Arthur Valentine “Val” Cleaver OBE

(1917 – 1977)

Sir Arthur C. Clarke described Val Cleaver as the man who should have been the British von Braun. Born at Horsepath in Oxfordshire on February 14th 1917 (hence the name by which he was universally known), he became fascinated by Space by the age of 11. Later in life he said that this interest arose from the fascinating possibilities of the achievement itself, and the absorbing interest of the problems involved.

Val Cleaver

Val Cleaver

He became a member of the BIS in 1937.

He joined the Propeller Division of de Havillands in 1935. During the War he was responsible for establishing standards for evaluating the performance of the various airscrews in production at the time. By 1946, at the end of the War, Val Cleaver was the Chief Project Engineer to the de Havilland Propeller Company, before transferring to the de Havilland Engine Company as Special Projects Engineer. Major Frank Halford was at that time the Technical Director of the engine company. As reports of the rocket developments in Germany during the war became available he commissioned Val Cleaver to carry out a one-man study on rocket feasibilities. Val later described this period as his apprenticeship in rocket propulsion.

In 1948 he became Chairman of the BIS for three years. In the same year he published a paper in JBIS in collaboration with Les Shepherd on “The Atomic Rocket”, providing the first published paper in the open literature to propose the use of nuclear powered engines with hydrogen as a working fluid.

During the early 1950s he was responsible for the development of the Sprite liquid propellant rocket, initially as a take-off assistance for the Comet jet aircraft, but later for the early V-bombers. During the same period the idea of a mixed powerplant fighter using rocket and turbojet propulsion to reach high altitudes very quickly was being considered. Val Cleaver formed a close friendship with Maurice Brennan at Saunders Roe, from which developed the SR53 aircraft and the design for the SR177.

In 1956 Val Cleaver handed in his resignation from de Havillands, and in 1957 he joined Rolls Royce as Chief Engineer of their newly formed rocket team. At this point there was a major contract to develop the rocket engine for the UK’s Blue Streak missile. The original rocket engine was a straightforward version of that used on the US Thor missile, produced under licence from North American Aviation, but under Val’s guidance the RZ-2 rocket engines for Blue Streak were considerably more powerful and lighter. While the ELDO vehicle was ultimately unsuccessful and abandoned, the Blue Streak vehicle and its RZ-2 engines worked perfectly on each of its 13 launches, and Cleaver was awarded the OBE for his part in it.

In the closing days of ELDO the Rolls Royce team took on the development of Europe’s first hydrogen/oxygen rocket engine, the RZ-20.

He was made an Honorary Fellow of the BIS in 1962. He died on 16th September 1977.

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