Rockets have been seen as the best way to get things into space ever since Robert Goddard, Hermann Oberth, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Wernher von Braun’s pioneering work in the first half of the twentieth century. But they’re not the only option.
There are many alternatives that sidestep the high cost of rockets and their propensity to occasionally explode on the launchpad. Some have suggested structures — a tower that reaches the Kármán line, or a space elevator. Others have proposed skyhooks or electromagnetic mass drivers.
These are all very complicated, and many are technically impossible with today’s materials. But there’s another simpler option:
Why don’t we just fire things into space from a huge cannon?
That’s the school of thought behind a long-hypothesised technology called space guns. Proponents claim that by loading a satellite or spacecraft into the barrel of a gun and aiming it upward, we could put objects into space for a fraction of the cost of a satellite.
The concept of the space gun was first envisaged by Isaac Newton in his 1728 book A Treatise of the System of the World. In it, he performs a thought experiment where a cannon is placed on the top of a very high mountain. Without gravity or air resistance, it would just follow a straight line away from Earth in the direction fired.
With gravity, however, its path depends on its initial velocity — it’ll either fall back to Earth, orbit the planet or escape to space. All we need to do to achieve the latter of those scenarios is fire it with a high enough velocity. Newton wrote:
Imagine a mountain so high that its peak is above the atmosphere of the earth. Imagine on top of that mountain a cannon, that fires horizontally. As more and more charge is used with each shot, the speed of the cannonball will be grater, and the projectile will impact the ground farther and farther from the mountain.
Finally, at a certain speed, the cannonball will not hit the ground at all. It will fall toward the circular earth just as fast as the earth curves away from it. In the absence of drag from the atmosphere, it will continue forever in an orbit around the earth.
A more well-known representation of a space gun in fiction is in Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. In the novel, astronauts fly to the Moon aboard a ship launched from a cannon on the surface of the Earth called The Colombiad.
Verne goes into great detail on the construction of this huge cannon, built from 136,000,000 pounds of iron smelted in 1,200 ovens and shipped on sixty-eight boats to its destination in Florida.
It’s then constructed into a gun with a 274-metre barrel, two-metre thick walls and a bore with a diameter of three metres.
In the novel, the cannon’s fictional creator, Impey Barbicane of the Baltimore Gun Club, announces to his membership:
“I have looked at the question in all its bearings, I have resolutely attacked it, and by incontrovertible calculations I find that a projectile endowed with an initial velocity of 12,000 yards per second, and aimed at the moon, must necessarily reach it. I have the honor, my brave colleagues, to propose a trial of this little experiment.”
The trial involves loading the gun with 180,000kg of gun cotton. That supposedly gives it enough oomph to fire its projectile — a hollow bullet designed with the capability to carry people into outer space.
In the end the projectile is launched successfully, but the fate of the three astronauts inside is left inconclusive. The book’s sequel — Around the Moon — continues the story.
From the Earth to the Moon has inspired several movies, including Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon (a 1967 British sci-fi comedy, where the gun is mounted in the side of a Welsh mountain) and Le Voyage dans la Lune (a 1902 French silent film which became the first to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage movie in 2002 and inspired an album by Air). You can see the latter in full right here:
Back in the real world
But that’s all fiction — how about reality? After the publication of Verne’s novel, there was much discussion of the concept within scientific circles but in 1903, the space gun idea was rubbished by reclusive Russian physicist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky — today considered one of the fathers of rocketry.
Tsiolkovsky did some sums on the physics involved with a space gun, and concluded that it would not only have to be impossibly long, but it would submit the astronauts inside to 22,000g of acceleration. Maximum human tolerance of g-forces is about 20 to 35g during the ten seconds that the firing of a space gun would take. In short — you could fire people to space, but they wouldn’t survive the trip.
The Paris Gun
That put space gun technology on the back burner for a while, but it was revived again during the First World War by the German Empire. Artillery engineers Max Dräger and Fritz Rausenberger used the same principles to build the Paris Gun — a huge long-range siege gun that was capable of bombarding the French capital from its location more than 120 kilometres away in the forest of Coucy.
Its projectiles didn’t get as far as space, but they were the first human-made objects to reach the stratosphere, and required gunners to take into account the coriolis force when calculating targets.
The gun, along with the plans for its construction, was completely destroyed at the end of the war by retreating Germans, and any replacement of the Paris Gun was specifically banned under the Treaty of Versailles.
