Outback Scramjet

A University of Queensland lab has supersonic success.

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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.

Finally, the day of reckoning drew near. In late October, Paull and his teammates drove halfway across the country with their precious cargo on the back of a utility truck. Paull’s family followed in their own cars. Their destination: Woomera Instrumented Range, a speck in the desert 300 miles north of Adelaide.

 “We knew the whole thing was fraught with problems,” Paull admits.

The launch itself went off without a hitch. But then the second-stage rocket veered off course and disappeared over the outback. Having experienced a similar misfortune, NASA’s Lawrence Huebner concludes with a laugh, “Rockets don’t want scramjets to take over their job.”

Paull admits that his own team lost momentum after that first failed test. Alesi, seeking more financial security for his young family, left to work for Boeing in the United States. Ross Paull took his place, and the team took up the challenge of finding their missing scramjet. Both the Royal Australian Air Force (which had sent a reconnaissance helicopter soon after the launch) and Paull’s own search-and-recovery efforts had been more search than recovery, until the University of Queensland kangaroo spotters signed on for the job. By a bizarre coincidence, the likely points of impact lay within their annual survey area.

The new recruits went airborne but saw little of note the first two days, aside from the extraordinary sight of Paull teetering on a stool set atop an upright oil drum, the entire ensemble strapped to the roof of the four-wheel-drive vehicle he and his brother were using for their concurrent ground search. Eventually, someone in the airplane spied a grounded rocket. But hopes were dashed as quickly as they’d been raised when, upon closer inspection, it turned out to belong to some mystery third party.

Finally, on the third day, their optimism now flagging, one of the zoologists spotted something resembling a rubbish dump. The absence of wheel tracks suggested it might have fallen from the sky. Zoologist Gordon Grigg radioed Paull and company, who raced to the sight. “We could tell from their body language it was the right one,” Grigg says. “Myles, the first to arrive on the scene, began pointing very excitedly and jumping up and down.”

An analysis of the wreckage helped the crew prepare their second prototype. They worked furiously to meet their self-imposed deadline of July 30, 2002, for the second launch. This time the Terrier-Orion Mk70 rocket did its job and took the scramjet into the upper atmosphere, where it kicked in 22 miles above Earth, reaching speeds of more than 5,000 mph before ramming into the ground.

No flawed leftovers for the kangeroo spotters to find this time.

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