QOTD: Isaac Asimov on Liquid Rocket Fuels

 

“Now it is clear that anyone working with rocket fuels is outstandingly mad.  I don’t mean garden-variety crazy or a merely raving lunatic.  I mean a record-shattering exponent of far-out insanity.

Explosion - Alternate angle of the massive explosion following a BLEVE ...

“There are, after all, some chemicals that explode shatteringly, some that flame ravenously, some that corrode hellishly, some that poison sneakily, and some that stink stenchily.  As far as I know, though, only liquid rocket fuels have all these delightful properties combined into one delectable whole.”

(From the Forward to Ignition!, an Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants, by John D. Clark)

Clark’s  autobiographical book is an entertaining read and, while giving a fair amount of technical detail, is accessible for those of us who barely remember the chemistry we learned in high school.  All that rocketry that looks like magic? Really it’s lots of engineering.

Published in Science & Technology
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  1. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Foreword.

    • #1
  2. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Comfortably Superannuated: There are, after all, some chemicals that explode shatteringly, some that flame ravenously, some that corrode hellishly, some that poison sneakily, and some that stink stenchily

    Great sentence that ends well. 

    • #2
  3. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    I knew from reading “Marooned” back in the day (the original novel by Martin “Six Million Dollar Man” Caidin), that they wouldn’t be able to use hydrazine as claimed in “The Martian.”  It’s a hypergolic fuel.

    • #3
  4. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    I recall an expert–probably your son Hank–who said that uranium hexaflouride gas combines the marvelous properties of being poisonous, radioactive, and corrosive. 

    • #4
  5. Comfortably Superannuated Member
    Comfortably Superannuated
    @OldDanRhody

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    I recall an expert–probably your son Hank–who said that uranium hexaflouride gas combines the marvelous properties of being poisonous, radioactive, and corrosive.

    Hank gifted me this book a couple of years ago.

    • #5
  6. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    I recall an expert–probably your son Hank–who said that uranium hexaflouride gas combines the marvelous properties of being poisonous, radioactive, and corrosive.

    Whereas sulfur hexaflouride is just hilarious…

     

    • #6
  7. Internet's Hank Contributor
    Internet's Hank
    @HankRhody

    Every so often I get the itch to go back into that book and bone up on nitric acid chemistry or some such.

    It brings to mind the Calvin & Hobbes cartoon where he’s practicing how to make armpit farts. “You never see adults doing this kind of thing.” “They’re probably already good at it.” I hate it when the rest of the world is ahead of me on nitric acid chemistry.

    • #7
  8. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Convincing enough post that I’ve bought the book. It will need to wait for me to complete the New History of the Peloponnesian War.

    • #8
  9. GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms Reagan
    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms
    @GLDIII

    Comfortably Superannuated: “Now it is clear that anyone working with rocket fuels is outstandingly mad.  I don’t mean garden-variety crazy or a merely raving lunatic.  I mean a record-shattering exponent of far-out insanity.

    Having  a career of over 40 years I have worked with an entire branch of engineers for whom this was their daily bread (and butter).

    Were they weird, well I guess we all have our little autistic nuances, but I notices that their lab was one of two buildings located well aways from the main GSFC campus (along with the magnetics group). A bit crazy yes, but not stupid.

     

    • #9
  10. Internet's Hank Contributor
    Internet's Hank
    @HankRhody

    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Ma… (View Comment):

    Were they weird, well I guess we all have our little autistic nuances, but I notices that their lab was one of two buildings located well aways from the main GSFC campus (along with the magnetics group). A bit crazy yes, but not stupid.

    See, if I were making the decisions I’d stick the magnetics group to the cryogenic labs.

    • #10
  11. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Ma… (View Comment):
    Were they weird, well I guess we all have our little autistic nuances, but I notices that their lab was one of two buildings located well aways from the main GSFC campus (along with the magnetics group). A bit crazy yes, but not stupid.

    • #11
  12. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Percival (View Comment):

    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Ma… (View Comment):
    Were they weird, well I guess we all have our little autistic nuances, but I notices that their lab was one of two buildings located well aways from the main GSFC campus (along with the magnetics group). A bit crazy yes, but not stupid.

    And there’s this:

    • #12
  13. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Stad (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Ma… (View Comment):
    Were they weird, well I guess we all have our little autistic nuances, but I notices that their lab was one of two buildings located well aways from the main GSFC campus (along with the magnetics group). A bit crazy yes, but not stupid.

    And there’s this:

    • #13
  14. GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms Reagan
    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms
    @GLDIII

    Percival (View Comment):

    Stad (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Ma… (View Comment):
    Were they weird, well I guess we all have our little autistic nuances, but I notices that their lab was one of two buildings located well aways from the main GSFC campus (along with the magnetics group). A bit crazy yes, but not stupid.

