The McGill University High Altitude Research Project (HARP) space gun project commenced in Barbados in 1962 under the direction of Canadian ballistics scientist Dr. Gerald Bull in his quest to economically launch a satellite into space using a huge artillery piece.
The project was abruptly abandoned in 1967. It’s unlikely we will ever know the “real” reason behind HARP nor why it was abruptly abandoned. This has led to much speculation and intrigue over the years especially given the mix of local politics associated with an aspiring new island nation Barbados, cold war politics and the clandestine and murky world of arms dealers that Bull interacted with to fund his vision of launching satellites into space cheaply after the USA and Canada pulled his research grants.
Focusing just on facts: what is very clear is that the Barbados HARP space gun project:
- demonstrated an unmatched ability to fire military and scientific payloads long distances
- trained a lot of Bajans in radar, electronics and general mechanical engineering.
Dr. Gerald Bull and his team used the lessons learnt from the Barbados HARP project to develop the blueprints for other advanced artillery weaponry that would later be put into production in various forms culminating with Saddam Hussein’s uncompleted super-gun (aka Project Babylon).
What we also know is that in later life some of those associated with the HARP project would die in mysterious ways or be assassinated adding to the intrigue, mystery and conspiracy theories.
The HARP space gun was set up at Paragon just to the east of the runway of what was then Seawell Airport – jointly funded by McGill University, Canada who administered the project and the USA Army Research and Development Center.
The HARP project stated objective was to develop a large gun to shoot things into space. It was originally built from a 65-foot long, 16” caliber naval cannon, the kind that might be seen on a battleship. The cannon was later joined to another barrel, extending the length of this super-gun to 120 feet; making it too big for effective military application, but perfect for launching small objects into space. It was a serious attempt to use low-cost cannons in place of expensive rockets to launch missiles [of war rather than satellites] into space.
The missiles used were named Martlets, after the mythical bird on the McGill University crest, who administered HARP.
Dan Stoute found the above photographs of the firing of a HARP Martlet IIA at 11:30AM on Monday 17th June 1963, an Advocate newspaper cutting from Tuesday 18th June 1963 and five pages of “OPERATIONAL PROCEDURES for MARTLET IIA, Monday 17 June 1963, FOR SHIPS AND AIRCRAFT”, while going through some of his father’s files.
The HARP firing on that day in June 1963 used the original (shorter) 65-foot long, 16” caliber naval cannon.
Dan’s father Cyril Stoute was skipper of the Shangri-La a locally built wooden power boat. The hull was built by George Fergusson in Lands End and towed to Brighton where his father and partners completed the fitting out. Shangri-La on that day acted as mother ship to four other fishing boats whose “mission” was to observe the “splash down” of a Martlet IIA Missile and “if possible the impact location”. Shangri-La was to be positioned 15 miles off-shore at 121.5° true of the gun launch site. Unfortunately, Dan had to go to school so missed the trip!
Ecstasy, the Goddard’s boat was listed on the operational procedures. At that time she was looked after by George Fergusson. Based on the newspaper clipping and pencil notes on the operational procedures sheet it would appear that Ecstasy did not take part in the observation mission on Monday 17th June 1963.
The other boat involved in this observation mission was the Barbados Fisheries Research Boat: Investigator. She was launched in 1949. Investigator was to be positioned 19 miles off-shore at 121.5° true of the gun launch site.
What’s interesting about the operational procedures for the firing is that back in 1963, someone at HARP HQ would have calculated and plotted the likely trajectory of the Martlet IIA missile landing zone, long hand, based on the anticipated weather conditions. This was calculated to be 12 to 18 miles off-shore at 119° to 129° true of the gun launch site. Not much different from what Katherine Johnson would have done for NASA for the first and subsequent USA crewed space flights (see the 2016 biographical film directed by Theodore Melfi: Hidden Figures ).
Based on these calculations the observation boats would positioned themselves using compass bearing offsets on the HARP site and other landmarks. Back in 1963 there was no on-board GPS positioning to fix an exact location! There was no indication in the operational procedures document of whether the location of impact was fixed by taking a sextant reading.
Advocate press cutting: 18th June 1963
HARP scores record shoot
McGILL UNIVERSITY had their most successful shot from the 16 inch gun at Paragon yesterday [17th June 1963] when the vehicle went up to 60 miles.
