A Lucky Disaster, or Canada’s Loss, NASA’s Gain (Part 1)

YURI GAGARIN HEADLINEOne version of the history of manned space exploration goes something like this: in the darkest days of the Cold War, American and Russian engineers—armed with only their wits and slide rules—duked it out, mano a mano, in a contest for supremacy of the high frontier, outer space. The Russians struck first on every front: first unmanned satellite to orbit the earth—a beeping, silvery sphere called Sputnik; first mammal to orbit the earth—a dog named Laika; and most impressively, the first human being in space—Yuri Gagarin. We Americans quickly caught up with the Russians, repeated their first steps—though we favored simians in space over canines—and eventually surpassed Russian spaceborne achievements by landing human beings on the Moon.

Whether intentionally or by omission, that story fails to credit the significant contributions that other nations made to what, in a less politically contentious world, likely would have been seen as a set of achievements to be shared by all humanity. Neil Armstrong’s first words while standing on the Moon—That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind—can be seen as a attempt to share some credit with all human beings for the achievement, but many people don’t consider what other nations might have been doing while the Russians and Americans were racing to space.

Wernher von Braun (NASA)

German rocket scientists made significant contributions to the nascent American space program.  Indeed, space nerds likely know of the contributions of Dr. Kurt Debus. His name adorns Kennedy Space Center’s conference center, a place where we have met and interviewed astronauts on a couple of occasions. Anyone who has ever watched Apollo 13 has seen Tom Hanks, in the guise of Jim Lovell, adopt a phaux-teutonic accent and ham it up by saying, “I vonder vere Günter vent?” a pun on the name of famed Launch Pad Leader Günter Wendt. In reality—a concept always a distant second to story in Hollywood—astronaut Donn Eisele had uttered those words during Apollo 7. And of course, Wernher von Braun achieved enough stature and fame from his work on the Apollo program that he—a German who became a naturalized citizen of the United States—is often referred to as the father of the American space program.

A story that isn’t often told is of the contributions that America’s neighbors to the north made to NASA and the space program.

Fifty-four years ago today, on February 20, 1959, the Canadian arm of the British aircraft company A. V. Roe—more generally known as AVRO—killed its most ambitious project to date, the CF-105 Arrow. The death of the Arrow Program resulted in the southern migration of a number of Canadian—and Britons who’d already relocated once to Canada—scientists and engineers who would contribute mightily to the American space program.

Chuck Yeager (NASA)

The Arrow was a product of the revolutionary changes in aircraft design and manufacturing that took place in the 1950s. In the almost exactly ten years that passed from Chuck Yeager’s October 14, 1947, flight that broke through the sound barrier to the October 4, 1957, announcement by AVRO that it was going to build the Arrow, human ingenuity produced a dizzying variety of solutions to the problems of going faster, higher, and farther. Yeager’s mount in 1947, the Bell X-1—which he named Glamorous Glennis after his wife—was shaped like a rifle bullet with wings slapped on as an afterthought because, after all, it’s an airplane, it’s gotta have wings. Six years later, in 1953, Scott Crossfield flew at twice the speed of sound in the D-558-2 Skyrocket. The bodies—the fuselage—of the two aircraft had roughly the same bullet shape, but the Skyrocket sliced through the skies above Edwards Air Force Base on wings that swept backwards at 35 degrees.

The Arrow, which had its first flight in 1958, was intended to intercept Soviet bombers carrying atomic and thermonuclear weapons over the arctic and on into North America. To meet the requirements of this mission, it was posited that the Arrow would need to be able to fly at three times the speed of sound—Mach 3—or roughly 1980 miles per hour. That this was the Arrow’s performance target, when no piloted jet-propelled aircraft—research or otherwise—had yet attained that speed speaks to the engineering audaciousness of the era.

The date of AVRO’s announcement to build the Arrow—October 4, 1957—was the same day that Sputnik first circled the earth. The management of AVRO had the decided misfortune to announce their newest and most important aircraft on the same day that the Russians launched the first-ever manmade satellite. The party for bigwigs that evening, which included American aviation executives, officials, and military personnel (both NACA–the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA’s immediate predecessor–and the USAF had contributed to the Arrow’s design) ended in disbelief and with everyone talking about spacecraft instead of aircraft.

Timing, as they say, is everything, and the Arrow never could get its timing right. The new engines upon which it was depending in order to reach Mach 3 were forever behind schedule. Sputnik’s launch had refocused military conversations on the viability of manned aircraft in the coming era of ballistic missiles and push-button warfare. In the end, the Arrow became too expensive—approximately $400M a year for several years in a row, or as the adage attributed to, but not likely said by Illinois politician Everett Dirksen asserts, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money”—for the government of Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and fifty-four years ago the program was put to rest. The announcement effectively cashiered the 14,000 AVRO employees working on Arrow.

One of those employees was a young engineer named R. Bryan Erb. Erb was among the AVRO engineers who migrated to NASA, and years later he described the event as a lucky disaster for himself.  Considering the amount of raw engineering talent that would ultimately decamp AVRO and head for the warmer climes that NASA called home, NASA administrators could have described the Arrow cancellation the same way.

Check back at Lofty Ambitions to read more about how some of the people who made this journey from AVRO to NASA left a lasting impression on America’s space program.

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