Book Review: ‘Ignition!’ Explores the ‘Golden Age’ of Rocketry

 

Today, rocket science commonly refers to anything dealing with space. Originally, it meant rocket design, especially fuel development. “Ignition!: An Informal History of Liquid Propellants,” by John D. Clark, harks back to those day. While informal, it is a comprehensive account of rocket fuel development.

In “Ignition!” Clark reveals what went on behind the scenes in the early days of rocketry. He was the perfect man to do so. A pioneer rocket scientist, an active chemist from the early 1930s, between 1949 and 1970 he was one of the leading developers of liquid rocket fuels. A talented writer (publishing science fiction in 1930) he knew all the players, inside and outside the United States.

Clark shows what made rocket science challenging is not that it is difficult. It is that rocket fuels are very finicky. Do anything wrong and the rocket does not go whoosh. It goes boom.

Clark shows all the ways they go boom. He explains what makes a good rocket fuel, shows readers what works and shows readers what does not work and why. He starts with Tsiolkovsky in the late 1800s, and ending with the Saturn V and the moon missions in the late 1960s.

His focus is on the golden age of rocket fuel development, from 1946 through 1961. Those years saw development of the liquid fuels still used in rockets today, with a lot of dead ends. Clark spends chapters on the dead ends, such as peroxide fuels and monopropellants. Frequently those chapters are books’ most entertaining.

There is chemistry involved, including formidable chemical equations. Readers unfamiliar with chemistry should skip them. They are for the chemistry geeks reading the book. Between the equations are what makes the book entertaining; the technician attacked by bats after a fuel test, the propellant developer who took a year off to develop hula hoops and many similar stories.

“Ignition!,” originally written in 1972, is back in print after a long hiatus. A classic book, it tells a rollicking story of an era when space was the frontier. An informative history, it reads like an adventure story.

Ignition!: An Informal History of Liquid Propellants,” by John D. Clark, Rutgers University Press Classics, 2018, 302 pages, $24.95

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

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There are 15 comments.

  1. Member

    Sounds like a blast (if you do it wrong).

    • #1
    • May 27, 2018, at 9:37 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  2. Member

    I am really glad to see they finally reissued this book! Last time @johnwalker mentioned Ignition he also noted that copies of it were selling for upward of $600 on Abe Books! Even the price of the hardcover seems to have come down but $19 is a pretty great price.

    • #2
    • May 27, 2018, at 9:41 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  3. Moderator

    They finally reprinted this?

    I will be purchasing it immediately.

    I read a PDF copy , and I was hooked. You see, rocket propulsion is mostly a controlled explosion. It not infrequently gets uncontrolled. This book has more detonations than a Michael Bay movie.

    And the chemicals involved are remarkably nasty. Chlorine Trifluoride is notable for being a much stronger oxidizer than pure oxygen or even fluorine. It will ignite fun things like concrete, water, and unprotected metals. That is one of the more tame compounds he worked with.

    This is probably the most exciting chemistry book I have read, and the description of government contracting will remind you why you are conservative. 

    • #3
    • May 27, 2018, at 9:43 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  4. Contributor

    Wonderful book. The perfect thing to lend out to that budding mad scientist of your acquaintance.

    • #4
    • May 27, 2018, at 9:53 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  5. Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Sounds like a blast (if you do it wrong).

    Oh, I think either way (right or wrong) Arahant.

    • #5
    • May 27, 2018, at 9:56 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  6. Member

    Here is the link to @johnwalker‘s original post on Ignition!

     

    • #6
    • May 27, 2018, at 1:55 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  7. Member

    Thank you, Seawriter.

    • #7
    • May 27, 2018, at 8:44 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  8. Member

    Seawriter, you are much much better than one of those online birthday card alarm services. Every time I have a birthday or similar gift purchase coming up, you write a review of a perfect book for that person.

    I know at least three people who will love this book who have birthdays and Father’s Day coming up…

    Bless you!

    • #8
    • May 28, 2018, at 3:14 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  9. Member

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):

    Seawriter, you are much much better than one of those online birthday card alarm services. Every time I have a birthday or similar gift purchase coming up, you write a review of a perfect book for that person.

    I know at least three people who will love this book who have birthdays and Father’s Day coming up…

    Bless you!

    By the way, this book was a big hit with all the gift recipients. 

    • #9
    • July 17, 2018, at 9:38 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  10. Member
    Seawriter Post author

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):

    Seawriter, you are much much better than one of those online birthday card alarm services. Every time I have a birthday or similar gift purchase coming up, you write a review of a perfect book for that person.

    I know at least three people who will love this book who have birthdays and Father’s Day coming up…

    Bless you!

    By the way, this book was a big hit with all the gift recipients.

    Great. Makes me feel doing this is worthwhile.

    • #10
    • July 17, 2018, at 9:48 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  11. Moderator

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):

    Seawriter, you are much much better than one of those online birthday card alarm services. Every time I have a birthday or similar gift purchase coming up, you write a review of a perfect book for that person.

    I know at least three people who will love this book who have birthdays and Father’s Day coming up…

    Bless you!

    By the way, this book was a big hit with all the gift recipients.

    Great. Makes me feel doing this is worthwhile.

    Somehow you must have gotten to my father – I received a copy of this book for my birthday! ‘

     

    • #11
    • July 20, 2018, at 2:38 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  12. Member

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    Somehow you must have gotten to my father – I received a copy of this book for my birthday! ‘

     

    Lucky you! Enjoying it? I can’t wait til my dad or my husband stop reading it… I want to get my hands on it this summer.

    • #12
    • July 20, 2018, at 3:22 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  13. Moderator

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    Somehow you must have gotten to my father – I received a copy of this book for my birthday! ‘

     

    Lucky you! Enjoying it? I can’t wait til my dad or my husband stop reading it… I want to get my hands on it this summer.

    Of course.

    Just a warning – the chapter on “Performance” is very technical and can be difficult if you do not have a chemistry background. 

    • #13
    • July 20, 2018, at 3:42 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  14. Member
    Seawriter Post author

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    Somehow you must have gotten to my father – I received a copy of this book for my birthday! ‘

    Lucky you! Enjoying it? I can’t wait til my dad or my husband stop reading it… I want to get my hands on it this summer.

    Of course.

    Just a warning – the chapter on “Performance” is very technical and can be difficult if you do not have a chemistry background.

    From the review:

    Seawriter: There is chemistry involved, including formidable chemical equations. Readers unfamiliar with chemistry should skip them. They are for the chemistry geeks reading the book. Between the equations are what makes the book entertaining . . .

    That’s what I was talking about.

    • #14
    • July 20, 2018, at 3:44 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  15. Member

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    Just a warning – the chapter on “Performance” is very technical and can be difficult if you do not have a chemistry background. 

    I’ve taught high school chemistry, so I hope I have a chance.

    • #15
    • July 20, 2018, at 5:37 AM PDT
    • 2 likes