Rocket man

Allan Paull sees himself as the typical Australian. But he has almost single-handedly, and with limited funds, put his country on the hypersonic map.

Allan Paull is not afraid to ask for what he wants. The tall red-headed professor from Queensland University, who likes to portray himself as the typical Australian, has in fact made an art of not beating about the bush.

Paull is leading the HyShot programme, an international collaboration that climaxed in the world’s first test flight of a concept scramjet engine at a speed of Mach 7.6 earlier this year. Nicknamed ‘scroungejet’, the experiment would never have reached the launchpad were it not for Paull’s ability to persuade the great and the good of the international aerospace industry to contribute their expertise and hard cash.

He attributes his success in this regard to something in the Australian national character. ‘We are different. We try not to be offensive, but we do have strong characters and I think people feel confident with that. All that I’m doing is talking about my work, and I enjoy that because I think it is pretty interesting. I think my enthusiasm comes across and I never in any way try to distort what we can do.’

The test flight in July, at Australia’s Woomera missile range, has yielded plenty of valuable data for the likes of NASA and Qinetiq who are developing their own scramjet engines. But for Paull and his colleagues at UQ the project also carries Australia’s ambitions to continue to lead the world in hypersonic flight technology, reverse the country’s brain drain and kick-start its own space launcher industry.

The test flight got a lot of people in Australia very excited, and Allan Paull became a household name for a while. On the day he announced the success of the test flight, Australia’s athletes were winning gold medals at the Commonwealth Games. But it was Paull and his scramjet that stole all the front pages.

UQ’s Centre for Hypersonics, the largest university-based group of hypersonic researchers in the world, shot to public prominence. In the years before July’s test it had played a leading role in developing the ground test facilities for simulating hypersonic flight. The various scramjet concepts being designed around the world had only ever been tested in wind tunnels based on those built by the UQ team. Now they were the first to get it to work in flight. The point of the test was to validate the results that had been achieved in the wind tunnel.

In fact, the Woomera experiment was not a test of a fully working scramjet. Only the combustion chamber was involved. This was strapped to the nose of a missile that was fired into the upper atmosphere and then turned back to Earth while still under power. In the last few seconds before impact the combustion began in the chamber. Despite the brief success, the experiment was an important first.

‘Australia has proved it can develop this technology at a fraction of the cost of overseas programmes. The danger is this programme could move offshore. HyShot provides a significant opportunity to reverse the brain drain,’ says Paull.

These are high hopes for a project that has only succeeded so far thanks to Paull’s determination to plunge in and ‘have a go’.

He is married with two young sons to support, and in the early days had to seek enough cash from donors to supplement his income in order to keep working. He has had to do things cheaply and rely on help from his friends. Much of his equipment is makeshift – a seat strapped to the roof of his ‘ute’ (utility pick-up truck) is how he goes searching for the missile payloads in the bush after the tests, and many of the materials he uses you can pick up ‘from your local car dealers for $2-$3 a pop’.

There are plans for a further 10 flights over the next five years in a $50m (£32m) programme, much of which will have to come from foreign backers. But Paull seems satisfied with progress so far. In fact he seems far too relaxed for a man apparently carrying a nation’s ambitions of technological greatness on his shoulders.

We meet him at Qinetiq’s headquarters in Farnborough, the UK stop of his tour of Europe and the US. He is visiting his international partners to update them on the test results. We are having lunch in the staff restaurant, and although beer is not on the menu, Paull has persuaded the waitress to find him a can or two.

When she returns with a warm Guinness, he offers it round, pouring a few mouthfuls into each of our water glasses. There are six of us at the table. ‘Damn, I’ve got nothing left for myself now. I guess I’ll have to get one on the plane,’ he says.

His next stop is Amsterdam, then Paris, Germany and eventually NASA in the US. Travelling around the world for the sake of HyShot takes up a significant amount of his time.

Paull, with a PhD in applied maths and a master’s in engineering science, almost fell into the field of hypersonics. In 1985 he was invited to join the team that was developing Australia’s rocket wind tunnel testing facilities. ‘I said yeah, I needed the money. It was interesting work too. I wasn’t using my mathematics because it was too pure and I wanted to use it on something useful.’

