Article: Black Brant Sounding Rockets are a 50-Year-Old Success Story

  • Image of the abandoned Churchill rocket launch facility

    Winter, 2010, Altitude

    After interviewing Murray Auld and Albert Fia in 1999, Shirley Render, recorded their observations on the Black Brant rocket program in a document now in the museum library. This article is adapted from that document, including the quotations attributed to Murray Auld and Albert Fia. Information from other and more recent sources are also included to bring the Black Brant story up to date.

    Black Brant rockets are “classics” – they still soar into the skies five decades after the first one was launched at the Churchill rocket range in September, 1959. And, the Black Brant story is also a “classic” Canadian success because hardly anyone knows about it..

    Black Brants belong to a class of rockets called “sounding rockets.” Black Brants carry payloads up to 1,800 pounds to altitudes of 1,000 miles providing up to 20 minutes for micro-gravity experiments, auroral studies, deep space observations, aeronomy (the study of the upper atmosphere), astronomy, plasma physics and solar physics, and other studies that don’t require orbital launches. Black Brant, which went through 12 model versions, has earned a vehicle success rate of 98 per cent since 1962.

    Since the 1963 debut of model BB5, there have been 593 Black Brant rocket launches (models BB5, BB8, BB9, BB10, BB11, and BB12). The most recent Black Brant launch was a model BB9 at the White Sands missile range in New Mexico in August of 2010.

    Black Brant rockets are still part of the Bristol proprietary product group with active contracts that support the NASA Sounding Rocket Operations Group.

    Three people deserve credit for the Black Brant success story: Murray Auld, general manager of what was then called Bristol Aero-Industries (now known as Bristol Aerospace Limited, a division of the Magellan Aerospace Corporation), who had the vision to see the potential of sounding rockets; Vic Symonds, head of marketing, who made the initial surveys to establish the scientific needs and the commercial viability of manufacturing rockets; and Albert Fia, the engineer who led the design team.

    What Prompted Bristol’s Interest in Rockets?

    At the end of the Second World War, rockets were viewed as a weapon. Those with imagination saw other applications for rockets. In the early 1950s, scientists were interested in the interaction of earth and sun, especially the aurora, the point where the sun’s particles meet the atmosphere. Generally, the aurora belt lies across inaccessible areas and is not easily probed. In Canada, the aurora is densest over Churchill, in northern Manitoba. By 1957 the U.S. Army had already fired 95 rockets from the Churchill Research Range, which it built as part of the International Geophysical Year program. So the threads of a uniquely Canadian space science program using sounding rockets and the Churchill rocket range were in place for Bristol to exploit.

    Also during this decade, the Canadian Armament Research and Development Establishment (CARDE) completed the development of a new “solid” rocket fuel. To test the fuel CARDE used the “Skylark” motor case from Bristol Aerojet in England. Skylark was the original “propulsion test vehicle” for CARDE’s newly developed solid rocket fuel.

    It was at this point that the test vehicle design was christened “Black Brant,” the name of a species of goose indigenous to northern Canada.

    Black Brant 1 was a short-lived model that was built to prove and qualify the rocket motor and the flight-proving potential of the rocket fuel.

    CARDE transformed BB1 into Black Brant 2. BB2 used the same motor but with lighter and more efficient fins. It established a performance rating of 150 pounds of payload to an altitude of 100 miles. The rocket cases were built by Bristol and propelled with solid fuel from CARDE.

    BB1 and BB2 established the viability of the rocket. However, CARDE was not in the business of manufacturing rockets. Bristol’s Winnipeg plant had been an aircraft overhaul and component manufacturing site since 1930, first as MacDonald Brothers Aircraft and by 1954 as one of three Canadian divisions of Bristol Aero-Industries. In addition to its experience in the manufacture of welded high-strength steel components (such as jet engine after-burners), Bristol had the technological depth, the manufacturing base, and convenient access to the Churchill rocket range. At the same time, Bristol management was open to new ventures. Murray Auld said in the 1999 interview that “we were looking around to see what we could do to make our geographic location an advantage in competing for business.” So the decision to develop and manufacture a line of rockets was a logical move, and was also a decision that next required follow-through with the creation of a rocket project team.