Before the war ended, however, the French began making plans to counter the Paris Gun with a long-range gun of their own, capable of firing multiple times behind the same projectile to increase acceleration. It didn’t even reach prototype stage before the end of the war, and the plans were archived. But that wasn’t the end of them.
In 1940, as the forces of Nazi Germany rolled across France, the plans were rediscovered and in 1942 they arrived on the desk of August Cönders — a German engineer working in an artillery foundry. The Nazis had been grappling with the problem of long range guns for some time, but the huge explosive charges needed would rapidly degrade the barrels of conventional guns.
Cönders saw potential in the French plans, which would allow for a more gradual acceleration using multiple charges. He built a prototype, which showed promise, and was subsequently invited to present his work to Albert Speer — who greenlighted his plans for a gun capable of firing on London from the coast of Calais.
The V-3 Cannon
This became the third of Hitler’s V-weapons, developed to deliver retribution for British bombing raids on Nazi Germany. They comprised the V-1 flying bomb, the V-2 rocket (which subsequently formed the basis of much of Nasa’s early rocketry expertise) and the V-3 cannon.
The V-3 was codenamed “high pressure pump” or “HDP” — an attempt to hide the real purpose of the project. Twenty-five were planned to be built in the Fortress of Mimoyecques in the Pas-de-Calais region, with the first battery ready for March 1944 and the full complex finished by October. They were to be 105 metres long, angled at 50 degrees, and pointed directly at London. The guns would be served by an underground railroad and ammunition storage facility.
The Allies knew nothing about the German plans, but they did know about the V-2 rockets that were landing daily on London. They identified the fortress housing the under-construction V-3 gun as a possible launching base for V-2 missiles, and it was targeted for intense bombardment.
It was put fully out of commission on 6 July 1944 by the RAFs’ famous ‘Dambusters’ 617 squadron, who used ‘Tallboy’ deep-penetration bombs to destroy it — entombing hundreds of workers in the tunnels below. At the end of the war, Churchill personally ordered it to be demolished as it was still seen as a threat to the UK, despite the anger of the French who weren’t consulted on the decision. It later reopened — initially as a mushroom farm and then as a museum.
That left the V-3 unproven, and in late 1944 the project came under control of the SS. Two shorter guns, about fifty metres long, were constructed and set up in a ravine of the Ruwer River, south-east of Trier. They were aimed forty-three kilometres west at the city of Luxembourg, which had been liberated mere months beforehand.
Ammunition supply proved difficult due to the poor state of the German railway networks, but orders were received to begin firing by the end of December 1944. Supplies were delivered and the first tube fired five high-explosive shells on 30 December, with the second tube joining it on 11 January. However, the guns were not seen as particularly effective — 142 rounds that landed in the city resulted in 10 dead and 35 wounded. Not very impressive for one of the Nazis’ supposed ‘wunderwaffen’. At the end of the war, the gun tubes were disassembled and shipped to the United States for testing, before being scrapped in 1948.
A New Beginning
The field of long-range artillery lay dormant for a while as the space race heated up and rocketry took centre stage in the United States. But in Canada, a tempestuous engineer named Gerald Bull had other ideas about how best to get things into orbit.
Gerald was the second-youngest of the ten children of George and LaBrosse Bull. Following the death of his mother in childbirth, and the subsequent nervous breakdown of his father, he was raised by his older sister Bernice. He started school early and loved building balsa wood aircraft of his own design. He graduated in 1946, and despite being just sixteen years old managed to persuade the directors of the aeronautical engineering department at the University of Toronto to admit him to their brand new undergraduate program.
Despite achieving only average marks, he was then invited to join the University’s brand new Institute of Aeronautics following a personal recommendation from its director, Gordon Patterson, who felt that his lack of academic credentials were made up for by his tremendous energy.
After successfully constructing a supersonic wind tunnel — at the time a rare device — he finished his PhD thesis in 1950 and moved to working at the Canadian Armament and Research Development Establishment, or CARDE, which was at the time researching supersonic flight and various rocket and missile projects.
He developed a knack for bypassing budgetary restrictions by using scrap parts and shuffling money around between different projects, and began working on ways to shoot missiles out of guns at extremely high velocities. This progressed to firing model aircraft out of guns, but Bull attracted negative attention from his supervisors after he embarrassed the Canadian Prime Minister by leaking a story to the newspapers that the country was working on plans to put high-velocity guns in the noses of missiles.
