Rocket Man

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Richard Brown wants to be the first man to break the Sound Barrier on land. He’s designing his own rocket car and engine to do it…

Richard Noble’s Land Speed Record has stood for nine years, since he propelled Thrust 2 to 633.468mph across Nevada’s Black Rock Desert on October 4 1983. But if 27 year-old Englishman Richard Brown has his way, it won’t stand much beyond its 10-year anniversary.

This month he officially launches Project Energy, which aspires to produce a rocket-powered projectile capable not only of exceeding Noble’s mark by the mandatory one per cent stipulated by FISA, but also of breaking the Sound Barrier on land. The latter, first broken ‘upstairs’ on October 14 1947 by Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-I , may vary from 720 to 770mph depending on air density and ambient temperature, but Brown calculates that Energy will have a maximum in excess of 775.

Only one rocket car has ever held the record, Gary Gabelich taking the hydrogen peroxide Blue Flame to 622.407rnph through a measured mile back in October 1970. It was the American’s record that Noble broke. The Budweiser Rocket was said to have been timed at 739.666rnph in 1979, but controversy has always surrounded that achievement, which was not obtained under recognised FISA rules and therefore remains highly questionable.

There are several reasons why the rocket’s day has truly yet to come. Surplus turbojet engines, the staple diet of many a contender since Dr Nathan Ostich cocked a snook at the FIA and incorporated one in his cigar-shaped Flying Caduceus back in 1959, are a sight easier to obtain.

So is the kerosene on which they run. There are other technical arguments for and against rockets, but the most practical anti-reason is availability of propellant. Since Barry Bowles’ flying antics with the Blonde Bombshell — and the controversial aftermath — at Pendine Sands in 1978, suppliers have fought shy of speed seekers.

Brown, a resourceful character, has bypassed that problem by opting for a bipropellant engine fed with a mixture of liquid oxygen and kerosene. He says that LOx is more stable than hydrogen peroxide of the 90 + % mix required for such applications, and it has a higher specific impulse which means it does more for a given weight. It’s cheaper, too. But it is not an easy liquid to work with, as he concedes. “It does present a lot of engineering problems, because it is cryogenic. That means it only exists as a liquid at super-low temperatures.”

These are problems he will confront in due course, and this is a man who has already surmounted many just to get as far as he has. He says he has always been hooked on cars and speed, and that an initial fascination with rocketry evolved into Project Energy. “I started making solid fuel rockets and firing them vertically. As they got bigger and more sophisticated I was afraid I might start endangering light aircraft! Going vertically was rapidly looking like a bad idea, so I went horizontally instead… After that the next step was obvious.”

To him, perhaps, but it was still unusual by layman’s standards. LSR cars had always given him the chills, so he absorbed himself learning more about rocketry for such applications. To date he has invested £15,000 of his own money in a series of powered scale model rocket cars, designing and building the vehicles and their motors himself. As his promotional video attests, the early experiments were akin to something from Peenemunde’s Black Museum, with vehicles dancing precariously out of control, or combustion chambers exploding in flame.

He learned a great deal, and he did it the hard way. Six months’ work might be destroyed in five seconds, and such was the level of destruction that pinpointing precise causes was not the work of a moment. What it did, though, besides helping him to develop his current technology, was to indicate an unusually high level of perseverance in the face of discouragement, and a steadfast refusal to give in. Both are qualities vital to any record aspirant.

After a series of experiments at RAF Benson and Bovingdon airstrip, in June Brown took his third model, coded Awesome Express III, to Pendine Sands, scene of Captain Malcolm Campbell’s efforts in the late Twenties, and of Parry Thomas’ records with Babs in 1926 and his death there in a modified version of the car in 1927. Watch the results on the video, and the 12ft quarter scale model might well be mistaken for the real thing. It was a highly encouraging weekend, for the radio-controlled Express reached 250mph in less than Its and recorded an average speed through seventenths of a mile of 192mph. These are impressive figures.

“You have to appreciate, though, that you can’t really scale a rocket motor,” warns Brown. “You could actually argue that our model was grossly underpowered, but we were happy with the results. We wanted to make as dramatic a model as possible; any bigger and you could sit in it! It isn’t realistically possible to scale up the model, but we did learn a lot of information that is directly relevant to the fullscale car. For our overall performance, though, it’s better to compare our concept with previous record cars.”

A little work on that produces some interesting figures. Blue Flame, for example, weighed 6750Ibs for a thrust of 13,0001bs and a frontal area of 1750 sq.in. Thrust 2 weighed 8600Ibs, with a thrust of 17,000Ibs and a frontal area of 4500sq.in. It is intended that Energy will weigh 7350Ibs, have at least 23,5001bs thrust and a frontal area of 1500sq.in. Top speeds respectively for the Flame and Thrust are 622 and 633, while Brown talks of 775.