The team started by testing some basic scramjet combusters in Canberra, and after several years the project moved to Brisbane. Paull took over the whole operation in 1991. His aim was to get the technology out of the wind tunnel and test it in flight. His scramjet concept could provide valuable information on hypersonic flight if somebody was willing to pay for it to be tested.

But the university could never meet the costs of flying the scramjet, and soon Paull found he had to seek funds to keep the technology in development.

Eventually he heard that the US firm Astrotech Space Operations was offering two ‘rides’ on a Terrier Orion Mk 70 rocket at Woomera. ‘We went over to the States in 1998. They hadn’t heard of us, but we had the confidence that we could do something. We pointed out the risks, and said why don’t you give it a go?’

He makes it all sound so easy. There is also no doubting the pride he takes in the way he likes to do business. He loves the idea of the ‘typical Australian’ being a breath of fresh air in the aerospace establishment. Working with relatively little funding is a virtue when it comes to developing new technology.

‘If you think about it rather than throw money at it, then we actually have a technological advantage. We don’t have the people or the money so we have to spend time thinking about the more elegant way. We can move pretty fast in Australia because we have limited ties so we can change direction pretty rapidly.’

While in the US Paull met Dr Terry Cain of Qinetiq’s scramjet research. ‘I told him what I was doing and he wanted in on it. Once the British were involved that gave my programme respect, and then I went to NASA and they put in money.’ He managed to gather $500,000 (£320,000) and then sat down to design the experiment.

‘We hit some pretty phenomenal problems. We’d never even thought about it. It took us from being kids to adults. You really had to grow up fast.’ One of the most difficult questions was how to point the missile back to Earth while still under thrust so that it could gather enough speed.

‘We were in a meeting in the US, and everyone went very quiet when we realised we had to turn it over. Then everyone looked at me as if to say you can’t do that. At that point I said, ‘I’ll do it. If you can’t do it I bloody well do it, it’s my responsibility’.’Terry asked how are you going to do that? And I said I didn’t know. But when I got home I looked it up in a book, of all places. There it was in front of me within 10 minutes.’

What he had found was the bang-bang manoeuvre, standard practice for the reorientation of satellites. Like a spinning top, the missile would be made to wobble and then stop. ‘That was exciting. It was a point when I said I’ve just got to challenge myself and get on with it.’

Then disaster struck. Paull had successfully marshalled the support of NASA, Qinetiq, the US and Australian air forces, the German Space Centre, the National Aerospace Lab of Japan, Seoul National University, the Australian Space Research Institute and a host of Australian companies including BAE Systems Australia.

But at the first launch in October 2001 the missile lost a fin shortly after take-off and crashed somewhere out in the bush.

At that point, Paull had to demonstrate his faith in the technology. He was determined to find the payload and try again. After enlisting the help of a team of kangaroo spotters and their Cessna light aircraft, he set off to find his rocket. ‘A lot of people said I was crazy. The aerospace industry had never heard of a Cessna with kangaroo spotters on it looking for a rocket in the bush.’

Days later they found the engine, and Paull chucked it in the back of his ute and drove home to Brisbane. Eight months later, with a new payload resting on a stack of old paperbacks in the back of the same ute, he was back at Woomera. Although not all the data from the second test has been analysed fully it was proclaimed a success, and the world woke up to the possibilities of hypersonic flight.

The press was full of stories about the scramjet cutting London to Sydney flights to two hours, which Paull quickly dismisses as fanciful at best. His personal goal is to demonstrate the viability of the technology to the rest of the world over the next five years. One of the more realistic applications is as a low-cost method of launching small satellite payloads into space. He agrees that this could be an important new industry for Australia.

‘We have got to have some exciting programmes that attract people back to Australia. But this country has got to put up some money. The brain drain is a huge problem. Why would you work in Australia when you can go to the US and work for three times the amount?’

So why hasn’t he followed the money? ‘I’m different. I’m not somebody that requires a lot of money in my personal life. I’m the only one doing this so I can be in charge of what I do. It’s sort of like a challenge.’