The 50th Anniversary of the Black Brant Rocket – In the Archives

Black Brant 1960. Credit: Defense Research and Development Canada.

With the launch this week of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy and the discussion in the media about Canada’s lack of launch capability, we thought we would publish a couple of articles from the Space Quarterly print magazine archives that have never been published online. This second article was published in September 2012 and is written by journalist Elizabeth Howell.

The 50th Anniversary of the Black Brant Rocket

To understand the importance of the Black Brant program in Canadian history, it’s useful to look back about five decades and think about what Canada was doing in space at that time.

The first Canadian satellite launch – Alouette 1 – took place in 1962. Satellite launches in the years following were both sparse and expensive, providing few opportunities for Canadian researchers to access space.

It was an era when communications took place through radar and microwave, when television was done through point-to-point transmission, and when the northern reaches of Canada depended on airplane shipments of tapes to ground stations to get regular information about what was happening down south.

Space was an exciting frontier, representing an immense scientific opportunity for those who were fortunate enough to access it. The possibilities for exploration seemed endless, and sure to bring benefits back to those on Earth.

This was the environment in which the Black Brant sounding rocket began launching. What is more remarkable is that five decades later, in the age of microsatellites and lower-cost launches, the rocket still has an audience among researchers and is expected to continue for years to come.

Second World War – the ‘Turning Point’

Black Brant development initially started through the Canadian Forces and the government, with the National Research Council and the Department of National Defence doing research on matters such as exploring the upper atmosphere, probing the origin of auroras and developing rocket technology.

The timing was not coincidental: the Second World War was a “turning point” in Canadian technological confidence and capability that eventually led to the birth of such things as the Black Brant program, noted Rénald Fortier, a curator in aviation history at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa.

“Because of the war, there was a lot of industrialization, and huge amounts of government involvement. They were helping research because of the war needs, and work was being done on radar, biological and chemical warfare, nuclear bombs, atomic research, cold-weather flying, electrical de-icing of propellers,” Mr. Fortier said.

“Afterwards, the British military and the American military were all about rockets – rockets going into space and the use of rockets for weapons. The idea for the Canadian military to show an interest in space research was almost pre-destined.”

It took a little prodding from the United States to get involved, however. American scientists eager to participate in the 1957-8 International Geophysical Year were scouting out potential sites for launching via a rocket research panel.

Churchill, noted a Manitoba heritage society research paper on the subject, was ideal because it was close to where auroras commonly took place, it was near the magnetic pole and a military base was nearby, among other factors. Churchill even had air, sea and rail links close at hand. With Canadian approval and assistance, the United States set up rocket operations at the small Manitoba town.

“The presence of the military establishment at Fort Churchill was a key element in the selection of the site as a rocket facility. The base not only provided logistical support – accommodation, services and so forth – but provided an ongoing link between the research facility and the military,” wrote Parks Canada official C. J. Taylor on a Manitoba Historical Society website.

“In part, this connection was due to convenience – the military had the organization and personnel necessary for mounting a rocket program – but it had a more particular cause of military interest in rockets and high-altitude research that made the rocket range at least in part a military concern. This link to the military ties the range to the history of Fort Churchill and to the broader context of northern research in the 1950s.”

In 1960, the Canadian government awarded a contract to Bristol to develop several sounding rockets in conjunction with the Canadian Armament Research Establishment, which is today Defence R&D Canada (DRDC) Valcartier. Total responsibility was transferred to Bristol in 1961, just before the first launch at the new site in Churchill.

Launch and Customer Challenges

According to Bristol, a Winnipeg-based operating unit of Magellan Aerospace that runs the Black Brant program today, the first launch took place on June 15, 1962. Researchers found they had a lot to learn: Launches 1 and 2 did not reach the desired altitude.

Telemetry showed “a severe lateral acceleration” seven seconds after launch, according to a Bristol publication commemorating the 50th anniversary. It took several more launches and continual modifications of a joint between the payload and the rocket motor to get things right.

These first rockets were carrying payloads of up to 18 kilograms, but as experience and technology acumen increased, the loads got heavier and the rockets flew higher. Today, the program has more than 1,000 launches under its belt and a 98 per cent success rate, which is extraordinarily high.

What is more remarkable is that they have survived several near-deaths as customers fell away, one of the most prominent being the Canadian government who decided to pull out of the program in the 1970s.

“When the Canadian (government) closed the Churchill Rocket Range in the late 1970s, everyone thought that could mean the end of the Black Brant program,” said Dave O’Connor, the current Bristol division manager of rockets and space.

“Around that time, NASA’s use of the Black Brant just was getting started. It was a much bigger user of rockets than the Canadians. We don’t do the payloads for NASA, so overall it was still a reduction in business for us.”

NASA contractor Orbital Sciences remains the main contractor today. Most of the work today is for space agencies and governments, O’Connor notes.

There was a worry in past years that the International Space Station would hurt Bristol’s business, but the time available for astronauts to perform experiments aboard the orbiting platform turns out to be less than initially feared, said David Beattie, Bristol’s senior systems engineer.

“Every time a new technology or a new platform arises, there are very optimistic ideas expressed and they’re not shown to be that cost effective,” he said. “That’s where you find the science community returning to the sounding rockets.”

Black Brant 9 launch
Black Brant 9 launch. Credit: Magellan Aerospace.

Scientific Soaring

Today, payloads range between 70 and 850 kilograms, rockets fly anywhere from 150 kilometres to 1,500 kilometres high, and experiments have up to 20 minutes to run. Black Brants are launched from Wallops Island, White Sands Missile Range, Alaska, Norway, and Kwajalein Atoll.

But even the lower-altitude rockets provide a lot of time for research, according to O’Connor.

“If you look at a video on … a rocket that goes to 150 kilometres, it’s above the atmosphere for eight minutes. After the payload stabilizes and you sit there watching this, you realize how much eight minutes is. An instrument can do a lot in that time.”

Research interests have changed over the years. A decade or two ago, people were more focused on activities in the lower altitudes. Today, most customers are interested in space weather between the 1,000 and 1,500 kilometres region, focusing on items such as space physics and solar wind.

Business has traditionally been steady in the Black Brant line, although it forms only a moderate portion of Bristol’s revenues.

“Fortunately, we have other product lines that use a lot of the same people, and also the Black Brant spawned a lot of other things,” said O’Connor.

“We got into electronics and payload work, and as a result of having that capability, we ended up doing aircraft avionics for a while, and doing other electronic business and target systems. Now we got into small satellites. Even though the rocket business wasn’t always high, the overall business base grew from it.”

Rockets represent an opportunity to get low-cost payloads into space, and especially for students to get their feet wet in space research. There is potential competition looming for the Black Brant, though, in the form of a weather balloon facility being set up in Timmins, Ontario next year. That facility has backing from the Canadian Space Agency and CNES, the French space agency. However, Black Brant officials said they had not heard of this facility and could not comment on the possibilities.

Bristol, of course, does monitor what’s happening at other rocket ranges around the continent. Its challenge will be to remain current with the competition. The company is spending money in research and development to increase the yield of payloads and the capabilities of the rockets, but at the same time it must keep an eye on other low-cost launch facilities to compete with them.

One potential site of competition – low-cost orbital flights such as that offered by Virgin Galactic – do not worry officials, though. They say their low-flying rockets will have more flexibility and better safety parameters, meaning their audience will come to them time and time again.

About Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell
Canadian space and science reporter, researcher and consultant. I also am pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of North Dakota.