A University of Queensland lab has supersonic success.
- By Luba Vangelova
- Air & Space magazine, November 2002
(Page 4 of 7)
The University of Queensland, the Australian government, and QinetiQ (the privatized arm of Britain’s military research agency) had provided seed money for the project. Paull eventually secured additional funding from NASA, the German and Japanese space agencies, Korea’s Seoul National University, and several Australian companies. Part of the appeal for the sponsors was Paull’s “clever and cheap way of getting this data,” says Terry Cain, a research fellow at QinetiQ, which is testing its own scramjet engine at one of the university shock tunnels.
Then, to stretch their modest budget, the team members got even more resourceful. Paull assigned students scramjet-related projects and in myriad other ways convinced people “to do things for free,” he laughs.
Some expenses were unavoidable: Wind tunnel tests (conducted an average of twice a day) cost about $500 per shot. To run them and also help out with other testing, Paull eventually hired one of his former graduate students, Myles Frost.
Lacking the resources to hire an expert for each task, he and his team members each wore many hats; Alesi sometimes found himself standing at a mill or a lathe, manufacturing some component for the payload. But they all say their big-picture perspectives encouraged them to come up with innovative solutions. Paull offers one such example: Forced to devise something that “weighed a kilo but could hold a ton” to keep the payload in place on the launch pad, Alesi designed a retractable lug that a private company has since expressed interest in buying.
Paull’s other big challenge was what he describes as an “amazing legal nightmare.” Like some B-grade horror movie plague, it ate up half his time, even after he hired another former graduate student, Susan Anderson, to help keep it at bay. The team had to secure authorizations from various state government agencies, coordinate with aviation bodies and insurance companies in both Australia and the United States (because of the involvement of U.S. funding), perform environmental assessments, and ensure their launch debris would steer clear of land claimed by Aboriginal tribes. They even had to visit area ranchers in person to allay their concerns. To complicate matters, the Australian government then grew jittery about anything taking place so close to a highly controversial refugee detention center. All told, the preparations took three and a half years. There were moments during that time when Paull wondered if transferring to a better funded program somewhere else might be the only way to fly a scramjet.
But surprisingly, at least to him, Paull had become something of a celebrity. In an isolated country accustomed to being a bit player on the world stage, his cutting-edge work was drawing considerable attention. Australian media coverage fired public enthusiasm to the point where new acquaintances congratulated Paull whenever he mentioned his work. HyShot was sometimes cast as a David versus Goliath affair, appealing to Australians’ affection for “battlers” persevering against all odds. “The strong effort we put in was appreciated,” Paull says. With that kind of moral support, “I couldn’t turn around and defect [to a program overseas] just to get the job done.”
Yet as the launch date drew closer, the prospects of meeting the deadline grew dimmer. Time to call in some family favors. During his student days, Paull had occasionally helped his father, Bert, who installed and maintained movie theater equipment, on emergency repair jobs. Now it was the 73-year-old retired father’s turn to step in and lend a hand. Scramjet electrical wiring may not have been part of Bert’s job description in the “picture business,” which he entered back when biplanes served the more isolated towns in his vast territory. But the fundamentals hadn’t changed: “All wires have got two ends,” he points out good-naturedly. Over the course of a month, Bert took time away from lawn-mowing and other pastimes (notably, monitoring airplane cockpit transmissions on his scanner radios) to install more than 40 yards of cables inside the payload and on the launch pad.
Also stepping up to the plate was Allan’s older brother Ross, an applied mathematician who had run his own machine tool business for more than 20 years. Ross helped develop the flight control software; he also lent a hand with the electrical work. Alesi says the family’s cutting-up helped take the edge off the many late nights and weekends on the job.