How A Giant Space Gun Ended Up In The Middle Of The Arizona Desert

By Maya Springhawk Robnett
Published: Friday, September 2, 2016 - 11:57am
Updated: Friday, September 2, 2016 - 12:32pm
Audio icon Download mp3 (5.27 MB)
(Photo by Maya Springhawk Robnett - KAWC)
Chuck Wullenjohn (left) with Yuma Proving Grounds and Wayne Schilders with the HARP gun.
(Photo by Maya Springhawk Robnett - KAWC)
Wayne Schilders next to a projectile, which would fit into the barrel of the HARP gun.

To send something into space, the modern technique is to launch it with a rocket. In the 1960s, however, a Canadian visionary proposed the radical idea to simply shoot through the atmosphere — with a giant space gun. One of those guns is still in Yuma, Arizona.

In the middle of the desert sits a large white cannon. It measures 122 feet long from breach to muzzle and the barrel is 16 inches around.

Wayne Schilders, the chief of the weapons operations division for the Yuma Proving Ground, said this monster gun’s barrel is actually two barrels from retired battleship cannons, welded together.

“The second half was built and welded on out of two different tubes. And you know they scrap some of the ships and stuff like that so chances are this came off of one of the ships that was damaged," said Schilders.

The High Altitude Research Project (HARP) was initially created to test the conditions of the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere. The HARP program had three locations — Canada, Barbados and Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.

From 1966 to 1969, the Yuma Proving Ground HARP gun was used for these atmospheric tests, shooting projectiles into the ionosphere to get readings. Through the 1980s and into the early '90s, it was used for other tests requiring large artillery. And Schilders, who worked with the gun from 1984 till its last shot in 1992, said it was a sight to see — a fireball exploding from the barrel and a great deal of noise.

“Even our normal artillery that we shoot now — and you can hear some of the guns going on in the back — you can hear these things all the way into town from here which is what, 17, 20 miles? With this one here, you’d hear it in town, no doubt," Schilders said.

The HARP gun at the Yuma Proving Ground set two world records in its short three-year run. The first for altitude — shot up 111 miles high. The second was for the most gunpowder loaded into a gun — 1,225 pounds.

Using the HARP gun to determine the nature of the upper atmosphere, was kind of an afterthought. Bill Heidner, the museum curator of the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground Heritage Center, said NASA was set to share data from rocket launches. But that didn't quite work out.

“The rockets were just blowing through the Earth’s atmosphere at such a fast rate of speed, they weren’t really gathering any data," said Heidner. "So they looked at Dr. Bull’s HARP gun and really thought, well, they can just kind of lob it up there at apogee and have it just travelling through the ionosphere before it falls back to Earth, they could gather a significant amount of data.”

Dr. Bull is Canadian scientist Gerald Bull of McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Bull gained an interest in artillery and ballistics, which developed into an unusual aim: to shoot satellites into orbit around Earth. Working with McGill, the Canadian government, and the U.S. Army, Bull began work on his HARP gun in the 1950s.

Most scientists of the era thought he was insane, but Heidner said Bull didn’t have much patience for what he called "cocktail science," or mixing liquid fuels to launch rockets.

“To him, the rest of the world—we were all fools," said Heidner.

Genius or not, Bull never finished his work. While offloading test equipment in the HARP Barbados location, his ship was found to be loaded with artillery ammunition destined for South Africa, which at the time was still under apartheid. Barbados brought the issue to the United Nations and Bull’s possessions in the U.S. and Canada were confiscated. The program was suspended and Bull spent six months in U.S. federal prison.

When Bull got out, he felt betrayed by the U.S. and Canadian governments and became an expert for hire — for countries like Israel, South Africa, Britain, Australia, and Iraq — where he promised then-dictator Sadam Hussein that he could build Iraq a supercannon.

This project, now referred to as Project Babylon, never came to fruition.

Bull died in Brussels in 1990 in an apparent assassination. Heidner said Bull was still working on the Iraqi project.

“And then three weeks later, Britain announced finding these sections of what supposedly was oil pipeline materials. But they looked at it and their experts said, ‘No, this is way too robust for pipeline. This looks more like parts of a gun tube, perhaps a supercannon.’ Which they were. They were part of Bull’s Project Babylon," said Heidner.

It isn’t known who assassinated Bull, though some speculate that it was either Israeli or British intelligence.

The HARP gun still sits in the Arizona desert today. Heidner said it’s still operational.

Historian Bill Heidner (left) and Wayne Schilders stand next to the barrel of the 122-foot HARP gun. (Photo by Maya Springhawk Robnett - KAWC)