    Albert Fia joined the project in 1958. Prior to joining Bristol he was an officer in the Canadian Army and held degrees in electrical and aeronautical engineering. He also had special training in England in rocket and missile design. Fia’s interest in rockets was sparked by the V2, the German weapon of the late Second World War; by Sputnik, the satellite the Russians launched a year before he joined Bristol; and by the success of the numerous sounding rocket projects that were part of International Geophysical Year. “I saw a hunger to explore space and I could see the potential for using rockets as a peaceful instrument,” he said of his decision to join Bristol.

    His experience and interest in rocketry made him one of the few men in Canada qualified to lead the Bristol project. But, it meant leaving a secure position and taking his young family to Winnipeg to embark on a project with an uncertain future.

    Fia’s mandate was to establish a rocket and space division for Bristol. Fia had to move on three fronts – to build a research and development team, assess the market potential for rockets, and generate revenue from sales and contracts. It was not easy to find qualified people. Only two Canadian universities at the time had aeronautical degree programs, and their graduates were wary of moving to Winnipeg, even though they would be working on leading-edge rocket technology.

    The Bristol Rocket and Space Division finally landed a government contract, more than two years after its establishment, to develop a family of sounding rockets capable of lifting varied scientific payloads to an equally varied range of altitudes. The project encompassed building the rocket casing, the rocket motor, and the solid fuel propellant.

    An important component in the Black Brant story was the cordial collaboration between Bristol and the federal research establishments, notably CARDE. This collaboration was a major factor in the development of Black Brant 3, which began in January 1961. CARDE provided the propulsion system to Bristol’s specifications, but it was Bristol that supplied the hardware, chemicals and extra manpower. Further, Fia was able to build on the success of the CARDEPLEX solid fuel because it was agreed that the knowledge base supporting it would be transferred to Bristol.

    Using the propulsion characteristics achieved in BB1 and BB2, Fia’s team reworked the design for Black Brant 3. “We designed the motor case of the BB3 almost to the edge,” Fia recalled. “We had to keep the weight down. It was aerospace steel, relatively new steel. CARDE had designed the Black Brant 2 motor case but all they wanted was a motor case to prove their propulsion objective. Whereas we wanted to see high altitude applications and we needed a different case, different fins.”

    When it appeared, the first BB3 looked like an Egyptian mummy, wrapped completely in fibre glass tape for protection from the high temperatures arising from aerodynamic heating. Fia quickly determined there was no need for this external insulation, so the tape came off. The diagnostic payloads and other instrumentation were fitted. BB3 underwent structural tests and 53 static firings of its motors. At the end of all of this, there was only one question: Could BB3 fly?

    “Every other engineering design can be tested on the ground whereas a rocket can only be tested when fired. Rocket engineering is an unforgiving discipline. One mistake and you can have a spectacular flight failure and scientists looking askance at the rocket. They won’t entrust their scientific experiments to a rocket until it is proven,” Fia said.

    Because fire destroyed the Churchill rocket range in 1960, the first launch of BB3 took place at the National Air and Space Administration’s (NASA) Wallops Island Test Range on the coast of Virginia. Fia, his team, their rockets, and equipment were packed into one Hercules aircraft.

    June 15, 1962, was a tense day for the Bristol team. BB3 shot out a tail of flame and white smoke as it began a near-vertical ascent. In 10 seconds it reached a speed six times the speed of sound, attaining a peak altitude of almost 90 miles. Ten minutes later, BB3 landed in the Atlantic Ocean. It was the first successful launch of a BB3.

    BB3 did not reach its performance objective because of a phenomenon known as “roll-yaw coupling.”

    Adjustments were made and eight more successful launches qualified the rocket for scientific use. At the end of this process the Black Brant rocket, now designated BB3A, lifted 60 pounds to 110 miles, exceeding its design objective of 40 pounds to 110 miles.

    The successful conclusion of these test firings also launched the Black Brant family of rockets, a family that to date includes 12 model iterations.

    BB3A logged 55 flights and BB3B logged 24. The next iteration, BB4A and BB4B, were two-stage rockets. BB4A version went through six test launches with the final two qualifying it for service. Development had progressed quickly because Bristol could use fully flight-qualified motors so that the engineering effort was directed to changing stabilizer surfaces and ensuring proper stage separation.

