Tom Swift and his Rocket Ship

By Victor Appleton II

Summary: Extracted from the dustjacket of the book:

The third volume of the new TOM SWIFT JR. series takes the brilliant young inventor into outer space in a rocket ship of his own design.

On Fearing Island just off the Atlantic Coast, Tom's space craft project attracts the attention of the spies and agents of a foreign scientist whose plan is to rule the world and space.

Tom Swift's advantage over his competitors is that he has perfected a rocket fuel which can carry his ship into and out of orbital flight. But it takes all of Tom and Bug's ingenuity to outwit the ruthless efforts of the foreign scientist and his desperate gang of henchmen.

The flight through space makes thrilling reading--the more exciting because you know the details of the flight are scientifically accurate.

Readers of TOM SWIFT JR. AND HIS FLYING LAB, the first book of this new series, will recall the message that came in the shape of a meteorlike object falling into the Swift plane enclosure. In this story another message from the same mysterious source proves very valuable to Tom as he is flying through space.

Watch for the next TOM SWIFT JR. adventure which will be out soon!   



Major Inventions


This book has a large number of important innovations: the Star Spear, the robotic drones, Fearing Island, and many more. Since there are so many interesting topics, I have divided this page into a number of sections, with each section discussing a particular invention. I realize that there aren't any pictures; I'll try to come back and add them later.



The Star Spear

The major invention in this book is Tom Swift's rocket ship, the Star Spear. The Star Spear was Tom Swift's entry to the international space race: he hoped that his new rocket design, armed with a special fuel he had invented, would enable him to be the first man to orbit the earth and claim the International Rocket Society's prize. Not coincidentally, Tom was also hoping his rocket would keep rogue nations from building a "platform in space" and ruling the Earth from itÖ


Why did Tom Swift build his Rocket Ship? As I just said, Tom built his rocket ship so that he could enter the International Rocket Society's world-wide "race into space." The Rocket Society had posted a $100,000 prize for the first person to pilot a rocket into space and circle the Earth in a two-hour orbital flight. The $100,000 prize was a mere pittance compared to the enormous cost of developing and building a rocket, but the prize was still important: the first nation that orbited the Earth would gain enormous prestige -- and the military 'high ground' should another war break out.


What about the rocket launching pads? Tom built a launching pad on Fearing Island to launch his rocket from. The pads had a concrete base and metal scaffolding. An elevator (large enough to carry three people at once) carried passengers 130 feet to the nosecone of the rocket.


How did Tom solve the problem of lift-off G forces? When a rocket was launched in the old days (or even today in some parts of the world) it subjects its astronauts to titanic G-forces: enough force where, if it is not properly taken care of, it could squash the astronauts flat and kill them long before they ever got into space. To solve the liftoff problem, Tom took the same approach later used by NASA: he designed special hydraulic suits and liftoff couches that helped both relieve pressure and spread it evenly over the body.

That wasn't all Tom did, however: he also invented a mysterious device called an "anti-G neutralator." Somehow the device actually reduced the force of gravity on board the rocket ship. Tom later used the device in his other rockets (like the Challenger) both to reduce gravity and to provide an artificial gravity field. No word was ever given on how it worked; evidently Tom regarded it as a top-secret invention and kept the plans to himself.


What about atmospheric friction? A rocket flying through space beyond the speed of sound creates a lot of friction with the surrounding air. This friction is a serious problem: the supersonic SR-71 Blackbird had to be built out of titanium because ordinary steel would have been liquefied by atmospheric friction. To guard against this problem, Tom coated both the inside and outside of his rocket with his amazing heat-resistant Tomasite he had developed in an earlier book.


What did the rocket look like? Here is what the book said about the appearance of the rockets. It turns out that the rocket didn't quite match the one depicted on the cover -- that enormous glass window the cover depicts wasn't there, for example. But since when does anyone give out accurate drawings of top-secret equipment?

Before the visitors loomed two gigantic rocket ships about a quarter of a mile apart. Each was painted silver gray with a red nose and at the base were three red fins on which the rockets seemed to be poisedÖ

When Sandy said that she would like to see what the rocket motors looked like, Bud lowered the elevator car down to the launching platform underneath the ship. Both girls gulped at the maze of fuel pumps, pipes, tanks, numberless propulsion motors and platformsÖ

"But you don't have any windows in here!" Phyl exclaimed. "Aren't you going to be able to see anything?"

