Source: Steve Feinstein
The SpaceX Demo-2/Dragon spacecraft was successfully launched into space on Saturday May 30, 2020, marking the first-ever collaboration between NASA and a private entity, Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The Falcon 9 booster was comprised of nine SpaceX Merlin rocket engines, which use RP-1 (refined petroleum) and liquid oxygen as propellants to develop the immense thrust necessary for a heavy space-bound launch vehicle.
All the news reports were dutifully filled with superlatives regarding this unprecedented public-private joint venture, and it was indeed a very significant accomplishment. It’s not often that the two normally-opposing spheres of industry come together in such a positive manner. It bodes well for future cooperative ventures, leveraging the best of both approaches.
But, lost in the deservedly congratulatory environment of this auspicious mission was a fascinating piece of trivia: The import and significance of the name “Merlin” as it applied to the Falcon’s engines.
The Merlin engine is well-known in historical aviation circles as the engine that powered the famous British Spitfire fighter plane and gave it such superlative performance. Manufactured by the famed Rolls-Royce company, the Merlin engine (named for a bird of prey, not the mythical wizard) was developed from an earlier Rolls-Royce engine, the Kestrel. (A purchased sample of the Kestrel, in one of history’s all-time great ironies, powered the first prototype of the German Messerschmitt BF-109 fighter plane, the Spitfire’s greatest WWII rival. Operational 109’s were powered by Daimler-Benz engines. Yes, that Benz.) Powering the front-line British fighter planes Hawker Hurricane and the Spitfire, the Merlin soon established a reputation for superb performance, reliability and the ability to sustain considerable battle damage and remain functional. Merlin-powered British fighters fought off German air force attacks in the summer of 1940 (after France had fallen to the Germans), saving Britain from German invasion and buying invaluable time until America entered the war in Europe on Britain’s side.
Once Japan had attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in December 1941, Germany and the U.S. declared war on each other virtually simultaneously. The U.S. was now involved in an all-out war on two fronts: The Pacific Theater and the European Theater. In late December 1941, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill came to Washington DC to discuss the overall war strategy with American president Franklin Roosevelt. Here, in what was called “The Arcadia Conference,” it was decided to take a “Germany first” approach to the war. Winning in Europe would take a higher priority than defeating Japan in the Pacific.
Towards that end, the United States moved its strategic bombing 8th Air Force to England. The plan was for American heavy bombers to attack German industrial and production targets and cripple their war fighting capabilities. This proved to be far more difficult in practice than in theory. American B-17 and B-24 long-range bombers, in spite of their heavy defensive armament, proved incapable of adequately defending themselves against intercepting German fighter planes and in 1942 and especially 1943, American bomber losses were so heavy that the entire plan of carrying out daylight precision bombing raids came close to being scrapped altogether.
The problem was that American and British fighter plane escorts lacked the range to accompany the bombers all the way to targets deep inside Germany and back. The Allied fighters would have to turn back partway en route to the target, leaving the bombers to fend for themselves. That’s when the Germans would pounce and exact their grievous toll.
Around this time, a new American fighter plane had been developed, the P-51 Mustang. Its performance with its American Allison engine was mediocre at best, despite the plane’s great potential. Someone came up with the idea of fitting an English Merlin engine—the one that powered the outstanding Spitfire fighter plane—to the Mustang, just as a ‘what if.’
It was a match made in heaven. The Mustang’s advanced aerodynamic design and new “laminar flow” wing gave it terrific flying characteristics. With the smooth, powerful Merlin engine, the Mustang became a world-beater. Even better, because of the Mustang’s advanced design, its fuel efficiency exceeded all other fighter planes and it now had the range to fly and defend the bombers all the way to and from their targets, no matter how deep inside Germany.
But Britain lacked the industrial production capability to make enough Merlins for both its own use and the Americans. So the American Packard Motor Car Company of Detroit began making the Merlin under license for use in American Mustang fighters. Known as the “Packard-Merlin,” the American-built version actually incorporated a series of small but important modifications and improvements over the British version and many people considered the Packard variant to be superior. With the almost unlimited American factory capacity making both Mustang fighters and Packard-Merlin engines, the P-51 turned the air war over Europe from a costly exercise with an uncertain outcome into a smashingly successful endeavor. From the time of its combat debut in Feb 1944 through May 1944, rampaging Mustangs absolutely decimated the German Luftwaffe, clearing the skies of enemy aircraft and paving the way for a successful D-Day land invasion of mainland Europe, free from the threat of German air counterattack.
The British had heroically held off the Germans in 1940 with their Merlin-powered Hurricane and Spitfire fighter planes. Now in 1944, the American 8th Air Force took the offensive fight to Germany, breaking the back of the German air force on the strength of the Merlin-powered P-51 Mustang.
Today, the SpaceX Falcon ushers in a new era of spaceflight, powered by its Merlin engines.
Is there any unequivocal proof that Elon Musk, the mercurial but undeniably brilliant owner and creative force behind both Tesla electric cars and SpaceX, deliberately chose the name “Merlin” for his rocket’s engines with full knowledge of the historical and performance pedigree of that engine’s brand?
Not that I know of. But Musk has a flare for the dramatic that is second to none. He is one of only a handful of business/industry entrepreneurs whose personal profile and presence transcends the business world and crosses over into popular culture. People like or dislike his companies and products in many cases based on their feelings about Musk as an individual. He’s that well-known and that visible.
The betting here is that Musk knows all about the Merlin engine’s history and its role in securing the world order as it exists today. Merlin is the perfect name—subtle, pithy and very much “inside baseball.”