fringe areas, coming out with novel ideas and revolutionary-type thoughts.”

Meanwhile, the US Army had their own vested interest in the project. In 1958, the US Government had essentially banned the Army and Navy from conducting space research, restricting space operations to the Air Force and NASA. Trudeau and Murphy saw HARP as a back-door means for the Army to maintain a foothold – however small – in the Space Race.

Preparations for HARP proceeded swiftly. From the US Navy Charles Murphy acquired a pair of 40cm battleship guns which had lain in storage since the 1920s, each 21 metres long and weighing 125 tons. Meanwhile Mordell secured a test site on the Caribbean island of Barbados. Not only did McGill already operate a weather station on the island and enjoy a friendly relationship with the local government, but the site allowed projectiles to be fired safely out over the Atlantic Ocean.

In the summer of 1962, the first gun arrived in Barbados aboard the US Army Landing Ship USS John. D Page. As the chosen firing site was situated on high cliffs, the gun itself had to be unloaded 2.5 miles away in the largest peacetime over-the-beach landing in US Army history. The gun was transferred to a railway flatcar and pushed down the beach on a custom track to the test site, where it was lowered into a pre-built concrete emplacement.. Preparations continued for nearly six months, work temporarily halting in October due to the Cuban Missile Crisis, until in January 1963 the gun, nicknamed “Betsy”, was at last ready for testing. On January 20, a dummy plywood slug was fired at an angle of 80 degrees, flying 3 kilometres into the air and remaining airborne for nearly a full minute. This was followed the next day by the firing of a real projectile – known as a “Martlet” after the mythical bird on the McGill University crest – which rose to an altitude of 26 kilometres. Project HARP was officially in business.

The Martlet projectile consisted of a steel dart-shaped projectile 1.5 metres long  and 12.5 centimetres in diameter with aluminium fins, fitted in a wooden sabot to fit inside the gun barrel. The head of the Martlet contained the telemetry electronics, while the main body held a load of either triethyl aluminium – which ignites spontaneously with air – or radar chaff. This was released behind the projectile as it flew, leaving a trail that could be tracked visually or by radar and allow high-altitude winds to be measured. Between 1963 and 1965 more than 100 Martlets were fired into the upper atmosphere, generating a body of meteorological data that is still used to this day.

But Bull’s ambitions were loftier than mere weather forecasting; he wanted to fire a satellite, however small, into orbit. While some doubted the utility of such a system, Bull was optimistic, stating:

We are restricted by the size of the gun. Anything larger than 16 inches in diameter won’t get in the barrel. We can’t put a space station in space but, once it’s there, we can send up the wrench left behind.

But even this modest goal presented a massive engineering challenge. According to the laws of orbital mechanics, it is impossible to reach orbit from the earth’s surface using a purely ballistic projectile. Instead, said projectile must be equipped with a small rocket motor and guidance system to reorient and “kick” itself into orbit. Packing these systems into a Martlet and protecting them from high accelerations – all while leaving enough room for a satellite payload – strained the capabilities of 1960s technology, but Bull nonetheless persevered, designing the orbital-capable Martlet III and IV in 1965. Meanwhile, however, the altitude to which Martlets could be fired had topped out at around an astounding 90 kilometres (55 miles). In order to increase this, Bull had a 16-meter tube welded to the end of Betsy, extending the barrel to a whopping 36 metres. This made the gun among the largest artillery pieces ever built, and the largest to be fired near the vertical. On July 1, 1965, the extended gun fired a Martlet II to a record altitude of 150km (93 miles), well above the recognized boundary of outer space.

Sadly, however, this was to be HARP’s last hurrah. Bull’s outspoken disdain for bureaucracy had made him many enemies in Canadian Government, many of whom now began finding reasons to shut down the project. As Bull had predicted, most in Ottawa attacked HARP as an unprofitable waste of Government funds, with K.F. Tupper of the National Research Council stating, “The HARP project consists merely of large and expensive gadgets…[that does not] open up any new possibilities whatsoever.”

Others, like R.K. Brown from Ministry of Industry, were rather less subtle about their disdain for Bull himself:

Although personalities should not affect the decision, they cannot be ignored, and one of the reasons no Canadian government scientists have been closely involved in the control and direction of the project…lies in the personality of Dr. Bull, and it need hardly be said that there will continue to be difficulties in this area.

