Tom Smith, who has died aged 85, led a team of aeronautical engineers at the
British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) which, in the 1960s, produced full plans for
a British Space Shuttle, long before Enterprise, Columbia or Challenger were
even a gleam in an American designer’s eye.
The idea of the Multi-Unit Space Transport And Recovery Device, or MUSTARD as it was known, arose out of an Air Ministry contract for BAC to study “hypersonic” speed (five times the speed of sound and above). A team was formed under Smith’s leadership at BAC’s Warton airbase, near Preston, Lancashire.
“We started by looking at things which were Concorde-ish in nature,” Smith recalled, “and went on from there to high speed aircraft which would travel at Mach 12 [12 times the speed of sound]... We gradually realised that we could go from air-breathers, which would stay in the earth’s atmosphere, into space.”
The design work for MUSTARD was completed in 1964 and 1965, and the following year, in a lecture to the Royal Aeronautical Society, Lord Caldecote, BAC’s deputy managing director and chairman of its guided weapons branch, described a fully recoverable multi-stage aerospace vehicle which could put Western Europe into the space age within 10 to 15 years.
The design was a three-stage reusable aircraft, consisting of three similar modules in the form of crewed, delta-winged vehicles which could be stacked together and launched as a single unit. Two of the units would act as boosters to launch the third into orbit, feeding any excess fuel to the unit which was to become the spacecraft, before separating and returning to earth as normal aircraft. After placing a payload weighing as much as 5,000lb into orbit, the third unit would return to earth in a similar fashion.
MUSTARD was regarded as a suitable project for joint development by European aerospace companies, with a cost estimated to be around “20 to 30 times cheaper” than that of the expendable rocket launch systems of the time. Unfortunately, as with so many other British inventions, the government of the day decided not to proceed. About three years after MUSTARD was cancelled, the Americans became interested in a reusable aircraft.
In a later interview Smith said that he felt MUSTARD’s problem was that it was
“so far ahead of its time” and there had been no political will to push it
forward. “There is nothing worse than being right at the wrong time,” he
After graduation in 1948 he joined Gloster Aviation in Gloucestershire and the following year moved to English Electric (later subsumed into BAC and subsequently British Aerospace), a former tram manufacturer based near Preston which had turned to making aircraft during the war.
There he was one of a team of four, under Freddy Page, working on the early development of the Canberra bomber. He was subsequently heavily involved in the development of the Lightning fighter aircraft and he took a flight in one of the two-seater trainers to become one of the few people who, at that time, had flown faster than the speed of sound. He was also among the leaders of the team which developed the TSR-2, the Cold War strike and reconnaissance aircraft project which was cancelled by the Labour government in 1965.
After the MUSTARD project, Smith was involved with the development of the Jaguar and Tornado, and in his last years – with what by then was British Aerospace – he led a team of some 40 engineers researching various technologies in the defence and aircraft field. Much of his work remains classified.
Outside his work, Smith developed his hobby of aero-modelling, winning the national championships in the class of free-flight powered models on three occasions. On one occasion, having just failed to qualify to represent Britain in the world championships, he was asked to stand in for the Japanese team, who could not afford to make the journey. This gave rise to his only injury arising from his hobby, when he nearly lost a finger while starting the Japanese engine by flicking the propeller. He also played table tennis competitively until the age of 50.
After retiring in 1990, Smith moved to Tetford in Lincolnshire. In 1948 he had married Winifred McCormick, the daughter of a Grimsby trawler skipper, with whom he had a daughter and four sons. In 1995 Winifred suffered a severe stroke which left her in a near vegetative state in a nursing home. Over the five years before she died in 2000, he lived in an annexe at the house of his son, Anthony, near Brigg, during which time he met and befriended Jean McIntyre Cox. They married in 2000, some months after Winifred’s death, and moved to East Keal, a village near Spilsby on the edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds. Jean died in 2009 and he is survived by his five children.
Daily Telegraph - 1 November 2012