Bud smiled at her evident disappointment and said, "We do have tow portholes, but it can be pretty dangerous to take a peek."

He walked over to the wall and opened a circular steel shutter, exposing a good-sized porthole in which was set an extremely thick pane of orange-colored glass.

"Tom tells me that the glass in there will absorb most of the ultraviolet light, but even so we won't dare look toward the sun."

"You see," he continued, "the blanket of air around the earth protects us from most of the harmful radiation, but out in space the sun's rays are so strong they're deadly. That's why we have these shutters for the viewing ports. But since we have another one on the other wall, we'll be able to look our most of the time from one of them. No, we won't miss a thing," Bud concluded.

"I thought it was dark as night up in space," Sandy remarked.

"True, when you're out of the planet' atmospheres. But we might pick up the lights of spaceships from Mars, for instance," Bud replied. He grinned. "So it will be easy to avoid a crash."


How many stages did the Star Spear have? Tom's rocket had four stages and, as the book explains, and Tom had taken some pains to make sure that all the stages would separate at the precise time:

"This rocket is in four stages and each stage is complete in itself," Bud explained. "The bottom section, or first stage, directly above us drops off first, then the next and the next. Finally, Tom and I will be in our own flying stage. Now let's go back up to the pilot canopy in the nose. I want to show you Tom's latest safety device."

They huddled in the narrow elevator. Bud pressed a button and the conveyor shot to the top stage. In some ways it resembled a plane, but the girls knew that during the early part of the flight, Tom and Bud would be strapped to a board tilted at a 45-degree angle from the upright rocket. Therefore the controls had been built to be within easy reach of this position.

"See this panel?" Bud asked. "It's Tom's foolproof control. If the first three stages don't drop off by themselves, this electronic attachment will cause an explosion and off they go!"

Sandy and Phyl looked around, awe-struck. This passenger section seemed lick such a tiny ship in which to make a trip through space. Commenting on this, they learned that it weighted seventeen tons, or only two percent of the rocket ship's total weight.

"But that's all we need," Bud declared. "The two bottom stages get the rocket up into space. The third is to get it in orbital motion. Our payload-stage motors are only used for braking on the return trip."


What fuel mixture did the Star Spear use? The book mentions two fuels. I'm not sure whether the rocket used both, or if Tom's prototype used one and his final product used another:

Fuel trucks piped the last gallons of liquid oxygen and alcohol into the dummy rocket ship. Mechanics and engineers bustled about, disconnecting fuel lines.


Öthey hurried to the launching area, where great tanks of nitric acid and liquid oxygen were being brought alongside the towering rocket.


How was the Star Spear guided into orbit? One of the hardest things in the world to do is to launch a rocket into Earth orbit. Celestial mechanics is an incredibly complex science: without the aid of computers it would be practically impossible to establish a stable orbit:

Tom Swift was in the nose section, with Bud Barclay watching the young inventor give his flight plan a last-minute inspection. This was an automatic pilot in the form of an unwinding, perforated tape which ran through an electric brain. Metal pins would drop into the punched-out holes and make contact with various controls.

"So you expect this piece of plastic to act as guide during the trip and bring the last stage of this rocket right back to the island?" Bud asked dubiously.

"I sure do," Tom replied. "And when it lands, not even the robot jets will have to guide the rocket in."


At what point in the countdown were the rocket engines engaged? The Space Shuttle, unlike rockets in the movies, engages its engines at roughly T minus 8 seconds. The reason it does this (if my memory serves me correctly) is so that liftoff can occur at T minus zero seconds: it takes those 8 seconds to ignite and "warm up" the engines. Tom's rocket had ignition at zero: presumably, the rocket left the ground some seconds after the countdown was over.


Did Tom have any spacesuits on board the rocket? The early astronauts (unlike the Skylab, Mir and Space Shuttle crewmembers who walk around in shorts and short sleeves) all wore space suits inside their spaceships. Tom, on the other hand, did not: while he did bring along a couple spacesuits for emergencies, an advanced life-support system kept him alive inside his ship. Tom's motivation for doing this is obvious: spacesuits are heavy, cumbersome and complex affairs: it is much easier to move around and pilot a ship without one.

ÖTom and Bud now tried on the spacesuits which would be carried in case of emergency. They had been constructed from a tightly woven wire fabric of extremely high bursting strength. The suits were covered on each side with an impermeable layer of a new synthetic rubber, joined together to permit movement, and were absolutely airtight.

Encased in these effective but clumsy garments, the boys would be able to survive exposure to the space void for a period of several hours, should a chance collision with one of the hundred thousand meteorites which fall to the earth daily damage the Star Spear.


What was the Star Spear's emblem? All of the missions that NASA ever launched have their own emblem. These emblems were often designed by the crew themselves to reflect the ship's mission. The emblem for the Apollo 11, for example, depicts an eagle clutching an olive branch landing on the surface of the Moon with the Earth in the background.

Tom Swift's rocket was no different: he, too, had an emblem, which he had painted on the side of his rocket:

Tom now told his family and the three Newtons that he had arranged for the rocket to be christened and had chosen his mother to perform the honors.

"Since it wouldn't be safe for you to get close to the Star Spear at the time of launching and break the traditional bottle on it," he said, "I've arranged something else. There's a certain button on the tracking platform for you to push. By remote control it will uncover the name and the symbol on the Star Spear.

Everyone expressed surprise about the symbol which had been added during the night and hidden by a magnetic disk.

"I've read," Tom went on, "that originally the bottles broken against the prows of ships about to be launched contained waters from the seven seas. My symbol represents the seven large stars of the Pleiades, where I hope to fly some day."


Down below, the forefinger of Mrs. Swift's right hand pushed a small button. At once the name and the symbol on the rocket were revealed. Between the two words a bright red spear was piercing a seven-pointed white star. Alongside the lowest triangle on the right were the initials U.S.A. lighted up in red, white, and blue.


How feasible is it to build a Star Spear? When the book TOM SWIFT AND HIS ROCKET SHIP was first published in 1954 there were no ships anywhere in the world remotely like the Star Spear. Ten years before the book was published, the Germans had built supersonic missiles called the V2 with which they bombed London -- but the V2 was a far cry from a space-traveling vessel. Sputnik wouldn't be launched for another five years; the space race had not yet begun. Space travel still resided solely in the realm of science fiction -- but as this book demonstrates, it was very prophetic science fiction.

Much of the book is quite accurate. Rocket fuel was one of the biggest hurdles to overcome. Radiation in space was a serious problem that had to be dealt with. Rockets would indeed be computer guided -- and yes, often by the same magnetic tape Tom used. Tom really wasn't so very far off after allÖ

How much impact would a Star Spear have on civilization? That question, obviously, has already been answered. Today we have rockets -- rockets three times as large as the Star Spear that can take men to the Moon and launch satellites beyond the edge of the solar system. These rockets have been costly to build: and yet their benefits have far outweighed their cost.

What would our world be like today without satellites? We depend on communications satellites like the IntelSat series to keep us in touch with the far corners of the world. They enable us to call up a friend 10,000 miles away in a few seconds -- a feat crucial to today's industry but which was unthinkable a hundred years ago. Our meteorological satellites warn us of approaching hurricanes and storms -- imagine all the lives which would have been lost over the years if we had not had advance warning! Perhaps someday rockets yet more advanced will carry men to Mars, the stars -- and beyond.

But with these advances comes a heavy responsibility. Satellites can be used to watch weather patterns -- or they can be used to spy on nations. A rocket that can lift a payload into orbit can also be used as an ICBM. Before the Space Age mankind was incapable of exterminating all life on Earth: now with rockets to play with, that is not only an option but a real possibility should their be an all-out nuclear war. Science can be used two ways: it can help, or it can hurt. It's my hope that we will use our science wisely -- not by throwing away our knowledge and our weapons, as some wish, but by the using of them wisely.



The Pilotless Jets


Another one of Tom Swift's inventions in this book is what I call the pilotless jets -- unmanned, robotic drones used to guard the airspace over Fearing Island.


Just what did the Pilotless Jets do? To quote the book:

Each of the pilotless jets carried an amazing mechanism called the landing forcer, an invention of Tom's. This instrument, directed from a beeper box in the control tower, could capture and steer intruding planes to Fearing's airstrip.


How did the Landing Forcer work? The landing forcer is an amazing invention. I've never heard of anything like it in real life: I have no idea how someone could capture a plane "electronically." Tom, perhaps realizing how sensitive his invention was, stayed tight-lipped about it:

Öthe enemy pilot was trying to come from the right side. As he completed his turn for the new approach angle, the powerful landing forcer caught the plane in its electronic grip and rolled it violently away.


How easy would it be to build a Landing Forcer? While the pilotless jets exist today (although they aren't quite as easy to built as Tom let on and don't work quite so well), the landing forcer is a completely different matter. I think it would be practically impossible to build one. It reminds me of a tractor beam from Star Trek or Star Wars: it mentions an 'electronic grip' that seems especially powerfulÖ This device would probably be quite useful if you wanted to capture a plane (instead of, say, shooting it down) but I don't think you'll be able to find them in stores anytime soon.



Fearing Island

While not exactly an invention, Fearing Island is very important to the Tom Swift series. Fearing Island was given to Tom Swift by the government for Tom's rocket experiments. Tom used it extensively throughout the series for both rocket experimentation and as his primary launching pad for his vast space fleet. The Star Spear, Tom's orbital rocket, was launched from this island -- as was Tom's Moon ship the Challenger and his space kite.


How large is Fearing Island? According to the book, Fearing Island is approximately three miles long.


What facilities did Fearing Island have? Fearing Island was much more than a mere rocket-launching complex: it was a whole city in miniature, complete with a laboratory. The facility grew in later years when it became the hub of Tom's traffic into space:

The group drove toward the launching area. Tom's mother and the girls were amazed to see how built-up the island was.

"I had no idea it was so complete," Mrs. Swift commented, as they passed the dock area with its numerous boats and the playfields for tennis, baseball, and other sports.

Then came the long barracks, the construction building, and finally the very modern-looking laboratory building.



The Kicker

One crucial component of Tom Swift's rocket ship was the Kicker. The Kicker was the crucial secret that gave Tom's spaceship an edge over all the other entries to the race. It was basically a rocket-fuel energizer: a solar converter that used sunlight to energize his rocket fuel and give him the extra edge he needed to reach Earth orbit.


What is known about Tom Swift's kicker? The book went into a lot of detail to describe Tom's amazing kicker. Here is what the book had to say about it:

The kicker was a rocket-fuel energizer. It consisted of a yard-long section of ten-inch pipe, tapering at each end into the smaller piping of the fuel lines. The bulge was loosely packed with a metallic oxide catalyst and covered at both ends with platinum gauze filters.

Tom's invention, using an alcohol-liquid-oxygen fuel combination, was designed to absorb the hyper-powerful radiation of the sun and shoot this solar energy into the liquid-oxygen supply, converting it into highly explosive, poisonous, blue liquid ozone.

With the help of the kicker, Tom's fuel would be much more efficient than any other combination yet know. In addition to the enormous combustion heat of alcohol and liquid oxygen, he would get additional thrust from the decomposition of the ozone and would decrease mass ratio.


He hooked the pump that was designed to carry the liquid oxygen through the kicker. Next, he attached a flowmeter to the pump to register the speed of the liquid.

In rocket flight, oxygen would have to flow through the kicker at a rate of several thousand gallons per minute to satisfy the hungry motors. Should anything interfere with this flow, the rocket would cease to operate and founder in space.

After filling the unit with red-dyed water, Tom squatted in front of the glass window in the pump model to view the flow through the kicker. He flicked on the power and listened to the even whirring of the pump.

"It's perfect" he murmured elatedly, as he watched the scarlet liquid bubbling through the unit.


How did Tom Swift test his kicker? The kicker, of course, had to be tested. To do this, Tom wired it to the top of his plane the Sky Queen (also called the Flying Lab) and flew it into the sky to examine its readings:

Tom had installed his invention on top of the great plane and also a highly sensitive thermopile to record any effect of solar radiation on the liquid oxygen. A wire led from the instrument to a thermograph in the laboratory. This would show Tom what was taking place up above.


How high did Tom have to fly to test his kicker? Tom's Sky Queen was truly an amazing plane: he flew it 18 miles (about 90,000 feet) high to test his invention. Truly he had an amazing plane -- it must have been its nuclear-powered engines that gave it such an awesome ceilingÖ

At eighteen miles above the earth Tom asked Bud to hold the plane stationary.

"Why here?" the copilot asked.

"Well, the short-wave-length radiation we are looking for doesn't reach the ground. It's filtered out by the atmosphere between twelve and twenty miles above the earth. We wont' get all of it here at this altitude, but enough to predict how well the kicker will work."


When was the kicker set to engage? At 41 miles above the ground:

"Tom, when will that there kicker cut in?" he began.

"It's set to go into action at an altitude of forty-one miles," Tom replied.

"Forty-one!" Chow exclaimed. "Brand my nightmares, why do you wait so long?"

"Well, below forty-one miles there just isn't enough sunshine, Chow."



The Dust Collector

Did Tom Swift carry any experiments on board his rocket ship? As a matter of fact he did: his father built a dust collector that Tom installed on board his spacecraft:


"This invention is designed to catch specimens of mineral particles in space that are perhaps not known on earth," Tom explained. "Dad thinks they might be very useful to us."

"How are you going to hold onto this dust at the rate of speed we'll be traveling?" Bud asked.

Tom smiled and said that the dust would be collected on an electrified field between special copper plates arranged just inside a small opening in the rocket's hull.

"Dad has made the plates so foolproof," said Tom proudly, "that the heat from the sun can't fuse the particles to the plates."


 The dust collector was a success; Tom later told his father that it was full of particles from space -- particles of every color of the rainbow.



The Spacelane Brain

Tom tried to consider every possibility when he built his rocket. For example, Tom's ship was controlled by a reel of magnetic tape -- but suppose that it went haywire? Tom wanted to be able to find out where he was and still steer the ship home, so he built the amazing Spacelane Brain.


How did the Brain get its name? Usually either Tom or Bud have the honor of naming Tom Swift's inventions. This time, though, Arv Hanson did the honors:

"Tell me, Tom, have you given it a name yet?"

Tom smiled ruefully. "No. I have a harder job naming some of these things than I do figuring them out. Have you any ideas?"

"How about calling it the Spacelane Brain?" Arvid Hanson suggested.

Bud later approved of the name -- he said that it was a great thing to call either the machine or its amazing inventor.


How does the Spacelane Brain work? Unlike the anti-G neutralator, Tom didn't have any hesitation with explaining the details of the invention:

"This navigational equipment is designed only for the rather short distances that we expect to travel at first. When we really get out into space we'll depend more on the radius indicator."

"How does this invention differ from the ordinary aneroid altimeter that we use now?" Hank Sterling asked.

"An altimeter which depends on measuring atmospheric pressure won't work at very low air pressures," Tom replied. "This instrument picks up the noisy cosmic rays from the sun. The nearer the sun, the noisier the waves."

"How accurate is it?" Hanson asked.

"Within a few feet," Tom replied. "Frankly, this part of the instrument is not my own brain child. The idea has been kicking around for some time."

"You dreamed up the navigation part of it?" bud asked.

"Yes," Tom answered. "I took the principle of solar radiation and applied it to the stars. This instrument in the black case picks up the waves from three stars and the rocket's position is recorded on the dial--instantly."

"Let's see it work," Hank Sterling urged.

Tom flicked the toggle switch. A whirring sound began and the needle on the dial moved instantly to seventy-eight thousand feet. Another switch was snapped and five dots appeared on the upper dial.

"The black one at the bottom is the earth," Tom explained. "The three red ones are stars."

"The small one must be the fix--the position," Hanson said.

"That's it," Tom replied. "The point of intersection of the lines from the three stars."

"How do you know which stars are showing on your screen?"

"Each first-magnitude star sends its own distinct sound," Tom explained. "Listen."

Three slightly different beeps were coming from the instrument. From a chart Tom identified them as Deneb, Vega, and Altair.