Things came to a head on 1 April, 1961 — when he got into an argument with his direct superior over paperwork. He resigned, and a post-resignation report stated that “…his tempestuous nature and strong dislike for administration and red tape constantly led him into trouble with senior management”.
Bull had seen this coming for some time, however, and had no problem gaining another job — as a professor at McGill University. He quickly set about turning the engineering department there into a leader in the field of aeronautics, as well as setting up a private ballistics lab known as the Highwater Station on the US-Canada border.
He remained close with some of his former colleagues, particularly Charles Murphy — who he’d worked closely with on the model aircraft project. They partnered with Arthur Trudeau — the director of US Army Research and Development, who Bull had previously impressed during a visit to CARDE — on a project exploring the possibility of using guns to put missile components high into the Earth’s atmosphere for re-entry research.
The US Navy supplied a spare 16-inch battleship gun that it had lying around and the Office of Naval Research paid for it to be rebored, meaning that the contract signed by Bull, Murphy and Trudeau totalled just $2,000. It was named Project HARP — short for “high altitude research program”.
But there was a problem — Bull’s Highwater station wasn’t big enough to support the enormous gun. The team needed an alternative launch site, and one was found in a rather unconventional location — a meteorological station on the Caribbean island of Barbados. It was perfect for two reasons — its location near the equator meant less thrust would be necessary to achieve escape velocity, and it also allowed for a huge downrange area over the Atlantic for projectiles to land.
The station had been run by McGill University for some time, and so Bull set up a meeting with the Barbadian prime minister Errol Barrow. Barrow needed to be convinced that it was a good idea to allow another country to set up an enormous piece of artillery in his territory, with the supposed purpose of firing things into space.
Barrow was easily won over. Bull had managed to acquire a $200,000 advance to develop the gun range, and the impoverished nation — which, at the time, was still not fully independent of Britain — was keen to support projects with both potential and significant budget. As a result, Barrow became one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the project and arranged for the gun to be set up in Foul Bay, on the southeast shore of the island.
The gun arrived by boat in the summer of 1962 but couldn’t be delivered directly to the site due to its rough coastline. Instead, it had to be unloaded further down the coast and hundreds of locals were employed in transporting the heavy components overland. A temporary railway track was laid, but only 450 metres of rails were available so the track was pulled up as the gun passed over it and re-laid in front.
Eventually, by the end of the summer, the gun was in place and its support buildings were constructed. But just as preparations were underway for the first test shot, the Cuban missile crisis erupted on the far side of the Caribbean. It couldn’t have come at a worse time — despite Project HARP’s peaceful objectives, the installation of a massive gun on a nearby island couldn’t have gone unnoticed by the Soviets, but fortunately the confrontation ended peacefully.
On 20 January 1963, under a clear blue sky, the first shot was fired. A 315kg wooden slug was propelled 3,000 metres into the air, flying for 58 seconds before landing about a kilometre off-shore. It was a complete success, so two further scheduled test firings were abandoned and preparations were made to fire real projectiles.
The next day, a Martlet-1 was launched. The Martlet was a dart-like finned projectile named after the mythical bird on a McGill university crest. It flew far higher — to an altitude of twenty-six kilometres, with a flight time of 145 seconds.
Two days later, a second Martlet-1 reached twenty-seven kilometres, with a radio transmitter beacon attached. This allowed the team to track the projectile throughout the course of its flight.
But the first tests revealed a few problems — the decades-old gunpowder being used to fire the gun was of poor quality, and the projectile was leaving the barrel so quickly that the gunpowder didn’t have time to completely burn. The powder was replaced, and by the end of June a world-record altitude had been reached of ninety-two kilometres for a gun-launched projectile.
It wasn’t just for fun. The Martlet was equipped with eletronics that released chemical markers at set altitudes, leaving a smoke trail through the sky that could be used to measure upper-level winds. Some used additional electronics to measure magnetic fields. Bull later wrote:
The idea was to find out what happens in the atmosphere from sunset to sunrise. Remember, nobody gave us grants. We had to produce tropical atmospheric meteorological [data] for the army research office, that’s how we got our money. We were trying to measure everything to the top of the atmosphere, which we labeled as a nominal two hundred kilometers.
Funding was increased, but this high-atmosphere work was only an appetiser for Bull’s real interests. He wanted to fire a projectile into space. After extending their gun, allowing the powder to be contained for a longer period of time and slowing the acceleration, the team managed it. On 18 November, 1966, a Martlet-2 was launched to 180 kilometres — a world record for a gun-launched projectile that remains to this day.
