It’s not Rocket science!

03 Feb

The Chinese are credited with inventing gunpowder – as they invented so many other things such as Chinese Takeaways, Chinese Laundries, Chinese New Year, Chinese Burns etcetera!

If you look up “Things invented by the Chinese” in Google you will find an article by the ever-reliable Wikipedia which lists the “big four” Chinese inventions as:


The (navigational) Compass

Gunpowder (including fireworks and rockets)


I presume that Printing was last on the list because there was no point in inventing it before you had paper to print on!

I also imagine a day in Chinese history when some Emperor or other decided “At last! Now we can do this!” then took his army, used his lovely new printed paper maps and compasses to find his enemies and blew them to bits with gunpowder-powered rockets!

It may not have happened like that but it’s a nice thought!

Rather surprisingly, and despite the technology being there, using rockets as a weapon of war did not really “take off” (sorry!) for many centuries while their gunpowder power source WAS utilised to lob various projectiles at enemy armies and civilians in European wars from about the 14th Century onwards.

Weapons where the gunpowder propellant actually accompanied the projectile on its journey did not begin to be used by the British Army until after various Indian armies used them against the forces of the British East India Company in the late 1700s – after which unpleasant experience Colonel Sir William Congreve (1772 – 1828) was appointed to conduct Research & Development on rocket artillery at Woolwich Arsenal.

The resulting product was tested by the Royal Navy (setting fire to Boulogne and Copenhagen), used in a fictional Peninsular War battle in Portugal (“Sharpe’s Enemy” by Bernard Cornwall), and used for real against France in the Battle of Leipzig in 1813.

Congreve’s rockets were also (and I am indebted to Bernard Cornwall for this information which was given in the Appendix of the above mentioned novel) used against the United States of America during the war of 1812-14, specifically during the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore. This action is commemorated in the lines in the anthem “The Star Spangled Banner” which in its first verse has “And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there”.

Over the intervening years, and particularly during the 20th Century, gunpowder has been replaced as a rocket propellant by more efficient chemical reactions increasing the range, and power of these weapons leading to the V2 rockets used against London in World War 2.

Every rocket variant up to and including Vergeltungswaffen Zwei (Vengeance weapon 2) had the same problem – their effectiveness was limited to the accuracy with which they could be AIMED!

This became a difficulty when the speed and manoeuvrability of targets such as aircraft increased to the point where they were able to dodge or outrun things fired directly at them. What was needed was something that could (either internally or externally) be GUIDED.

As early as 1945, when it was thought that Japan would have to be conquered island by island and ship by ship, the USA was trying out radio-controlled, explosive filled “drone” aircraft with primitive TV cameras in the nose to aid the operator. The Japanese, of course used similar explosive-filled aircraft but left the pilots in to aim the plane at U.S. battleships and carriers!

Other much bigger bangs probably slowed that line of research and it is only comparatively recently that such aircraft for reconnaissance and attack have come back into fashion again.

Meanwhile, control by fine wire for ground to ground usage, heat-seeking technology for ground to air or air to air combat and in-built programmable computers with terrain mapping software (as in Cruise missiles) have now given us “smart” guided rockets that can almost 100% guarantee hitting whatever they are either aimed at or are simply told to hit!

As I said earlier the replacement of gunpowder as a propellant vastly improved the range of rockets and this led most importantly to the Human Race getting into space – probably the only way we can ever guarantee our Single-planet species’ survival!

It is my belief that any number of bad things can and probably will happen to us if we continue as we are with all our eggs in one planetary basket and feel deeply that we as a world should be turning all our scientific, technological and industrial ingenuity towards getting “out there” en masse rather than messing about fighting each other over minor trivia like religion, economics and politics.

Of course, our manned efforts to the Moon fizzled out, after only six landings, in 1972 once enough had been done to honour the memory of the late President Kennedy who had initiated the Apollo programme. It was apparently more important to fund the disaster that was the Vietnam War than to continue an actual Human advance!

This post was actually started in about August 2016 and I’m sure you’re wondering where I am going with it.

Well, so am I!

When I picked it up recently (1st February 2017) in my “unfinished” folder I could not, for the life of me, remember what had inspired it. Then I found, in one of my notebooks a couple of apparently random sentences which bought back my chain of thought.

This enabled me to resume the narrative 5 paragraphs ago where I turned it towards space travel and the old Apollo flights. I was heading specifically towards what I saw as the pivotal mission, the one that went wrong, Apollo 13 and its effect on the public will to advance interplanetary travel.

It has long been known that following the relatively routine and uneventful landings and safe returns of Apollos 11 and 12 the American public were becoming bored with space. It took the explosion in the oxygen tank of “Odyssey”, the Apollo 13 Command/Service module and the following life or death struggle to get home to reawaken interest in a further 4 missions.

I wonder how things would have gone if mission Commander Jim Lovell and his crew had not made it back. There are basically two possibilities: firstly that the US manned space programme would have shut down completely with no further moon landings and no ventures outward of any sort for many years. The second alternative (and the one I think is less likely) is that the Americans, inspired by the sacrifice of that crew would have seen the great glory to be had and run with space exploration to the point where we would already now have permanent colonies on the Moon and Mars.

Alas we can never know.

Permit me now to explain the convoluted thought process that brought me here.

Last summer my wife arranged for us to meet up with an old friend of ours in our former home village of Histon, near Cambridge. She was to drive over in the morning and do some shopping with our friend while I, still experimenting with my over 60s bus pass, agreed to join them via that mode of transport after my volunteer session at Peterborough Library finished.

The specific bus that I had to get runs by road from Peterborough to St. Ives then moves onto a special track that was once a railway line for the rest of the trip to Cambridge. There are a number of routes through and around Cambridge indicated by letters of the alphabet but only the “B” route goes to and from Peterborough. The whole thing from St. Ives to Cambridge is known locally as the “guided bus”.

Do you see yet how I got from that trip to the article above?

Well, the note that I found in my little book as mentioned above read as follows:

“Guided Bus -> guided missile.

St. Ives to Cambridge Bus ‘B’ -> Main Bus B.”

Perhaps it will clarify it still further if I remind you that “Main Bus B” was the name of the major electrical conduit in Apollo 13 that blew out when the oxygen tank exploded in the service module and lost them most of their power.

And that’s all it took to set me off.

So, having shared that meaningful insight into my thought processes, do you feel that you understand me and my mental workings a little better?

No. Neither do I.


Leave a comment

Posted by on February 3, 2017 in Informative


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: