I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The Story of Gerald Bull and the Supergun
Gerald Bull was the man behind an audacious attempt to launch objects into space without the need for rockets, but he collected a wide range of enemies. It’s the sort of thing that could happen to a person who went to work for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
In March 1990, 62-year-old Gerald Bull was approaching his apartment in Brussels, Belgium. Somebody with a gun was waiting for him.
He took three bullets in his back and two in his head from a weapon that was silenced. Bull had $20,000 in his briefcase, so the motive was clearly not robbery. The killer got away, and nobody has ever been charged with the murder, although there were strong suspicions the assassin was a government agent from somewhere.
Suspicion has been cast on Israel, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Iraq, all of which had the capability and a reason to get the job done.
The Boy Rocket Scientist
Gerald Bull was born in North Bay, Ontario, in 1928. He had a meteoric rise through post-secondary education, which started at the University of Toronto at the age of 16.
By the time he was 22, he had a PhD in aeronautical engineering and was heading up the Canadian Armament Research Development Establishment. He had also built a supersonic wind tunnel. He was being referred to as "The Boy Rocket Scientist."
But Gerald Bull had a knack for annoying people. He didn’t feel constrained by budgets and bludgeoned his way through bureaucratic systems. This led to arguments with his supervisors and, eventually, his resignation in 1961.
Dale Grant (Wilderness of Mirrors: The Life of Gerald Bull) wrote that his employers commented that Bull’s "tempestuous nature and strong dislike for administration and red tape constantly led him into trouble with senior management."
A mind like Bull’s is not supposed to lie fallow for long, and soon he was working with the U.S. and Canadian governments on supergun technology. The plan was to create a very long-barrelled gun that could propel satellites into space.
Supergun Technology History
The concept for a supergun goes back to 1728, when Isaac Newton suggested, in a thought experiment, that a cannon could be fired from a very tall mountain. Without gravity or air resistance, the cannonball would just travel in a straight direction.
In 1865, Jules Verne envisioned firing astronauts from a gun in his novel From the Earth to the Moon. This was later made into a silent movie.
Scientists began theorizing about superguns until the Russian physicist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky pointed out a serious flaw in the reasoning. In order to break the bonds of gravity, such a gun would subject astronauts to an acceleration of 22,000 Gs. That’s about 21,980 Gs greater than the human body could withstand.
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Massive artillery weapons were developed during World War I. They could throw a shell into the stratosphere to land 75 miles down range, but that was a long way from getting into space.
The attention of aerospace engineers turned to rockets, and the supergun notion was left behind.
Gerald Bull landed a professorship at Montreal’s McGill University, where he transformed the engineering faculty into a world-leading aeronautics research organization. He also worked closely with the U.S. Army in developing ballistics.
By 1962, Bull and his colleagues had installed a massive 16-inch naval gun on the island of Barbados. They began test firings and modifications to their High Altitude Research Project (HARP). By November 1966, they had thrown a projectile 112 miles (180 km) into the sky – still sub-orbital.
Funding for HARP ran out as both the Canadian and American governments lost interest in the project and turned to other priorities. Bull shelved his space gun project and spent the next few years consulting on artillery matters with governments around the world. One scheme in South Africa drew him six months in prison for illegal arms trafficking.
Gerald Bull had developed an international reputation as the go-to guy for artillery expertise. His knowledge began to draw him into darker corners. In 1981, he was contacted by Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s president. Iraq and Iran were engaged in a bloody war that was stalemated. Saddam hoped that Bull could work some weapons magic that would turn the tide in Iraq’s favour.
The two men got along well, and the collaboration led to funding for Bull’s pet venture. In 1988, Saddam put up $25 million for the engineer to build his supergun through Project Babylon.
The specifications described by the BBC were awe-inspiring: "The full-size Big Babylon barrel would have been 156m (512 feet) in length with a one metre (39.4 inch) bore. In total, it would have weighed 1,510 tonnes; far too big to be transportable, and so instead would have been mounted at a 45 degree angle on a hillside."
Bull may have been dreaming of using Big Babylon to launch satellites. Saddam was more likely fantasizing about dropping huge, high-explosive shells on Iran or Kuwait. But, Big Babylon was never constructed; a low-tech gun fired at close range in a Brussels apartment building put an end to the program.
Who Killed Gerald Bull?
The hit that took out Gerald Bull was obviously the work of professionals within whose murky world such a job is known as “wet work.” The list of suspects is long.
Nobody around Saddam Hussein was safe from an unscheduled exit from life. The murderous dictator was prone to having people bumped off to test the loyalty of his followers. It’s possible Saddam thought Bull might be a U.S. agent, and there are rumours that the engineer was stealing from Saddam.
The government of Margaret Thatcher was involved in a lucrative and secret arms trade with Iraq. Was MI-5 sent to eliminate a competitor? Shortly after Bull’s death, journalist Jonathan Moyle was murdered in Chile. He had been investigating the black market weapons trafficking between the United Kingdom and Iraq.
Washington was no friend of Saddam Hussein, a dislike that transferred to anybody known to be helping him acquire weapons.
Perhaps, Israel had the strongest motive for putting a stop to the supergun program. With such a weapon, Saddam could lob chemical and biological weapons into Israel. However, the gun would have been so huge it could not be moved about, and it would take the Israeli air force a matter of minutes to destroy it, so why bother killing the inventor?
It’s quite likely we’ll never know the answer.
- The National Aeronautics and Space Administration says it costs about $22,000 to launch one kilogram of satellite into Earth orbit. The estimate for Big Babylon, if it worked, was $1,727 per kilo.
- For several years, a company called Quicklaunch dabbled in space gun technology, but it faded away. Perhaps, there are some white-haired boffins tinkering away in their garages, but for now, Elon Musk’s relatively inexpensive SpaceX program means there’s little incentive to spend vast sums of money developing a supergun.
- The "Paris Gun" was built by Germany during World War One. It was used to fire shells onto the French capital from as far away as 81 miles (130 kilometres). Militarily it was of little use, and the Germans destroyed the gun when defeat seemed imminent.
- In the Second World War, Germany returned to the big gun concept and built a monstrous artillery piece. Two examples were built, the Schwerer Gustav and the Dora, but they had some serious drawbacks and didn’t last in service very long.
- "Space Guns." Duncan Geere, Next, April 7, 2014.
- "Shadow of a Gunman." Dale Grant, Maclean’s, April 22, 1991.
- "The Tragic Tale of Saddam Hussein’s 'Supergun.' " William Park, BBC Future, March 17, 2016.
- "Dr. Gerald Bull: Scientist, Weapons Maker, Dreamer." Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, undated.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor