Brute force and whiskey: The solution to all life's problems

Just make sure to drink it AFTER the rocket has successfully launched


Who, Me? Welcome back to Who, Me?, where this week a reader tells us how they used brute force and whiskey to solve a pyrotechnic problem.

Our story comes from a fellow Regomized as "Rick" and concerns a launch campaign using sounding rockets from a European test site.

Sounding rockets can't make it to orbit, but can carry scientific payloads to perform experiments during their sub-orbital lob. Some have an apogee above 500 miles (804km), while others go considerably lower.

The rockets in Rick's story, which is set many, many years in the past, were relatively large, "not to mention expensive," he said.

When perched on its pad, the hardware was connected via a hefty cable that both supplied power to the rocket and telemetry back to the controllers. Connection was via a multi-pin plug stuck into a socket on the vehicle and secured against the pressure of two springs. Seconds before ignition, a pyrotechnic device was fired to release the plug, which would spring away from the rocket.

Simple in theory. Not so simple in practice.

"To the horror of the launch team," said Rick, "it was found that during storage, corrosion had set in on these sockets, and a successful release could not be guaranteed."

What to do? The rocket launching with the cable still attached didn't bear thinking about. But changing the sockets would require rewiring followed by a certification process, all of which would have been expensive and delayed the program.

"After much head-scratching," said Rick, "a solution was found."

At this point, it is worth pointing out once more that the events of this story take place many, many years ago and we can't imagine anything like the disregard for safety described below happening today. Oh wait.

The solution, such as it was, involved heading to a nearby village and finding a retired farmer willing to take some chances in exchange for cigarettes and whiskey.

He was, recalled Rick, "persuaded to stand on the gantry next to the sounding rocket, and when he heard relays click and turbo pumps start winding up, to give the plug in its socket a mighty kick."

This would do the job the pyrotechnic might not and free the cable.

He was then to run down the stairs as fast as he could, across the pad, and "as soon as he saw his shadow in front of him, to throw himself to the ground and remain there until quiet descended."

"Surprisingly," said Rick, "this worked perfectly for all the launches except the last, when it appeared that having forgotten his promise to drink the whiskey after, and not before, the launch, he fell down the gantry and broke his leg.

"The sounding rocket, however, lifted off with complete success."

Ever skipped health and safety in search of success? Or been bribed with the adult beverage to do something that, in retrospect, might not have been too clever? Tell your story with an email to Who, Me? ®

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