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Cracking the Sky: A history of Rocket Science in South Africa.

Cracking the Sky: A history of rocket science in South Africa

by Desmond Prout-Jones

Published by: UNISA Press

Publication date: 2002

ISBN: 1-86888-203-9

Soft cover, 192 pages

Price: R79.00 or US$11.00 including airmail from UNISA Press


This is not a newly published book. In fact, it was published in 2002. So, why publish a review eight years later? Because this book is well worth reading, and because it was not widely noticed when it was published. It presents an engaging biographical account by Desmond Prout-Jones of his rocketry activities in South Africa, spanning the years from 1947 to 1963, when those activities were stopped by the government of the day.

The story begins with an eleven-year-old Prout-Jones trying out a homemade rocket in his backyard. His account will sound familiar to anyone who has dabbled in rocketry without really understanding what they are doing and when for the first time things go very badly wrong. This is a watershed moment for every amateur rocketeer, the moment when the realisation dawns that rocketry is not something to play with. Prout-Jones learnt this lesson at the age of eleven. From then on he practised and cultivated a culture of safety in all his rocketry endeavours.

In the 16 years that followed, Prout-Jones built and launched 528 rockets, an average of 36 rockets per year! Together with other enthusiasts he established the South African Rocket Research Group (SARRG) in 1959.

This band of amateur enthusiasts had as their long-term objective nothing less that launching South Africa's first satellite.

Under Prout-Jones's able leadership the SARRG built and launched a series of successively more capable rockets. They achieved a number of notable successes. Among these are:

* The first mile-high rocket flight in South Africa;

* The first multi-stage rocket to be flown in South Africa;

* The first liquid fuel rocket motor to be tested in South Africa;

* The first flight-demonstration of thrust-vector control on an amateur rocket in South Africa.

The highest altitude attained by one of the SARRG rockets was 48 kilometres, a record that remains unbroken among amateur rocketeers in this country to this day.

The trajectory chronicled by Prout-Jones in his book mirrors that of other rocket pioneers, such as Herman Oberth, one of the founding fathers of rocketry and astronautics, and Wernher von Braun, father of the V2 rocket and the Saturn V Moon rocket, who also started their activities in the German rocket societies of the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1963 the activities of the SARRG came to an abrupt stop under an instruction from the Chief Inspector for Explosives for Prout-Jones to stop his rocket-building activities--or face prosecution. Prout-Jones had had an uneasy relationship with this official from the outset and eventually his projects became too ambitious to be tolerated.

If they had not been stopped, would the SARRG have succeeded in achieving their goal of orbiting a satellite? In my view, probably not, for two reasons. Firstly, the reason why the German enthusiasts succeeded is that they became paid professionals, working full-time for military masters with deep pockets. The same holds true for subsequent rocket activities in the USA and the Soviet Union (which initially relied on the expertise of German rocket scientists).

The second reason is that there is a world of difference between a sub-orbital flight that reaches 150 km altitude before falling back to Earth, and an orbital flight, which has to attain a forward velocity at that altitude of around 8 kilometres per second to stay in orbit.

Nevertheless, the accomplishments of the SARRG were impressive for amateurs, even to this day. Prout-Jones went to great lengths to develop and implement safe handling procedures for his rockets and safety procedures for launching rockets. These are all well documented in the book. If you (or your children) are interested in rocketry read this book before you build or launch any rockets.

The book is illustrated with a number of black-and-white photographs taken by SARRG team member Jack Holloway. There is also a chapter on the history of rocketry, but this is just a cursory treatment. There are many other, more comprehensive accounts available elsewhere. For readers interested in the technical details, Chapter 11 presents a brief overview of the terminology and some key equations. The treatment is necessarily brief and is presented in imperial units, which may be unfamiliar to the younger readers. Again, far more comprehensive treatments are available elsewhere.

The book is subtitled A history of rocket science in South Africa, but it does not really live up to this. The SARRG was but one of a series of rocketry-related activities in the country during the 1960s to the 1990s, some of them public and some military. That comprehensive history still needs to be written. The real contribution of this book is Prout-Jones's story of his dreams, successes and failures. It is a story of persistence, dedication, triumph and eventual disappointment.

This book is a valuable record of a little-known chapter of South Africa's space history. It shows what a dedicated group of amateurs with an inspired leader can achieve with very limited resources. It also serves as a reminder of how a government must balance safety and security concerns against allowing talented individuals and companies to push the boundaries of technology. This is never a risk-free process, especially in the space domain.


Chapter 1 The fuse is ignited

Chapter 2 Reaching for the elusive mile

Chapter 3 Of mice and rockets

Chapter 4 The fire that thunders

Chapter 5 Events with a double bang

Chapter 6 Mighty flights by courtesy of Prometheus

Chapter 7 The final countdowns begin

Photographic section: The photo gallery

Chapter 8 Even the gods cheered

Chapter 9 Lifted on tongues of fire

Chapter 10 A look at history: fire that moves

Chapter 11 Fire that moves: the rocket

Chapter 12 The last chapter

Epilogue: The fire is no more
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Author:Martinez, Peter
Publication:Monthly Notes of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2010
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