Can it be done?

An engineer's take on the machines

Gerard Kester
Fokker Space & systems engineer

For the Andersons Are GO! festival I organised in 1994, a lavishly illustrated brochure was published, containing articles on the history and technology of Supermarionation (a number of which are to be found in these pages; in fact, that whole operation is the indirect cause of this site).

As luck would have it, one of the people assisting me in organising the event had a contact at Fokker Space & Systems, a Dutch space technology contractor, so I thought it would be a nice idea to send a stack of photographs and 'technical specifications' of the different spacecraft from the series to one of their engineers and ask for some serious comment on the design of the vehicles to be published in said brochure. Whether these comments are serious or not I leave to your own consideration but this is what came back.

Fireball XL5 (1961)

XL5 Takeoff

A two-stage rocket aiming for the stars. This very realistic vehicle can be compared to the current Ariane 5 Hermes combination. The separate nosecone section, which predates the American Apollo capsules by years, is remarkable.

The much coveted horizontal launch sequence seen today in projects such as Hotol and Sänger has been found to be hard to realize even now.

Thunderbird 1 (1964)

Thunderbird 1

A cool piece of technology that is ahead of its time even now. The concept is technically sound even though the petite wings are a little delicate. The many tailfins are clearly embellishments, as is the wasp waist which one would sooner expect to see separating the atomic elements from the rest of the fuselage.

The engine technology is clearly inspired by nuclear reactor principles. A simplified version of the engine concept presented here is being studied seriously today. The liquid metal used in the heat exchanger is left out and the compressed air is being replaced by hydrogen.

The ability to land both vertically and horizontally is remarkable.

Thunderbird 2 (1964)

Thunderbird 2

The forward pointing wings in this design are the most astonishing. Besides that, this immense freightplane wouldn't stay aloft for very long, since the minute wings offer far too little support – and therefore too little 'lift' – to the colossal fuselage.

[With all due respect for the author's expertise, the technical information on this craft specifically mentions the fact that 'when the pod is in flying position, the weight increase is offset by the increased lift given by the aerofoil shape of the fuselage' — JLN2nd]

The concept of interchangeable freight containers that find a place between the fuselage booms is clever indeed. As a side note it should be noted that the abbreviation 'pod', which is used consequently by the protagonists to refer to the containers, stands for 'purpose on delivery'.

Thunderbird 3 (1964)

Thunderbird 3

An exceptional rocket with a unique docking system for the space station. The particle accelerator based propulsion system is very advanced. Scientists have long been working on similar systems for interplanetary missions.

Thunderbird 5 (1964)

Thunderbird 5

With its similarity to a flying saucer, this space station offers its occupants a safe and homely atmosphere. The actual interior design of the station is remarkable in that it seerms to ignore the absence of gravity. Note particularly the chairs, the elevators and the railing on the docking platform.

Technical embellishments that are seen in today's space industry are the communication laser and the electrical generators running on nuclear energy. A fun detail is the built–in space telescope, a forerunner of the recently launched Hubble telescope.

Fireflash (1964)

Fireflash

This beautifully lined airplane is very realistic, not in the least thanks to its advanced engine design. At the time of writing, nuclear propulsion systems are deemed to be feasible and are studied for use in rocket motors.

Possibly due to the highly contested nature of nuclear energy, the engines are situated well away from the passenger compartment. This doesn't reflect favourably on the aerodynamic characteristics of the craft, however.

Zero X (1966)

Zero X

Two fused B-52 bombers have been fantastically transformed into a futuristic plane. The large number of engines gives one a feeling of speed and power. Although the technology described here is not particularly revolutionary, the concept is rather advanced. The idea of using separate parts in the construction and the dual functionality of a number of those is still very modern.

The advantage of using oxygen from the air while the vehicle is still in Earth's atmosphere and reserving oxygen from the tanks for travel outside it, has already been recognised in this design.

Angel Jet Fighter (1967)

Angel Jet

A fast piece of work which the current aerospace industry bigwigs cannot hope to emulate, let alone surpass. Technically, this crate is well thought through.

The required pilot skills needed during landing are quite beyond human capabilities. Today, this can be realized using computer assisted flying.

The biggest hurdle would be the 10 million price tag. In a manner of speaking, one could barely buy a set of tyres for that amount of money today.