    Black Brant 4A was Bristol’s breakthrough at NASA. The agency was interested in launching sounding rockets to explore radiation hazards to manned space flight through the Van Allen belt, which is at its lowest level near the equator. With Bristol providing the hardware and training a Brazilian support crew, the first launch of BB4A took place at a rocket site near Natal, Brazil in June 1968. This and subsequent launches of BB4A were a persuasive factor in NASA’s decision to use the next model of Black Brant, the single-stage BB5C to perform critical solar spectroscope calibration flights in support of the orbital Skylab space station. For each of the three manned missions of Skylab, a pair of BB5C rockets were launched from the White Sands missile range in New Mexico to calibrate the spectroscopes in the rockets with those in Skylab.

    The website for Encyclopedia Astronautica, refers to the text of a 1971 paper by William R. Corliss called “NASA Sounding Rockets, 1958-1968 – A Historical Summary” in which the author makes the following observation about NASA’s decision to include Black Brant rockets in its sounding rocket program:

    “The most interesting addition to the NASA ‘stable’ during the 1965-1968 period was the Black Brant IV, a rocket built by Bristol Aerospace, Ltd. in Winnipeg. There was some controversy within Goddard [Goddard Space Flight Centre, Washington] regarding the desirability of purchasing a rocket from a foreign country when many American manufacturers built a large variety of sounding rockets. According to Karl Medrow, chief of Goddard’s Sounding Rocket Branch, the Black Brant had three positive features that led to its selection

    1. The Black Brants were operational with performance that no American manufacturer could match with off-the-shelf vehicles.
    2. The Black Brant used no military hardware and could thus be fired from foreign countries.
    3. The Black Brant represented the cheapest way to get the job done.”

    BB5, and its variations, turned out to be the “workhorse” of the Black Brant family and established its reputation in the scientific market. It also cemented a long and successful collaboration with NASA. BB5 consisted of three versions, all 17 inches in outer diameter, with all components interchangeable mechanically and aerodynamically, thus providing three rockets differing only in performance. BB5 could carry payloads above 200 miles in altitude and was a rocket with a performance potential double that of BB2 and greater than any foreign competitor.

    In March, 1962, Bristol and Aerojet General, the supplier of the propellant then used, joined to form Canadian Bristol Aerojet, a move that led to the construction of the Rockwood propellant plant north of Winnipeg.

    It was collaboration with NASA that provided the impetus for the next iterations of Black Brant. NASA wanted a rocket to reach altitudes and carry payloads that were beyond the upper limits of BB5. By acquiring the use of Nike and Terrier rocket motors, now surplus U.S. Army rocket motors, Bristol modified BB5 to accept these rocket motors as boosters. Together, models BB8 and BB9 flew more than 150 missions. (Models BB6 and BB7 were designed and used for meteorological applications.)

    Black Brant 10 evolved when the Goddard Space Flight Centre wanted a rocket to achieve an accurate trajectory to carry 450 pounds of payload to an altitude of 275 miles for at least half the flight time. Fia achieved this design change by taking a BB5 motor case and cutting it down; when completed the Nihka rocket motor was the result. Nihka, meaning “little goose,” was half the weight of the BB5, but filled with a more powerful polybutdiennne propellant, which was used in BB6 and BB7 for their meteorological applications. BB10’s first flight in 1982 was a “totally successful operation,” said Fia. “The actual flight followed prediction so closely, I could scarcely believe it. I could see stage two ignite, a little pin prick and then I kept wondering if the third stage would burn. So I went and watched the radar track. It was almost superimposed on the predicted flight path.”

    The end result was that NASA accepted the three-stage BB10 into its inventory for scientific flights. Two more iterations of Black Brant followed BB10. Model BB11 is a BB5 boosted by two American military motors, the Talos and the Taurus. And BB12 is a BB11 with a Nihka as its fourth stage.

    BB10 marked the official end of Fia’s career with Bristol, and it was a high note on which to retire. Fia retired in 1981 and died in 2004 at age 89.

    Image of a Black Brant rocket launching at night

    This article originally appeared in the Winter, 2010 edition of Altitude magazine.
    The image at the top of this article is of the abandoned launch control blockhouse at the Churchill, Manitoba rocket research range facility. The first Churchill launch of a Black Brant rocket, built and designed by Bristol Aerospace of Winnipeg, occurred in 1959. The rocket range was declared a national historic site in 2001 and is a destination for tourists to Churchill. Rocket research has now been replaced with northern and environmental research now that the Churchill Northern Research Centre has become the active tenant at the site.

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