Puzzle Inspired Story

Jules Verne’s Dream

The longest-range artillery piece ever deployed was the "Paris Gun" used to bombard Paris during World War I. The gun was capable of reaching targets 81mi (130km) away, and a maximum altitude of 131,000ft (40km). The gun was more a psychological weapon than a military one, as it was quite inaccurate and good only for city-sized targets.

Given the great altitude the “Paris Gun” achieved, one could wonder whether it would be possible to build a cannon capable of reaching the Earth orbit. The father of science fiction, French writer Jules Verne, considered that question in his 1865 work From the Earth to the Moon. The protagonists of the story built a giant cannon and fired themselves into space while inside a large projectile. Of course, using this method to launch people to the moon, as Verne’s story posits, is not even remotely feasible due to the impossibly great acceleration imparted to the shell.

In the 1960s, the US and Canadian military conducted a series of experiments in which they shot projectiles to high altitudes from specially built guns. The goal of the High Altitude Research Project (HARP) was to help understand the phenomena experienced by projectiles (like Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, or ICBMs) as they re-enter the atmosphere after a suborbital flight. Doing so with the use of a cannon was dramatically cheaper than with the use of space technology. The record altitude achieved by the project’s gun based in Barbados was 591,000 feet (112 mi or 180km). For comparison, the highest flight by a gas-powered balloon, achieved in 2002, reached an altitude of 173,900ft (33mi, 53km).

The projectiles, weighing some 180kg (397lbs), were shot with impressive speeds of 12,000ft/s (3,600m/s), which nonetheless were dramatically less than the 11,200m/s required for Verne’s vision of reaching the moon. The shells contained electronics which withstood the regime of the launch and gathered a wealth of new stratospheric data. The guns used in the project weighed 100 tons and were 120ft long (37m). An even longer experimental gun, 176ft (54m) in length, was built to study the projectiles’ flights inside the muzzle and shortly after their exit from the barrel.

During its lifetime, from 1962-1967, HARP was constantly plagued with frustrating funding difficulties despite a great interest, at a certain point, from the US military. In the end, as funding dried up due to the project’s complex politics and the Vietnam War, HARP was abandoned.

But the visionary behind HARP, a Canadian ballistics engineer named Gerard Bull, did not abandon his dream of launching satellites with the help of a large gun. To free himself from the constant funding problems, Bull decided on a controversial step: he accepted an offer from Iraq to build the Babylon Gun, a 156m (512ft)-long cannon capable of lofting payloads into space. The move earned Bull many enemies in the Middle East, who perceived the project as a military threat. The engineer was assassinated in 1990, after he ignored threats on his life and continued to work on the vision described in Verne’s 125-year-old book.



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