The Empire Strikes Out - Canada's Defence & The Commonwealth Space Program by Robert Godwin

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The general confusion during the late 1950s about the merits of missile defence led to several questionable strategic decisions made by the Governments of Canada and the United Kingdom. The possibility of a third contestant in the Space Race, in the form of a Commonwealth space program hinged on the sharing of technology and financing amongst the various invested nations, but more significantly on the political choices made regarding the future defensive postures of Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.


The Beginning

In 1927 Geoffrey De Havilland committed to building an aircraft factory in Canada and despite the immense losses and repercussions of World War I, Britain was still a global power. Canada was independent but continued to be perceived by many, both at home and abroad, as part of the British Empire. During World War II Canada "came of age" and provided Britain with a disproportionate amount of its military hardware, particularly aircraft such as the Avro Lancaster bomber and the De Havilland Mosquito fighter. A vigorous exchange of engineering skills and personnel took place between the two countries, before, during, and after the war.

Geoffrey de Havilland - British aircraft engineer (circa 1960)
Geoffrey de Havilland - British aircraft engineer (circa 1960)

Between the 1920s and 1950s vast sums of money were spent building Canada into a competitive world-class center of aerospace science and engineering. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, in the wake of the Second World War, much of Britain’s industrial energies were tied up rebuilding the country’s infrastructure. The birth of the long-range strategic missile during that same conflict, and during the subsequent Cold War, raised the stakes until Britain no longer had the resources to project itself onto the world stage with the same “big-stick” as the Soviet Union and the United States. The British government banned the export of capital from the UK and consequently the large corporate concerns like A.V. Roe and De Havilland could only continue their Canadian ventures by offering "in kind" services; which frequently took the form of the transfer of skilled personnel. Many of those British engineers and scientists chose to permanently emigrate to Canada and Australia in search of better opportunities.

A.V. Roe Canada in the 1950s
A.V. Roe Canada in the 1950s

In spite of these handicaps, by the summer of 1958, the UK parent of A.V. Roe Canada, Hawker Siddeley, was publicly trumpeting its Canadian success story. British reporters were literally catching flights to Canada just to interview the daily flood of emigrant engineers. Employees at "Avro" and its branch subsidiaries had escalated from 300 in 1945 to 41,000 in 1958; during the same period sales at Avro rose from zero to $310M.[1]

The Old De Havilland Factories in Downsview Ontario as seen in the 2000s
The Old De Havilland Factories in Downsview Ontario as seen in the 2000s

The rival De Havilland Company, also headquartered in England, had a net asset reserve of just over £19M (£400M in 2015) and its Beaver aircraft continued to be churned out of their factory at Downsview in Toronto. The Beaver had performed so well during the International Geophysical Year (56-57) that no less than three different geographical features had been named after it in Antarctica, and the US Congress had actually passed a special dispensation to allow it to be purchased by the US military.[2]

How to Build a Space Program

In 1954 Canada's first rocket scientist Kurt Stehling, speaking at the International Astronautical Congress in Innsbruck, isolated the various fundamentals he thought were necessary to enable the United States to create a space program. He broke it down to five existing groups:

  • 1) the German scientists brought over after World War II;
  • 2) the existing aircraft industry designers and engineers;
  • 3) the young engineers just getting started with rocketry;
  • 4) the students still in college and university; and
  • 5) the taxpayer.

In Stehling's mind each group brought different strengths and weaknesses to the table. The Germans were ebullient and experienced, but were finding it hard to adapt to "democratic processes". The aircraft industry was saturated with talent but bogged down by bureaucracy and slow to adapt to rockets. The young engineers were enthusiastic, but tended to overlook the technical difficulties due to lack of experience. The students were idealistic but inexperienced and again impatient. Finally the taxpayer had the money but they had to be persuaded to part with it in a way that was to their benefit.[3]

When looking at Stehling's summary you can see that all of these factions existed in England and Canada, with the notable exception of the first group. History tells us that the Soviets and the United States acquired the cream of the German rocket talent. However, the truth is more complicated.

On October 22nd 1945 the Lloyd Committee gathered in Coventry to discuss the viability of bringing Germans to England to avoid duplication of basic research. Eleven German scientists agreed to come to the Rocket Propulsion Establishment at Westcott in England in late 1946, led by Johannes Schmidt a pioneer who had worked on the hypergolic rocket used to power the ME-163 interceptor. Schmidt had come from the Walter Works in Kiel where there was unparalleled expertise in using high-test hydrogen peroxide for rockets.

The Germans began work in England refining the Walter 109-509A-2 rocket engine, which used concentrated hydrogen peroxide as an oxidizer, but Schmidt was killed in an explosion in November 1947 temporarily leaving the German group rudderless. The following year Walter "Papa" Riedel, the chief designer of the V-2 and co-inventor of regenerative cooled rocket engines transferred from Farnborough, where he had been quietly working since 1946, to RPE Westcott.