    And there’s this:

    • #14
  15. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Stad (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Ma… (View Comment):
    Were they weird, well I guess we all have our little autistic nuances, but I notices that their lab was one of two buildings located well aways from the main GSFC campus (along with the magnetics group). A bit crazy yes, but not stupid.

    And there’s this:

    I protest! Engineering is quite exciting. It has built the world. “Science” gets the glory, but it is Engineering that has done heavy lifting. Literally, it if what lifted the heavy things. 

    • #15
  16. GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms Reagan
    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms
    @GLDIII

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Stad (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Ma… (View Comment):
    Were they weird, well I guess we all have our little autistic nuances, but I notices that their lab was one of two buildings located well aways from the main GSFC campus (along with the magnetics group). A bit crazy yes, but not stupid.

    And there’s this:

    I protest! Engineering is quite exciting. It has built the world. “Science” gets the glory, but it is Engineering that has done heavy lifting. Literally, it if what lifted the heavy things.

    I would venture to suggest that most Engineers know this, but are reluctant to bruise the fragile egos of the science class folks. Goodness know I worked with dozens of Scientists, but their world revolves around getting credit for stuff, and for a large percentage of them they jealously guard for that stuff.

    • #16
  17. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Ma… (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Stad (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Ma… (View Comment):
    Were they weird, well I guess we all have our little autistic nuances, but I notices that their lab was one of two buildings located well aways from the main GSFC campus (along with the magnetics group). A bit crazy yes, but not stupid.

    And there’s this:

    I protest! Engineering is quite exciting. It has built the world. “Science” gets the glory, but it is Engineering that has done heavy lifting. Literally, it if what lifted the heavy things.

    I would venture to suggest that most Engineers know this, but are reluctant to bruise the fragile egos of the science class folks. Goodness know I worked with dozens of Scientists, but their world revolves around getting credit for stuff, and for a large percentage of them they jealously guard for that stuff.

    Which shows they really know just who should get the credit. 

    I happen to be wearing my Florida Tech Shirt today. Put me on Team Engineers! Go ‘Neers!

    But if the Scientists want to prove themselves, I say they can engage in any practical competition with Engineers and see how it goes. And what I mean by “Practical” is something other than knowing trivia or just obscure math. Has to be something that works, you know, in the real world.

     

    • #17
  18. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

     Back in the day when my little mail order hobby business was going strong, I had several shirts that sold very well. For example:

    This one was my favorite and the best-seller. I was standing in a line at a supermarket, and someone behind me whispered to his companion, “Get a load of the rocket scientist.” So:

    • #18
  19. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    The book, “Ignition,” is magnificent, BTW. It may not be the best book about science, but it is certainly the funniest. Dr. John Clark was a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, and author of a monograph speculating that Nero Wolfe was the child of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler. Truly a Renaissance man.

    • #19
  20. Internet's Hank Contributor
    Internet's Hank
    @HankRhody

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    But if the Scientists want to prove themselves, I say they can engage in any practical competition with Engineers and see how it goes. And what I mean by “Practical” is something other than knowing trivia or just obscure math. Has to be something that works, you know, in the real world.

    Not really a fair contest; you’re saying “Scientists can prove themselves by doing what Engineers do.” I say make ’em both interpret poetry. Level playing ground.

    • #20
  21. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Internet's Hank (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    But if the Scientists want to prove themselves, I say they can engage in any practical competition with Engineers and see how it goes. And what I mean by “Practical” is something other than knowing trivia or just obscure math. Has to be something that works, you know, in the real world.

    Not really a fair contest; you’re saying “Scientists can prove themselves by doing what Engineers do.” I say make ’em both interpret poetry. Level playing ground.

    The winner is the one who says it’s best left uninterpreted. 

    • #21
  22. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Internet's Hank (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    But if the Scientists want to prove themselves, I say they can engage in any practical competition with Engineers and see how it goes. And what I mean by “Practical” is something other than knowing trivia or just obscure math. Has to be something that works, you know, in the real world.

    Not really a fair contest; you’re saying “Scientists can prove themselves by doing what Engineers do.” I say make ’em both interpret poetry. Level playing ground.

    Misses the point. 

    Engineering is what actually matters day to day, not science. Science is nice, but without Engineering, it does not mean anything. 

    In fact, “Science” is still not 100% sure why planes fly, as I understand it. Engineers make them fly anyway. 

    • #22
  23. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Internet’s Hank (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    But if the Scientists want to prove themselves, I say they can engage in any practical competition with Engineers and see how it goes. And what I mean by “Practical” is something other than knowing trivia or just obscure math. Has to be something that works, you know, in the real world.