Another reason for the Government’s contempt for HARP was the involvement of the US Army. As US involvement in the Vietnam War continued to escalate, the Canadian Government took an increasingly dim view of American militarism and sought to distance itself from efforts like HARP -which it saw as a primarily American project with a Canadian veneer. Furthermore, the HARP launch system competed directly with the new Black Brant sounding rocket developed by CARDE. But whatever the reason, by 1967 all Government funds had dried up and even the Army had withdrawn its support. Project HARP was officially over. However, having seen the writing on the wall, in 1965 the Army had constructed its own replica of the 36ft Barbados gun at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. On November 18, 1966, this gun fired a Martlet II projectile to an altitude of 180 km (112 miles) – a record that still stands to this day.

The life of Gerald Bull after HARP is a subject that could fill and entire episode. But in brief and pertinent to the topic at hand, using equipment left over from the project, in 1967 Bull established Space Research Corporation or SRC, a private company specializing in artillery and ammunition design. In the 1980s Bull’s work brought him to the attention of the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein, who made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: in exchange for Bull helping to improve their long-range missiles, they would fund the construction of a giant satellite-launching supergun. The gun, code-named Project Babylon, would be truly gargantuan, weighing 2100 tons with a barrel 1 meter wide and 156 meters long – nearly the length of the Washington Monument. But tragically, just like the Martlet satellite, Project Babylon would never come to fruition, for on March 22, 1990, Gerald Bull was gunned down by an unknown assassin outside his apartment in Brussels.

But the dream of orbital gun launch lived on. Between 1992 and 1995, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Project SHARP – Super-High Altitude Research Project – developed a series of light gas guns capable of accelerating a projectile to near-escape velocity, while in 2005 the Quicklaunch company began development of a 1-kilometer long gun suspended beneath an offshore oil rig which would reduce orbital launch costs to only $1000/pound. However, the development of SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 rocket has recently rendered the economics of gun launch significantly less attractive, and it now appears that Gerald Bull’s dream will become no more than a fascinating detour on our long road to the stars.

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Bonus Facts

#1: In addition to being the youngest ever PhD graduate from the University of Toronto and the youngest professor at McGill, Gerald Bull held a third, ever rarer honour. In 1972, after Space Research Corporation had already been working with the Pentagon for over 5 years, it was realized that as a Canadian Citizen Bull was technically ineligible for Top Secret security clearance. To get around this, in October Senator Barry Goldwater passed a private act of Congress granting Bull American Citizenship. Gerald Bull is only the third person to ever receive this honour after the Marquis de Lafayette and Winston Churchill.

#2: The scientific disdain for rocket propulsion actually carried on well into the 1920s and 30s, the term “rocket” being associated with pulp science fiction novels and comics like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. For this reason, when in 1939 a group of Caltech students founded a small institute for the study of rocket propulsion, they were careful not to use the term “rocket” in their name, instead coming up with the title the institute still bears to this day: Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

#3: Despite being written in 1865, Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon was extraordinarily prophetic in its depiction of space travel. Though his chosen method of launch – a giant cannon – would in reality have reduced Verne’s astronauts to a thin pink film coating the bottom of the capsule, in other respects Verne’s account is remarkably accurate – the result of the author consulting with multiple astronomers in preparation for writing. In the book, the astronauts travel in a bullet-shaped capsule which is furnished with an airlock, oxygen recycling system, and even rocket thrusters for maneuvering. Just like the Apollo missions the capsule is launched from Florida to take advantage of the earth’s rotation, reenters the atmosphere blunt-end first, and splashes down in the Pacific Ocean. Verne even predicts relative weightlessness in space, though he misunderstands the effect as resulting from the earth and moon’s gravity cancelling each other out. But perhaps most coincidental of all, the giant cannon that launches Verne’s astronauts is called the Columbiad, while the Command-Service Module that took Apollo 11’s crew to the moon was called…Columbia.

Expand for References

Grant, Dale, Wilderness of Mirrors: The Life of Gerald Bull, Prentice-Hall Canada 1991

Lowther, William, Arms and the Man: Dr. Gerald Bull, Iraq, and the Supergun, Doubleday Canada 1991

Adams, James, Bull’s Eye: The Assassination and Life of Supergun Inventor Gerald Bull, Times Books 1992

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3 comments

  • Has anyone attempt to build a space elevator? This may be the best solution for getting everything into orbit, people, building materials, supplies…

    • We don’t yet have the materials with enough tensile strength to build a space elevator…the forces are incredible. We need a material literally 1000x stronger than steel otherwise the cable would break. Carbon nanotubes and graphene are technically strong enough, but we aren’t able to make them in great quantities/quality yet. And the full cable would need to be around 140 miles long with literally zero imperfections.

  • As a fan of the space race era, I’m amazed I never heard of this side chapter. Cool stuff! Thank you.

    (as nifty as your audio/video offerings might be, I am so glad you have not abandoned this text site.)

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