[Reaching an altitude of 60 miles is just 2 miles shy of the boundary of the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space so this is pretty amazing for an early HARP firing in 1963! The boundary of the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space is generally defined by the Kármán line which is 100 km (about 62 miles) above the earth’s surface. In subsequent firings in 1966 a Martlet would reach 112 miles.]
This, according to Dr. Gerald Bull, chief scientist of the High Altitude Research Project , is a world record for a vehicle from any gun.
He said that the vehicle hit the sea about 20 miles from the shore and was observed by the Investigator, the Shangri-La and four fishing vessels which McGill had stationed in the impact area.
The noise on hitting the sea, was like an explosion. Dr. Bull said, and the splash was very high, between 20 to 40 ft. in the air.
It took 465 lbs. of propellant to send the 408 lb. vehicle on its way. The time of flight was 4 minutes 30 seconds.
Dr. Charles Murphy of the Ballistic Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland United States, and technical supervisor for the contract of the HARP project for the United States Army said that he was very pleased with the week’s work by McGill University.
Of the other two shots fired from the gun last week Dr. Bull said that the first on Thursday was a complete failure as a portion of the vehicle landed about 3,000 ft. to the rear of the gun in Spencer’s Plantation, St. Philip.
He pointed out that this was due to an error in loading and the fault was corrected the following day when they fired another vehicle successfully.
Operational procedures for Martlet IIA firing on Monday 17th June 1963
Note on page 3/4. The original writer made a transcription error.
The continuation of point 12(c) on the bottom of page 3, becomes point 10(d) instead of point 12(d) at the top of page 4. The transcription below amends this.
High Altitude Research Project
OPERATIONAL PROCEDURES for MARTLET IIA SHOT
Monday, 17 June 1963
FOR SHIPS AND AIRCRAFT
1. The MARTLET IIA shot will impact into the sea somewhere in the area indicated below.
2. All of the impact area will be under observation by ships, who are to observe and record splash time and, if possible, the impact point. Communication with ships will be by both radio and visual links.
3. The following vessels will take part in this operation:
(a) Cruisers: SHANGRI-LA, INVESTIGATOR, ECSTASY
(b) Fishing Vessels: Ship A, Ship B, Ship C, Ship D.
SHANGRI-LA is the “mother ship” for the four fishing vessels. They will keep station on SHANGRI-LA and when she moves they will move also.
4. The cruiser ships will be in radio communication with the HARP Control Centre, either on a direct net to the control Room or through Cable & Wireless Ltd..
RADIO EQUIPPED SHIPS ARE TO ESTABLISH COMMUNICATION WITH THE CONTROL CENTRE AS SOON AS POSSIBLE AFTER SAILING.
5. The Aircraft will be in radio communication with the Air Traffic Controller at the Seawell Airport Tower. Information and instructions for the aircraft will be passed to the ATC from the HARP radar or the HARP Control Centre.
DISPOSITION OF SHIPS
6. The observation stations of the vessels involved in this firing will be as indicated below:
7. All vessels will proceed to their stations in time to be in position by 1000 hrs (10:00 AM).
8. Scheduled firing time is 1130 hrs (11:30 AM) Monday, 17 June 1963.
9. If a delay occurs, the next firing time will be at 1400 hrs (2:00 PM) Monday, 17 June.
PROCEDURE FOR POSITIONING SHIPS
10. With Radio Communications
a) Radar will give ranges and bearing, which will be transmitted to the cruiser ships and to the aircraft.
b) Necessary changes in position will be observed and verified by the aircraft.
11. If radio links to ships fail
a) The aircraft will receive instruction form the radar, through ATC.
b) If a ship is too far out of position to be acceptable the aircraft will fly over, in the direction of the desired course, waggling its wings twice, stop, twice, stop. The aircraft will then circle the desired position. The vessel concerned will follow at once and, in the case of the SHANGRI-LA, the fishing vessels will follow also.
OBSERVATION OF SHOT
12. With radio communication
a) The Count-Down will be passed to the cruiser ships by radio, either directly from the HARP Control Centre or through Cable and Wireless.
b) The aircraft will alert the fishing vessels to watch for the very pistol shot, by flying over and waggling its wings six(6) or more times. This will happen between five (5) and ten (10) minutes before firing.
c) At “zero Minus Three Minutes” in the Count-Down SHANGRI-LA will fire a Very pistol shot.