The big car will be 45ft long with the two 30in solid metal front wheels mounted close together, and the 15in rears 12ft apart. Brown, who will pilot the rocket, will sit in the tail just ahead of the rocket motors. There will be a brace of them, each of 11,0001bt, “so that I can achieve step throttling. I can run one or both engines, and stagger firing of the second if necessary, so that we can build up speed in stages during the attempt”.

A total weight of 115Ibs of fuel per second will be consumed, and on the record run the car will carry nearly 3000Ibs of propellant. As a safeguard, he also intends to augment the power output with a solid fuel rocket capable of 3000Ibt for five seconds. In keeping with past rocket cars. Energy has a slim fuselage, but the underside tapers to a sharper vee than the Budweiser to help deflect the sort of shockwaves that he believes were in part responsible for the American car’s rear wheels coming off the ground at very high speed in what is known as the wheelbarrow effect. The pressure vessels for the 700 litres of LOx, 450 litres of kerosene and 500 litres of high-pressure nitrogen will form part of the structure, the whole thing being braced by a tubular steel spaceframe.

Braking will be by conventional (by LSR standards) double parachutes and rear-wheel disc brakes. The front wheels will have suspension, the rears relying on the torsional flexure of the streamlined struts. Each rear wheel will be faired in its own spat, which acts as a small fin to reduce the area required of the main tail fin. That way the lifting moment on the nose exerted by the fin is kept to a minimum.

Brown intends to do much of the manufacturing work himself. “I believe that I have demonstrated sound manufacturing skills and that I have the capacity to make a large proportion of the vehicle. I intend to make the majority of it in my own workshop, especially the fabrication work. I will do all the bits that I confidently know I can do as well as the next guy. But you need to know your limits, and what I can’t do I will of course farm out. That’s another value in the models so far; I’ve done everything on them and learned as I’ve gone along. Of the three streamliners I’ve done so far, each has been a refinement, an enlargement and an improvement on its predecessor.”

One of the most significant lessons of Pendine was that the big car can be refuelled within the hour allowed by FISA’s regulations. This was one of the major reasons why the Budweiser crew opted to establish its own ground rules, because Bill Fredricks’ lance couldn’t be serviced in that sort of time. “We have evolved a knowledge of refuelling,” says Brown with quiet confidence, “and it’s important to stress that Project Energy will conform fully to all FISA stipulations. We want this to be an official record, as the first manned land vehicle to exceed the speed of sound.”

The use of the word ‘we’ is an indication that Richard Brown is not alone in an endeavour that, above all, requires encouragement. There are few undertakings as lonely as trying to get record projects off the ground. The Project Energy team also comprises co-designer Andy Scott, who currently works for a racing transmission manufacturer, electronics designer Ben Mullett, and financial director David Brinn. The latter fulfilled a similar role with Project Thrust, lending further credibility to the venture. Senior scientist Dr Paul Chard-Tuckey of the Directorate of Test & Evaluation (Land) at Pendine has also expressed keen interest.

Initially they considered making a car to attack the British Land Speed record (held by Noble at 248.87mph in Thrust 2 when it ran without its streamlined bodyshell), “but when we sat down and worked out the detail of what’s required you realise that you don’t want to break the British record by 5mph if it means delaying the project x years. You need to do it in style. Most people in Britain view the record as abysmal, which is wrong. There are all sorts of reasons why it is ‘only’ 248mph, such as lack of venues. After all, a car which did that at Greenham Common went on to do 633. But these sort of projects need to capture the public’s imagination, and 248mph doesn’t really do that. You really need to do 400mph in a car in Britain, and we’ll do that as part of our programme anyway. When you work it out, the two types of car are not dissimilar, so we made the early decision to go straight to creating a car capable of beating the outright record.”

One of the most significant problems Project Energy will have to face — and certainly there will be many — is insurance for a vehicle propelled by liquid oxygen, but already Brown has taken steps on that score and in Brinn has the expert who steered Thrust through two highly significant insurance claims after the failures of the 1981 and 1982 attempts. When he ran Awesome Express III at Pendine Brown succeeded in hiring the six-mile section of beach, and obtaining public liability insurance of £1m. That’s about double the budget he believes he will need to take Project Energy into the pages of history.

The money, of course, is the toughest part of getting any record project up and running. For Brown, you can add the development of a prototype power source he has designed himself. Neither will be an easy task, as he is fully aware and readily concedes, but you get the feeling that life without challenge would be no life at all to a man who currently makes his living selling light engineering machinery. The challenge of breaking the Sound Barrier, whoever does it, will be technical and financial, but to Richard Brown it’s also intensely personal. D J T