    Not really a fair contest; you’re saying “Scientists can prove themselves by doing what Engineers do.” I say make ’em both interpret poetry. Level playing ground.

    Misses the point.

    Engineering is what actually matters day to day, not science. Science is nice, but without Engineering, it does not mean anything.

    In fact, “Science” is still not 100% sure why planes fly, as I understand it. Engineers make them fly anyway.

    That assumes that flying is more important than the understanding of flying. 

    • #23
  24. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Internet’s Hank (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    But if the Scientists want to prove themselves, I say they can engage in any practical competition with Engineers and see how it goes. And what I mean by “Practical” is something other than knowing trivia or just obscure math. Has to be something that works, you know, in the real world.

    Not really a fair contest; you’re saying “Scientists can prove themselves by doing what Engineers do.” I say make ’em both interpret poetry. Level playing ground.

    Misses the point.

    Engineering is what actually matters day to day, not science. Science is nice, but without Engineering, it does not mean anything.

    In fact, “Science” is still not 100% sure why planes fly, as I understand it. Engineers make them fly anyway.

    That assumes that flying is more important than the understanding of flying.

    Being able to have flight is important even if nobody ever figures out exactly why it works.

    • #24
  25. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    kedavis (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Internet’s Hank (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    But if the Scientists want to prove themselves, I say they can engage in any practical competition with Engineers and see how it goes. And what I mean by “Practical” is something other than knowing trivia or just obscure math. Has to be something that works, you know, in the real world.

    Not really a fair contest; you’re saying “Scientists can prove themselves by doing what Engineers do.” I say make ’em both interpret poetry. Level playing ground.

    Misses the point.

    Engineering is what actually matters day to day, not science. Science is nice, but without Engineering, it does not mean anything.

    In fact, “Science” is still not 100% sure why planes fly, as I understand it. Engineers make them fly anyway.

    That assumes that flying is more important than the understanding of flying.

    Being able to have flight is important even if nobody ever figures out exactly why it works.

    But is it more important?  That depends on one’s values and what one thinks it means to be human.   Which will not be the same for everyone.  

    • #25
  26. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Internet’s Hank (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    But if the Scientists want to prove themselves, I say they can engage in any practical competition with Engineers and see how it goes. And what I mean by “Practical” is something other than knowing trivia or just obscure math. Has to be something that works, you know, in the real world.

    Not really a fair contest; you’re saying “Scientists can prove themselves by doing what Engineers do.” I say make ’em both interpret poetry. Level playing ground.

    Misses the point.

    Engineering is what actually matters day to day, not science. Science is nice, but without Engineering, it does not mean anything.

    In fact, “Science” is still not 100% sure why planes fly, as I understand it. Engineers make them fly anyway.

    That assumes that flying is more important than the understanding of flying.

    Being able to have flight is important even if nobody ever figures out exactly why it works.

    But is it more important? That depends on one’s values and what one thinks it means to be human. Which will not be the same for everyone.

    I dunno.  I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people who claim that we must stop making and using flying machines until their operation is fully understood, “for the safety of the children” or whatever.

    “I unclog my nose in their direction!”

    • #26
  27. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Who says we can’t explain why planes fly? We know exactly how wings create lift with differential air pressure. Push it through the air fast enough and it flies. No mystery. 

    This sounds like the ancient canard, “Science can’t explain how bumblebees fly, but they do”. 

    • #27
  28. GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms Reagan
    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms
    @GLDIII

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Who says we can’t explain why planes fly? We know exactly how wings create lift with differential air pressure. Push it through the air fast enough and it flies. No mystery.

    This sounds like the ancient canard, “Science can’t explain how bumblebees fly, but they do”.

    Ancient canard….. New canard

     

    • #28
  29. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Who says we can’t explain why planes fly? We know exactly how wings create lift with differential air pressure. Push it through the air fast enough and it flies. No mystery.

    This sounds like the ancient canard, “Science can’t explain how bumblebees fly, but they do”.

    I don’t remember all the details, but I’ve read things in the past about how engineering doesn’t demonstrate the theoretical “lift principle” you mention, or something.  So it’s like there’s a theory that would explain how it works, but the theory doesn’t actually seem to be what’s happening in reality, yet they fly anyway.

    Something like that.

     

    • #29
  30. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Who says we can’t explain why planes fly? We know exactly how wings create lift with differential air pressure. Push it through the air fast enough and it flies. No mystery.

    This sounds like the ancient canard, “Science can’t explain how bumblebees fly, but they do”.

    Yes, but can you explain it well enough to satisfy a 5-year-old?  A 10-year-old?  (Or any of those ages before they’ve been programmed to accept a “how” answer to a “why” question?)  

    • #30
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