All fishing vessels will start stop watches on the burst. SHANGRI-LA will note and RECORD IN WRITING the exact time of the very pistol shot burst.
d) Observers on the cruiser ships will start stop watches when “FIRE” is received over the radio link.
e) Each observer in each vessel will stop his watch immediately he sees or hears the impact of the MARTLET. Reading of stop watches when they are stopped are to be recorded IN WRITING, and watches are to be returned to Project HARP HQ without re-setting to zero.‘
13. If radio links to ships fail
a) The aircraft will notify all cruiser ships when to start stop watches by flying over and waggling wings continuously and then making once complete circle.
b) Ships will start stop watches as soon after aircraft completes circle as possible, recording IN WRITING the synchronised clock time at which each stop watches were started. All hands are to stand by immediately for firing which will occur some 5 to 10 minutes after the aircraft signal is given.
c) SHANGRI-LA will fire a Very pistol shot for fishing boats at some three (3) minutes after getting the aircraft signal. All fishing vessels will start stop watches on the burst of the Very pistol shot. SHANGRI-LA will record IN WRITING the exact tome of the Very pistol shot burst.
d) Time to impact will be recorded in 12(e) above.
14. Time to impact will be some 4 to 5 minutes after firing.
PROCEDURE AFTER COMPLETION OF OBSERVATIONS
15. All vessels will maintain their positions until signalled by radio or by the aircraft to return home.
16. The aircraft will signal “come in” by flying over and waggling wings twice, stop twice, and hen heading inland.
17. NONE of the vessels involved in this firing are to indulge in fishing operations until AFTER the shot has been fired and observed. If any ship is observed to be fishing before completion of the operation that ship will be considered to have withdrawn from the firing operations and will NOT be paid.
PERSONNEL AND EQUIPMENT
Vessel Observers Equipment SHANGRI-LA
Mrs Bull J. Kelly
Each vessel to carry synchronised clock or watch and stop watch for each observer Fish Vessels W. Price
Stop watch for each observer on each vessel
19. All vessels to fly flags, to assist the aircraft to recognise them.
20. SHANGRI-LA will carry a balloon or kite and radar target.
(If possible the other cruisers will also be provided with a radar reflector).
The photographs of firing of the Martlet IIA at 11:30AM on Monday 17th June 1963 that were shown above have been digitally colourised below:
Additional photographs of what remains of HARP can be found in an earlier BajanThigs post: High Altitude Research Project (HARP) 1962 – 1967.
There were several models of test projectiles fired or designed during Project HARP: These projectiles were fired on the island of Barbados and some were fired by the US Army’s Ballistic Research Lab. 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. The cannon-like design also eliminated the capacity for crewed 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.
The Martlet 1 was the first test projectile of the HARP program. Designed in 1962, it was a 16-inch (406 mm) gun bore that weighed 450 lb (200 kg), was 6.6 inches (170 mm) in diameter and 70 inches (1,800 mm) long. Only four were manufactured, two of which were fired during the January and June 1963 test series.
Martlet 2A, 2B, 2C family
The Martlet 2A, 2B, and 2C represented the earliest of the Martlet 2 16-inch (406 mm) test projectiles. Marlet 2A was designed simultaneously with the Martlet 1 with a range of interest being 70 to 200 kilometres. Most carried multi-type research payloads studying the upper atmosphere and near-space conditions. Due to their low cost per missile launch, they were used to test out single payloads. Despite similarities in missile air frame, the Martlet 2A, 2B, and 2C featured differences in their structural materials and mechanical details.
For the Martlet 2A, the liquid payload was loaded into an aluminium, tapered liner inside the missile body.
By the development of the Martlet 2C series, the aluminium insert was abandoned altogether to allow the liquid payload to be housed in contact with the steel body, increasing the quantity of the liquid payload that could be carried.
For more information on the HARP Project and the Martlet missile family see:
- A Brief History of the HARP Project
- The Man Behind Iraq’s Supergun, Kevin Toolis, The New York Times Archives.
26 August 1990
- Project HARP
- Local knowledge of HARP
- BajanThings: High Altitude Research Project (HARP) 1962 – 1967
- Case of Dr. Bull reaches its bitter end
- NASA – The HARP Project and the Martlet
- Martlet Family
- Martlet 2
Our thanks to Dan Stoute for sharing this snippet of history from 1963 with BajanThings.