The speed of the projectile was less than half of that necessary to reach low earth orbit, so Bull wanted to continue. He designed a more complex Martlet-3 and Martlet-4 which were miniature rockets with their own thrusters. But political opposition to the project was mounting — the US Army lost its battle to control space operations and was forbidden to conduct launches above 100km, meaning that all funding for Bull’s orbital program had to come from the Canadian government.
That budget was shrinking due to changing public attitudes towards military affairs and negative reviews from the press and other researchers. A change of government sealed the deal — Canadian funding was not renewed in 1967, despite a last-ditch attempt to stir some nationalism with a plan to launch a Canadian flag into orbit.
With the cancellation of the Canadian funding, and the US Army’s inability to launch to orbit, Project HARP was over.
Space Research Corporation
The representatives of the government that dismantled the project wanted to see its guns cut up and its facilities destroyed, but Bull had a trump card up his sleeve. A clause in his contract required McGill to return the test sites to their original condition at the end of the lease, and his Highwater station had grown into a major scientific facility. Returning it to its original condition of a scrubby piece of land down a dirt road would have cost the university millions of dollars.
Bull proposed a solution to the impasse he’d created — the University could transfer the Highwater and Barbados launch sites, along with the guns and all the facilities, over to his ownership. With no other options, the university agreed, and with his new resources Bull founded the Space Research Corporation.
The company needed money, so immediately inked deals with the Canadian and US military research arms to develop artillery systems, putting his work on space guns on the back-burner. He worked as an international artillery consultant throughout the 70s, supplying arms to the US, Israel and South Africa. However, in the latter half of the decade, as international criticism of the apartheid government of South Africa grew, he was arrested for illegal arms dealing. Bull pleaded guilty, expecting a fine, but instead was sentenced to several months in prison.
Upon release, he moved to Brussels and secured work with the People’s Republic of China and Iraq. After designing a pair of artillery pieces for the Iraqis, he decided the time was right to fulfil his former ambitions. In 1988, he managed to persuade Saddam Hussein that Iraq would never be a real military power without the capability for space launches, and offered to share his expertise from Project HARP and build a cannon capable of such launches.
Hussein was interested enough to greenlight the project, which called for a gun that was 156 metres long, weighed 2,100 tonnes and had a one metre diameter. It was designed to be capable of placing a 2,000-kilogram projectile into orbit.
But the Iraqis, seeing how badly Bull wanted to realise his dreams of space guns, added another condition to the deal — Bull would need to help on the development of the country’s long-range scud missiles. Bull agreed, and the plan was named Project Babylon.
The first gun that was built was a prototype for test purposes. “Baby Babylon”, as it was named, was mounted horizontally and had a barrel length of 46 metres. It was expected to achieve a range of 750 kilometres. While its barrel was similar in size to the V-3 cannon that threatened London during the Second World War, it was not considered a security risk by Israel as it was immobile.
The second supergun, “Big Babylon” was more imposing, however — it was the 156-metre gun that Bull had pitched to start the project. This attracted rather more consternation from Iraq’s military rivals — Iran and Israel. Despite the fact that its ability to fire conventional projectiles would have been limited and slow, it was seen as a threat.
While construction of Big Babylon was taking place, Bull worked on the Scud project as promised. During the course of his work, his apartment suffered several break-ins where nothing was stolen. A few months later, on 20 March 1990, Bull’s doorbell rang. He answered the door, and was shot five times in the head and back at point-blank range.
The leading theory is that the assassination was conducted by Israeli Mossad agents, who subsequently spread misinformation alleging he was shot by Iraqi agents. Other theories point to the Iranians, the CIA, MI6, or Chilean or South African governments as being responsible for his death. After years of working in the international arms industry, and with such a tempestuous nature, Bull had many enemies.
Project Babylon continued for several months more following Bull’s death, but was slowed in April 1990 after several parts of its barrel were seized by UK customs. The segments were being constructed in Britain, Spain the Netherlands and Switzerland and shipped to Iraq as “petrochemical pressure vessels”.
Fearing for their safety, Bull’s remaining staff returned to Canada shortly afterwards, and the project ground to a halt. Following the end of the Gulf War in 1991, Hussein admitted the existence of Project Babylon and the remaining pieces of the gun were destroyed by UN inspectors without ever having been fired.