"The greatest feature of this whole thing," Tom continued, "is that the instrument can be built into the automatic pilot."

"You mean," Hanson exclaimed enthusiastically, "that it makes navigation and steering a single operation?"

"That's right," Tom replied.

"Amazing," Hank Sterling commented. "And it certainly appears to be in perfect working order."


How was it tested? With Tom's Sky Queen, of course!

"I'm going up now in the Sky Queen to test the new dual-duty cosmic-ray altimeter and stellar sextant," Tom told his friends. "I'll have a distorter rigged up on top of the Flying Lab before it takes off."


How practical would it be to build a Spacelane Brain? I think it would be possible to build such a brain -- but I have strong doubts that it could be accurate within a few feetÖ I believe that most spacecraft tracking done today is accomplished via a complex radar network. Radar works quite well: I have heard that NASA can track and pinpoint nuts and bolts that are loose in Earth orbitÖso there is probably no immediate need for a Spacelane Brain. One day, however, NASA might start sending ships beyond the solar system where radar is impractical -- and then a Spacelane Brain will not only be necessary, it will be criticalÖ




The Extra-Terrestrials

In the first book of the Tom Swift series a group of aliens from another planet sent an asteroid and landed it near Tom Swift's airfield. By the end of the book, Tom and his father had managed to decode the mathematical symbols on the meteor. Now that Tom was planning to launch a rocket into orbit, he decided to take the opportunity to try to send a message back to them:


"I'll rig a powerful receiver into the dummy rocket that may pick up messages sent out by space travelers on a holiday from Mars. One might even be directed on purpose toward our rocket! The transmitter will relay the message down here."


Tom's father had even created a space dictionary so that if Tom did receive any messages he could decode them instantly. These preparations  were not in vain: when Tom finally made it into orbit, his space friends sent him a message of congradulation.



The Mechanics of Space Flight

As a final note, the book went into some detail to describe the mechanics of space flight. For those of you who would like to know a bit about orbits and g-forces, I thought I'd end this page by letting Tom explain some of the gritty details of his trip:


Just what is an orbit?

"By the way, Tom, has that there rocket o' yours got a name?"

"Yes. It's going to be christened the Star Spear. And she's practically ready for orbital flight."

"What does orbital mean?" Chow asked, wrinkling his brow.

"Orbital means a track," Tom replied. "A thing to go around on -- a more or less circular path."

Bud added, "A rocket in orbital flight is like a baseball swinging at the end of a string. The path of the ball in relation to your fist will be its orbit."

Ö"In the rocket we turn off the motors at a certain altitude," Tom said, "and keep on flying along our orbit."

"Hm," Chow grunted. "But after you turn off the motors, what's goin' to keep the lil ole rocket goin'?" The cook scratched his bald head. "Why don't she slow down an' tumble right back to earth?"

"Its centrifugal force exactly balances the pull of the earth," Tom answered. "And there's no mass of air, as we know it here, to interfere with the rocket and slow it down."


What about G forces?

"At ten G's you and I will each weigh a ton."

The cook looked at the boys suspiciously, then said, "Say, Tom what are these lil ole G's you all talk about? They sure got me bothered. It ain't natural. Sounds like gangster talk or the FBI."

Tom laughed at the way the puzzled cook wrinkled his forehead. "Sorry, Chow, you're wrong on both counts. The term G is a unit of measure, like a pound of something or a dollarÖ"

"The G factor measures the basic attraction the earth has for a unit mass at the earth's surface," Tom continued. Then, smiling at Chow, he went on, "Now in your case, Chow, you have more mass than Bud or I, so the earth loves you more than it does us, and hangs on to you tighter."

Chow snorted and said, "It kin hang on to me just as tight as it wants--the tighter the better!"

Tom and Bud laughed, and Tom resumed his explanation.

"Someday, Chow, bring a bathroom scale down to the plant and put it in the elevator. Weigh yourself, then press the button for the top floor."

"The faster the elevator starts, the more you weigh. Now, if the scale reading was twice as much as it was when you were standing still that would be a force of two G's. When the Star Spear takes off, Bud and I may weigh ten times as much as we do right now--that would be a force of ten G's."


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