The two pictures of the OTRAG rocket laid on top of each other to
show the motion of the rocket. The terrain is taken from the first
picture. The notes have been added by Sven Grahn.
In January 2012, when I perused an old photo-CD in the archives of SSC (previously the Swedish Space Corporation) I stumbled, by pure chance, upon two pictures of an unknown rocket type taking off from Esrange.
The rocket in the pictures is very slender, has three fins and left no trail of smoke. It took me very few seconds to realize that this must be a liquid propellant rocket (usually no smoke trail) and the only liquid-propellant rocket ever launched from Esrange was the last OTRAG rocket which is designated OTR-1 and the vehicle type was OTRAG 1-3-B (other designation OTRAG DLR K-OL-120). It was launched from Esrange on 19 September 1983 at 0559 UT. It reached an altitude of 4.2 km.
OTRAG had launched its last rocket from Libya in December 1982 where it started launching in 1981 after the three launches out of the Kongo.
I have never before seen a picture of this launch and it was not an operation very much discussed internally in SSC. But through the grapewine I heard a story, true or not, that Stefan Zenker recounted in a book (1) about SSC at its 25 th anniversary (in 1997):
Blow-up of the OTRAG
rocket launched from
Early in this period [1982-1992, SG], a fascinating project briefly touched Esrange. A private German project to build an inexpensive satellite launcher was announced - OTRAG. The rocket was going to be assembled from a large number of modular boosters. Testing would start with the launch of a single rocket, burning red fuming nitric acid and diesel oil. Gradually more powerful combinations would be assembled and tested.
The flamboyant director of the project visited Esrange in his search for a suitable launch site. He came in his LearJet and was dressed in an impressive wolf fur coat. At the Ferrum hotel he asked to buy the piano! Another small detail that impressed us was that ordinary car windscreen wiper motors were going to be used in the rocket design. What could be more reliable in relation to cost?
Unfortunately, in the end, the launch site was established in Zaïre, where an enormous land area was made available. Only one or two launches to low altitude of the basic rocket module took place. There was a lingering suspicion that the whole project might have been a cover to acquire some very valuable real estate in Zaïre... Then the launching activities were suddenly moved to Khadaffi’s Libya. A number of launches were performed from there, until an article in the German magazine Stern revealed the operation. Of course, there was concern that Khadaffi might get hold of a rocket for military purposes. But OTRAG also survived this affair.
In 1983 the next launch took place - this time from Esrange. The rocket flew normally for about ten seconds, when it suddenly exploded. The commission of inquiry found out that the reason was a payload problem. An opening had been made in the nose cone in front of the lens of a photometer [I heard it was a TV camera - SG]. There was no glass cover. When the rocket accelerated, the rectangular hole acted just like an organ pipe. This led to vibrations which caused the explosion.
The failure became the final straw for the investors, and the OTRAG company was dissolved. - So far, OTRAG is the one and only liquid rocket we have launched from Esrange! ... "
In my diary for 22 september 1983, I wrote:
"Arrived at Esrange at 0830 ... got the OTRAG story. The engine quit after 12 seconds (expected time 18 seconds), but the rocket broke apart in a radial joint. The theory: big hole for TV camera worked like an organ pipe! The experiments (mass spectrometer and TV camera) only flown for tax reasons (tax exemption for science). OTRAG may come back with the TEXUS campaign next spring." [TEXUS 9 was launched on 3 May 1984, but OTRAG was not there].
Let me just point out that these two stories about OTRAG are merely the result of hearsay - I have no idea how accurate they are! However, there were experiments on OTR-1. In (2) the Technical University of Aachen and the Technical College in Munich are mentioned as "scientific groups".
The picture on the upper right is a combination of the two pictures on the photo-CD. It seems that the pictures were taken by a camera on a tripod and the two images can easily be overlaid (here is one of the pictures at full resolution). Some observations in the picture:
It is not easy to accurately reconstruct the history of OTRAG test launches and the configuration of each test vehicle. There are three sources which contain plenty of details and they are in some harmony with each other as to the technical facts. (From these three sources I have tried to compile a very short summary of sites and launches here ).
There are several pictures of OTRAG test vehicles which seem to resemble the vehicle launched from Esrange which is shown in a blow-up above left. It is obvious that there are three fins. Otherwise it is hard to make out any details.
Otherwise, in (3) there is an intriguing piece of information. The author has been able to get hold of the text of the agreement between OTRAG and Zaire which includes a list of OTRAG's management team. Listed there is Reiner Klett - as "programmer", whatever that means. Reiner Klett is a well-known figure among the older generation of European space workers. During the 60's he was the head of the German Space Agency's Mobile Rocket Base (MORABA=Mobile RAketenBAsis). Later Klett joined with Axel Schmalz to run the space contractor Kayser-Threde. (I have met both gentlemen). Reiner passed away in 2006. I remember him as a very enthusiastic entrepreneur.
Back to Space History Notes