Alan Bond

Doctor of Engineering Alan Bond

Monday 12 July 2010 - Orator: Dr Mark Lowenberg

Mr Vice-Chancellor,

It can be said that in the 1950s, a bright young person of limited means who wanted to work in engineering had two alternatives: Rolls-Royce or British Rail.  Fortunately Alan Bond chose the former, although, had he not, we might by now have the most advanced public transport system in the world.

Born towards the end of World War II in Ripley, Derbyshire, Alan’s family home was narrowly missed by a V-1 bomb the night before his christening.  Whether or not this disturbing event inculcated within him a subconscious obsession with aerospace propulsion technologies is not clear; but by the age of 15, Alan had started building and launching his own rockets.  In fact, by his 16th birthday, he was already aiming at the world altitude record.

Alan had been fascinated by the stars since childhood.  When he was seven his father bought him a book on the marvels of science and this is where his formal interest in astronomy and astrophysics originated.  Then, in 1953, his life changed: the Dan Dare story ‘Operation Saturn’ was published in the Eagle comic and it dawned upon the young Alan that he need not sit and watch the stars – he could play a role in their exploration.

Engineers are often accused of not reading much, other than perhaps comics.  Alan, however, studied books on rocketry and also read a great deal of science fiction – including Jules Verne from whom he deduced how to make gunpowder!  By age 15 he had launched around 300 rockets.  Although his altitude record attempt was thwarted by the Ministry of Explosives’ regulations, he was a runner-up in a national rocketry competition, narrowly missing out on the 1st prize which was a visit to Cape Canaveral in the US.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, we have seen that Alan is a hands-on engineer – but he also has a flare for the mathematics that is so necessary to achieve advances in modern engineering.  He considered studying applied mathematics at Imperial College but instead, he joined Rolls-Royce in Derby in 1963 and also studied for a mechanical engineering degree through the University of London.  He worked for Val Cleaver, the famous UK rocket pioneer, who was then chief engineer of Rolls-Royce’s rocket division, and soon revealed his skills and talents as a leading engineer and innovator in rocketry.

This was at a time when Britain still had an empire and a world military role, and the team at Rolls-Royce was developing large state-of-the-art liquid fuel rocket engines, comparable to those produced by the USA and USSR.  At 24, Alan was Section Leader in the Cryogenic Performance Office where he led development of the engine to propel the Blue Streak ballistic missile into space.  The Blue Streak military programme was ultimately cancelled but the engine was adapted as the first stage of the Europa satellite launchers.  Alan was also involved in the development of multiple propellant engines in the quest for a viable single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) launch system, and worked on nuclear propulsion (first proposed by Val Cleaver and his team in 1948).  It was at this time, around 1971, while looking at the thermodynamics of nuclear engines that Alan made a fundamental breakthrough in terms of the benefits of heat exchangers in rocket engines: in addition to using hydrogen as the fuel, he could utilize waste heat to heat the hydrogen and thus dramatically improve overall efficiency.  This has been the basis of all his subsequent engine designs.

By around 1970, Alan could see the writing on the wall: the then government had no interest in aerospace and the UK rocket industry would die without government support.  The British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) was looking for a ‘young dynamic performance engineer’ and Val Cleaver was asked if he knew such a person.  He replied ‘no – only Alan Bond who is not a spring chicken any more’ … Alan was 26!  He moved to BAC in 1972 and, importantly, negotiated a half day a week during which he could carry out research into whatever he wished.   He plunged back into the vexing problem of an economically viable SSTO system.

During this time, in 1973, Alan set up and led a group of a dozen other engineers from British Aerospace (BAe), Rolls-Royce and elsewhere, on the British Interplanetary Society Project Daedalus.  This was aimed at designing an interstellar unmanned spacecraft capable of reaching a nearby star within 40-50 years, conducting observations of the star and its planets, and communicating the information back to Earth.  It used well-founded physics, but radically new technologies - nuclear fusion pulse rocket, advanced computer systems, robotics and artificial intelligence - to achieve flight at 12% of the speed of light (36,000 km/sec).  The laser-driven nuclear fusion propulsion system would be a challenge to current engineering capabilities and was completely novel during the 1970s.  Project Daedalus was a landmark in space mission design and, more than thirty years on, remains the reference definition of inter-stellar missions.  It also highlights the importance of inter-disciplinary collaboration in making engineering breakthroughs.

In 1976 Alan joined the Atomic Energy Authority (AEA) in Culham to work on nuclear fusion.  He thought that perhaps his rocket propulsion career was at an end… but couldn’t stop thinking about SSTO and in particular a means of overcoming the inadequacies of existing rocket-based launch systems.  Aided by advancements in mainframe computing, he looked again at the chemistry of different propellants.  Then, in mid-1982, he realized that this was NOT the way forward: the only viable way to achieve SSTO was to make use of the Earth’s atmosphere at lower altitudes – to use atmospheric oxygen in the combustion process (rather than a large mass of onboard oxidiser) by designing a dual-mode engine combining rocket and gas turbine technology.

Whilst others tried similar approaches, Alan was clear by 1985 that his system could deliver.  He joined with BAe and Rolls-Royce to initiate the HOTOL (Horizontal Take-Off and Landing) project, leading to the patenting of a new type of engine employing a novel thermodynamic cycle – designated by Rolls-Royce as the RB545.  This engine was specifically tailored to the requirements of an SSTO spaceplane that could take off and land on a runway.  At that time, there was a large body of experience in high-speed atmospheric flight from the Concorde programme (another engineering triumph led in the UK from Bristol) and with BAe, Rolls-Royce and government funding, substantial progress was made.  Having purchased the patent on the RB545, Rolls-Royce eventually decided not to continue with the project, leaving BAe with a hypersonic aircraft but no engine!

We hope that one of the lessons learned by our new graduates today is perseverance… Alan did not give up but instead, using the insight gained from the HOTOL work, devised an engine cycle superior to the original, which was not covered by the Rolls-Royce patents.  This evolved into the SABRE engine on an improved unmanned spaceplane design, SKYLON.  In 1989, along with two of the principal engineers from Rolls-Royce, Alan formed Reaction Engines Ltd to continue development of the spaceplane concept.  It turned out that his propulsion method was the only concept capable of antipodal hypersonic transport and was limited only by heat exchanger technology.

Reaction Engines Ltd embarked upon an intensive programme of research to develop the heat exchanger technology crucial to the SABRE engine concept.  This is where the strong link with Bristol University began.  Through numerous projects carried out with colleagues and students here, Alan was able to progress the state-of-the-art design to the point where he is now conducting large-scale testing of the pre-cooler concepts and other technologies at the company’s unique experimental facilities at Culham Science Park.

If you think that all this is naïve science-fiction, think again: Reaction Engines Ltd has secured funding from the European Space Agency, through the British National Space Centre, as part of a multi-million pound joint public/private development programme to demonstrate the core technologies for the SABRE air-breathing rocket engine for the SKYLON spaceplane.  And Alan already has products of his own work flying in space, such as the xenon electric ion engines he helped develop at Farnborough and AEA, which are now in service in ESA’s Gravity Field and Ocean Circulation Explorer satellite launched last year.  Evidently, Alan’s business and diplomatic skills are a match for his impressive engineering talents!

When travel to space in sustainable reusable spacecraft is routine; when we turn on the electricity enabled by cheap clean fusion power, and when the human race eventually travels to other stars, Alan Bond will be seen to have provided intellectual and practical foundations for those enormous achievements.  The engineer on the Starship Enterprise won’t be Scottish, he will have come from Derbyshire. 

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Alan Bond, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Engineering, honoris causa.

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