In 1995, HBO produced a straight-to-television film titled Doomsday Gun, about the life of Gerald Bull and his involvement with Project Babylon. You can see it in full on YouTube, embedded below. Bull’s story was also the starting point of a 1994 novel by Frederick Forsyth, titled The Fist of God.
As Bull was making his fateful deals with Hussein in the late 80s, another team of researchers was bringing his dreams to life at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
Project SHARP (‘Super High Altitude Research Project’) had been created, headed up by a scientist named John Hunter. In 1985, Hunter had been looking at the plans for for electromagnetic railguns to shoot down ballistic missiles when he realised that a light gas gun would be much more efficient to launch projectiles to a high percentage of escape velocity.
Light gas guns work just like airguns — a gas is compressed by a piston through a small diameter barrel containing a projectile, forcing it out at very high speeds. He put together a team, and set about designing an L-shaped device capable of sending projectiles into the atmosphere at extremely high speeds.
The gun became operational after Bull’s death in December 1992, the largest of its kind in the world at the time. It was 130 metres long and theoretically capable of firing a 5kg projectile into a set of sandbags at more than 14,000 km/h — about a third of the required velocity to get an object into space.
During testing, the gun achieved velocities of only 10,800 km/h which was promising enough to plan an even larger gun, titled the Jules Verne Launcher after its spiritual predecessor. Such a gun would have had a monstrous 3.5-kilometre long barrel, but the chief problem was its cost — an equally-monstrous billion dollars. Funding was not forthcoming, so Hunter left the project and the gun was eventually acquired by DARPA.
Hunter moved between projects, building water stations on the California/Mexico border, designing armoured vehicles, and at one point designing the Zyclone Zing Ring Blaster and Moonshot kids toys, but like Bull he’d developed a fascination with launching projectiles from guns to space. In 2009 he founded a company called Quicklaunch.
Quicklaunch set out to build a space gun submerged below the ocean. Hunter’s design called for a 1.1-kilometre barrel that could be adjusted based on customer launch requirements, fired using hydrogen as the working gas and methane as the explosive heat source.
According to the company’s claims, it would take just ten minutes to heat and pre-pressurise the hydrogen gas before launch, and most would be recovered at the end of the launch tube to be reused for subsequent launches. The design should yield an initial speed of six kilometres per second, though this would decrease rapidly once the projectile hits the atmosphere and still falls about half-way short of escape velocity.
Instead, the launcher is designed to replace the first stage of a rocket — giving it some oomph before it fires its own engines to take them to orbit. The remarkable thing is the cost per kilogram to get something to low earth orbit — about $1,100, compared to $4,100 on SpaceX’s Falcon 9, $10,500 on Europe’s Ariane 5 or $13,200 on NASA’s Atlas V.
That cost, combined with the high possible frequency of launch (up to five times a day), makes it ideal for sending cheap, resilient cargo into space — refuelling a space station or orbital space depot, for example. The firing process produces 5,000 Gs — better than Tsiolkovsky’s estimations, but still far from survivable. “A person shot out of it would probably get compressed to half their size,” Hunter told Popular Science in 2010. “It’d be over real quick.”
Unfortunately, it looks like his project isn’t making much progress. Since 2012, the company has faded away — its website is now a domain parking page (see what it looked like previously on Archive.org) and a Facebook page last posted in March 2013 with a link to a podcast featuring Hunter. Meanwhile, he appears to have designed a new toy — the Moonshot.
Nonetheless, the company did file a patent in August 2013 and the company is listed as ‘ACTIVE’ on California’s business search, so for now it’s likely that it’s in hibernation mode until sufficient interest from investors can be found to continue.
Updated: We spoke to Hunter to find out more about what’s going on with Quicklaunch. He left the company in 2012, but is working on some fascinating other projects. Find out more in our extensive interview with him.
Space Guns Today
So where does that leave us today? Quicklaunch was the only company working on a modern space gun, though there are several alternatives using magnetic levitation technology, such as the Startram project.
To date, a space gun has never successfully launched an object into orbit — though Project HARP managed to put one of its Martlet-2s into suborbital spaceflight with a maximum altitude of 180km — far above the Kármán line that separates our atmosphere from space.
Rockets remain inefficient, but after many decades of use they’re a relatively safe and well-tested technology for getting objects into orbit. Other forms of non-rocket spacelaunch may be developed as a way of saving costs for simple resupply missions out of the atmosphere, but only for the most basic, robust payloads.
Will we ever shoot people into space from a cannon? Sorry Jules Verne, thanks to the G-forces involved, the answer is almost certainly not.
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