Project HARP

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HARP 16-inch (410 mm) gun

Project HARP, short for High Altitude Research Project, was a joint project of the United States Department of Defense and Canada's Department of National Defence created with the goal of studying ballistics of re-entry vehicles at low cost; whereas most such projects used expensive and failure-prone rockets, HARP used a non-rocket spacelaunch method based on a very large gun to fire the models to high altitudes and speeds.


Started in 1961,[1] the HARP program is a joint technical endeavor of McGill University's Space Research Institute (SRI) and the U.S. Army's  Ballistic Research Laboratories (BRL), which later became a part of the Army Research Laboratory in 1992.[2][3] HARP was created largely due to lobbying from Gerald Bull, a controversial but highly successful ballistics engineer who went on to head the project. Bull had developed the high-speed gun technique while working on anti-ballistic missile (ABM) and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) research at CARDE in the 1950s, shooting models of high-speed interceptor missiles from guns as opposed to building supersonic wind tunnels, which would be much more expensive. The ABM project eventually ended without delivering a working system, but Bull was convinced the rocket systems he had developed had potential and started looking for other ways to use the technology. Funding for the project came from the Department of Defence Production in the form of a $500,000 grant and a loan of $200,000 from the McGill board of governors.[1]

The U.S. was in the process of testing newer ICBM systems and required repeated tests of newer re-entry vehicles. Bull suggested that the program could be run for considerably less money if the test vehicles were fired from a large gun, as opposed to using rockets. This would also allow the test program's schedule to be greatly accelerated, as repeated firing was easy to arrange, compared to rockets. The key concept was the use of an oversized gun firing an undersized vehicle mounted in a sabot, allowing it to be fired with relatively high acceleration. Test electronics were potted in a mix of sand and epoxy, proving more than capable of withstanding the rigors of launch.

The project was based on a flight range of the Seawell Airport in Barbados at 13°04′38″N 59°28′32″W / 13.077221°N 59.475641°W / 13.077221; -59.475641 (HARP Gun), from which shells were fired eastward toward the Atlantic Ocean using an old U.S. Navy 16-inch/50 (406 mm) caliber gun (20.5 m, or 50 times the caliber, in length); addition of a second barrel later extended it to 16"/100 caliber (41 m long). In 1966 the project installed its third and final 16-inch gun at a new test site in Yuma, Arizona. On November 18, 1966 the Yuma gun fired a 400 lb (180 kg) Martlet 2 projectile at 7,000 ft/s (2,100 m/s)[4] sending it briefly into space and setting an altitude record of 180 km (590,000 ft; 110 mi); that world record still stands as of 2018.[5]

Abandoned HARP gun in Barbados

The program was canceled shortly after this and its assets were transferred to Bull under the title of the Space Research Institute, Inc.[5] The politics of the Vietnam War (then in its fifth year) and soured Canada/U.S. relations played their role in the project's cancellation. The project received just over 10 million dollars during its lifetime.[citation needed] After the project was canceled the gun remained on its emplacement, where it remains to this day, gradually rusting away. A couple of used barrels and what appeared to be an unused barrel were also left there. Bull's goal was to fire a payload into space from a gun and many have suggested that the ballistics study was offered simply to gain funding. While the speed was not nearly enough to reach orbit (about quarter of the 7,800 m/s delta-v required to reach low Earth orbit), it was a major achievement at a much lower cost than most ballistic missile programs.

Project Babylon[edit]

Bull never abandoned the idea of a gun-fired satellite but was forced to turn to other work. Through the 1970s and 1980s, he developed a new artillery piece that dramatically outperformed all others. His design, the GC 45, attracted wide attention. Seeking customers, Bull sold the gun to South Africa and then to Iraq. He was arrested and jailed in the US for the sales to South Africa and left Canada after his release to live in Brussels.

He then resumed work with Iraq, convincing them to build a new satellite launcher gun, Project Babylon. Saddam Hussein agreed to fund the project, but only if Bull helped with their efforts to re-design the re-entry vehicle of the Scud missiles to improve range. Bull agreed, making him an enemy of Iran and Israel, the intended target of the longer-range missiles. The March 1990 assassination of Bull (allegedly at the hands of the Israeli Mossad or the Iranian VEVAK intelligence agency) in his Brussels apartment and the 1991 Gulf War ended the project.

