The Adrenalist

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Steely Eyed Rocket People:1,000 MPH In 45 Seconds



When Tom Wolfe penned 1979′s ‘The Right Stuff,’ it’s likely that he didn’t consider rocket car people in the same vein with early military test pilots, or the beginnings of America’s space program. After all, its one thing to fly experimental aircraft and push the edge of controlled flight, or go into space riding on the top of a solid-fuel rocket, but to suggest that any sane person would be interested in exceeding the speed of sound in a land vehicle would appear to be either pure thrill-seeking, or worse, plain crazy. However, between 1979 and today, there have been a number of individuals who have attempted to reach this goal, and the people involved were and are a long way from being nuts. Instead, along with being very serious scientists of speed, these folks are more like ‘enlightened adrenalists.’

After nearly twenty years worth of trying, in October 1997, a British consortium named Thrust SSC produced a two-way average of 759.3 mph (1.15  mach) during a time trial at Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, then turned the program around and increased the original speed to 766 mph (1.16 mach); now that’s ‘happy motoring’ to be sure.

Fourteen years later, a newly augmented SSC team has a new proposal, offering a fresh name; ‘Bloodhound SSC,’ and a new goal of increasing the original two-way speed to 1050 mph (1.59 mach). But, with the team’s original goal met; ‘why do it again?’

According to Ron Ayers, SSC’s Chief Aerodynamicist, the effort is about science and education this time around, “With Thrust we achieved the maximum possible. The technological world has moved on, and we are (now) able to contemplate higher speeds. The motivation to explore new limits comes from the educational benefits that we believe are needed. Responses from young people suggest that we are on the right track, and many young people are considering a technological/scientific future because of the ‘Wow’ factor (the program) offers.”

“Anyone who has striven to (the) absolute limit will tell you that during the attempt it was pure hell, and what an enormous relief (it is) when the challenge (is) completed. The next day, after a couple of beers and a very long sleep, the ‘never again’ feeling subsides and (is) replaced by the inevitable feeling of ‘that was great – let’s do it again’. Leo Villa (mechanic and friend to both Sir Malcolm Campbell and Donald Campbell) put it best: ‘Record breaking is like catching malaria. Once it is in your bloodstream you never totally get rid of it. (However), on Thrust SSC we were record breakers. On Bloodhound SSC we are educationalists.’”

While Ayers’ assertion may be true, the adrenaline rush related to managing such a complex set of engineering variables is still part of the effort’s fabric, however, aside from dynamics of driving the car itself, fueling the Bloodhound is probably the most difficult process to deal with, as well as potentially dangerous. To handle fueling the team is lead by a young woman named Annie Berrisford.

“ My Job is coordinating the turnaround of the car, in a one hour pit stop. To achieve a record the car must pass through the measured mile, turnaround and get back through the mile within 60 minutes.  If we don’t meet this, we don’t get a record – no pressure there then!”

“We have an awful lot to do in that 60 minutes – refuel the jet, refuel the HTP tank (the liquid oxidizer to the rocket), change the rocket itself (essentially to replace the spent fuel grain), disconnect and re-load fresh parachutes, re-set the air brakes, download all the data from the car and make sure all of the systems are happy.  My job is to coordinate who does what, and when, to make sure we can do all this safely in the 60 minutes. Most critically, my job is to make sure that all of these operations are conducted safely.”

“Inevitably when you’re pushing the limits of technology, and delving into uncharted territory, there are risks as we are hoping to go nearly 250mph faster than anyone has ever traveled before. So, there are huge unknowns, but we have a program designed to make that as safe as possible.  We will not be taking the car out of the trailer and trying to break the record. We’ll do 40-60 runs with the car, increasing the speed gradually. If the car behaves in an unexpected manner, we’ll stop and understand why, before making a decision if we can continue. To date there are 30 man years of engineering in the design of the car to minimize risks as far as possible, and to ensure a safe run.”

Obviously, whether it comes to the car’s aerodynamics, or its fuels management processes, the Bloodhound SSC team is clearly committed, and highly-experienced when a premise of pushing the land speed growth curve is concerned. In the end of the day, however, given the risks involved in completing a successful program, and regardless of the ultimate outcome, the team has to be categorized as Adrenalists par excellent, and we wish them well.

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