The forerunners of the V-2, the A-3 and A-5, had propulsion units that included substantial design features by Riedel, and they were built in small scale models to test the steering mechanisms at the Walter Works using peroxide and a catalyst as propellant; almost certainly with assistance from Riedel. The V-2's main fuel pump was powered by the decomposition of high-test hydrogen peroxide.

Riedel had as much experience as almost anyone in the rocket business, going all the way back to his work with Max Valier in 1930. In fact Riedel had built and test fired a LOX/Alcohol rocket engine with Valier in January 1930. By May they were driving a liquid-fueled rocket-propelled car, several months before Hermann Oberth's team fired the engine which gained them an award and official notice from the government for their achievement. Riedel was primarily an expert in liquid oxygen and in 1934 Walter Dornberger the head of the Peenemunde rocket station recognised his talents and brought him together with the 22 year old Wernher von Braun. For many months the German Army's rocket team consisted of just three men, Von Braun, Riedel and a mechanic named Heinrich Grünow. Later in his career Riedel also worked on solid fuel rockets at Westcott.

After the war von Braun seems to have quickly realized that he needed to engage all of the other four groups later identified by Stehling. He was able to do that from a unique position of experience, adaptability, management skills and charm. But there was no equivalent to the Germans in Canada and no guiding light like Von Braun in England, most likely because it would have been politically inexpedient to notify the British public that a senior V-2 technician was working in the country with impunity, and so right from the outset perhaps through choice or instruction Riedel kept a very low profile. He certainly didn't have the freedom to speak out like von Braun, and he was also hamstrung by the British tendency to keep secret military projects well hidden. All of this, combined with the advantage of massive fiscal resources, gave the United States a huge head start in the space business.

Meanwhile, the top of Stehling's ladder in Canada was entirely occupied by the entrenched aircraft establishment, recently fortified by a massive influx of money from the war. But the industry group, the Canadian Aeronautical Institute based in Ottawa, and populated by experts who frequently advised the government, took months to decide if it was even worth creating an Astronautical division, before finally deciding to "have a go" in October of 1958. Even then they found it difficult to recruit members.[4]

The Canadian Astronautical Society

Immediately following the flight of Sputnik in October 1957 an earnest group of Canadian engineers at the De Havilland Missile Division in Downsview, Ontario, led by Dr Philip A. Lapp, dreamed of a future where Canada would contribute to a space program; one that would be owned and operated by the members of the Commonwealth. To that end, in August 1958, Lapp’s Canadian Astronautical Society (CAS) dispatched their group secretary, an electronics wizard named Arthur Maine, to the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Amsterdam. At this conference the CAS officially became a member of the International Astronautical Federation, but the main reason for Maine attending was to meet with representatives from England and Australia to deliver the society's support for launching a third contestant in the space race.

The Canadian Astronautical Society seal, slogan and founder, October 1958
The Canadian Astronautical Society seal, slogan and founder, October 1958

Maine met with members of the De Havilland team, based out of Hatfield England, who for almost four years, under the guidance of Chief Project Engineer Geoffrey Pardoe, had been developing an all-British long range ballistic missile. It was named Blue Streak and it was designed to replace the Douglas Thor nuclear missiles that were defending England at that time, but were under American military authority.

The CAS Helical satellite tracking antenna
The CAS Helical satellite tracking antenna

Blue Streak was the centerpiece of Britain’s future defence program and was designed to carry a hydrogen bomb up to 2500 miles. Test stands had been built by De Havilland in two locations in England (Speadeadam and Hatfield), with a third set just for the engines on the Isle of Wight, and a complete launch facility was under construction in Woomera, Australia. Despite generous technology transfers from the United States (the airframe was an improvement of the Convair Atlas missile and the engines were modified and upgraded by Rolls-Royce from a Rocketdyne design)[5] the costs of the program were escalating and some grumbling had already been heard in Westminster; so not surprisingly the Canadian delegation was met with some enthusiasm by the British and Australian scientists. Canada might offer not only financial support, but also engineering talent and possibly locations for tracking stations. The meeting concluded with the formation of the Commonwealth Astronautical Committee and plans were made to host a Commonwealth Space Symposium at IAC the following year in London.

After Maine returned to Toronto the Canadian Astronautical Society quickly proved their credentials when just two months later they built a tracking station with donated money at Downsview and used it to follow the recently launched Pioneer satellite. The CAS satellite tracking station was almost certainly the first to be operated in Canada.

That same month an invitation was sent out by Cornell University in New York for submissions for foreign satellite experiments to fly on American rockets. Representatives from the Defence Research Telecommunications Establishment (DRTE) in Ottawa were sent to attend the meeting. Initially DRTE proposed tacking some Canadian instruments onto a US satellite.[6]

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  1. ^ Daily Express Oct 30 1958
  2. ^ De Havilland Gazette June 1959
  3. ^ The Men Behind the Rockets – Heinz Gartmann 1956
  4. ^ Canadian Aeronautical Journal – Sept 1959
  5. ^ RAF Flying Review Oct 1959
  6. ^ Canadian Aeronautical Journal March 1960