Martlet projectiles[edit]

There were several models of test projectiles fired or designed during Project HARP:[5] These projectiles were fired on the island of Barbados and some were fired by the US Army's Ballistic Research Lab.[1]

Martlet 1
The first test projectile. 16-inch (406 mm) gun bore, projectile weighed 450 lb (200 kg), was 6.6 inches (170 mm) in diameter and 70 inches (1,800 mm) long. Only four manufactured. Two were fired on January 21 and February 1, 1962.
Martlet 2
Primary 16-inch (406 mm) test projectiles. Around 200 fired,[when?] of various weights and configurations. Most carried research payloads studying the upper atmosphere and near-space conditions. About half the weight of the typical Martlet 2 series projectile was in the pusher plate and centering sabot.
Martlet 2G
A more advanced projectile, which had nearly all of its total 350 lb (160 kg) weight in the projectile. The Martlet 2G utilized a sabot system very similar to modern antitank kinetic energy penetrators.[clarification needed]
Martlet 2G-1
A proposed space launch vehicle variant of Martlet 2G, which had a solid rocket motor in the projectile. The follow-on 2G-2 proposal was to have had a second rocket motor in order to be able to place the second stage in orbit, though with little or no payload.
Martlet 3
A series of more advanced rocket-propelled projectiles built and tested for the HARP project, but were not successful.
Martlet 3A 
A 18-centimetre (7.1 in) diameter, gun fired rocket projectile theoretically able to reach 500 km altitude.[6]

The rockets were built with fiberglass or aluminum bodies. Fiberglass limited acceleration to 3600 g (corresponding to a velocity of 3,800 feet per second (1,200 m/s) at rocket ignition).[7] The rocket motors' solid propellant deformed during firing and the design was never successful, despite several test firings.

Martlet 3B
Similar to the Martlet 3A but using steel casings and attempting to solve some of the 3A model's other problems. The casings survived 5,100 feet per second (1,600 m/s), but the propellant failed at 3,400 feet per second (1,000 m/s).[5] This was solved for later rockets by filling the propellant cavity with liquid, but only after development of the 3B model had ended.[6]
Martlet 3D
This model was planned as a suborbital test rocket, using the first stage of the Martlet 4 solid rocket version. As Martlet 4 was never built, no Martlet 3Ds were produced either.
Martlet 3E
A suborbital solid rocket designed to be fired from a smaller, 7-inch (180 mm) cannon used in the HARP project.
Martlet 4
Two versions of full-scale orbital launch vehicle projectiles were proposed in the Martlet 4 series. The first was to have used three solid rocket motor stages and was planned to orbit approximately 50 pounds of payload. The second used liquid rocket motors and was planned to have orbited 200 pounds of payload. Both were about 28 feet (8.5 m) long and 16 inches (410 mm) in diameter, weighing about 2,900 pounds (1,300 kg) at launch. No Martlet 4 vehicles were built; the project halted before the design was completed.

Additional issues with the Martlet[edit]

The slender design of the tube which contained the rocket's payload was very narrow and long limiting what objects could be inserted into the tube. This limitation on size was extremely inconvenient when considering the future proposed payloads of Martlet rockets which included satellites and space probes.[1] The cannon-like design also eliminated the capacity for manned space travel as well as the launching of satellites carrying extremely sensitive scientific instruments and payloads due to the extreme acceleration placed on the projectile during firing.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Godefroy, Andrew B. (2011). Defence & Discovery: Canada's Military Space Program, 1945-74. Vancouver: UBC Press. p. 65. ISBN 978-0-7748-1959-6.
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b c d Graf, Richard K. "A Brief History of the HARP Project". Encyclopedia Astronautica. Archived from the original on 2013-08-17. Retrieved 2013-08-14.
  6. ^ a b "Martlet 3A". Encyclopedia Astronautica. Archived from the original on 2017-11-11. Retrieved 2016-01-22.
  7. ^

Further reading[edit]

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