The funniest, most accessible book on rocket science is being reissued

Enlarge/ On Jan. 10, 2013, the Saturn V F-1 gas generator completed a 20-second hot-fire test. Engineers are completing a series of tests at Test Stand 116 located in the East Test Area at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. NASA/MSFC

It's rare that a book about as high-minded and serious a topic as rocket science manages to be both highly informative and laugh-out-loud funny. But if there's a better way to describe John Clark's Ignition!, I've yet to discover it. A cult classic among chemists, many of the rest of us discovered the book via one of Derek Lowe's tales of hilariously scary chemicals.

It's where I learned words like hypergolic, which describes how eager one chemical is to spontaneously ignite, and realized that some of these mid-century scientists must have had as much right stuff as any test pilot. But there was hitch—Ignition! was out of print, so reading it involved an interlibrary loan (or a dodgy PDF, which of course I can't condone).

But now, Rutgers University Press has decided to dust it off and reissue it. From May it will finally be possible to put a physical copy on one's bookshelf. And honestly, if you've got any interest in chemistry—particularly the branch of it involving violent, energetic, and occasionally explosive reactions—it's a book you need to read.

Ignition! is a history of liquid rocket propellants, but it's also a history of cold war and the space race, told from a particular point of view. Clark was the chief chemist at a rocket lab in New Jersey, operated first by the US Navy, then US Army. He was a central figure in what was a relatively small field, one with a definite purpose. This wasn't science just for science's sake, but a quest to find new oxidizers and fuels for rocket engines, to make better missiles or space probes.

The propellants being asked for would have to be liquids throughout a range of temperatures, and preferably completely innocuous and easily stored until reacting violently together upon combination. However, if you guessed that many of the chemicals suitable for energetic reactions in a rocket often tend to react energetically in many other situations—often with no provocation at all—Clark's tales of "catastrophic self-disassembly" might not be entirely surprising.

The dry wit with which he recounts these history lessons will be the bigger shock, for this is a truly funny read. He snipes about the US' failure to use the metric system, grumbles about then-new computers in a way that would still be familiar today, and numerous anecdotes have reduced me to tears. (The story about an Admiral who wanted Clark's Naval Air Rocket Test Section to drop a rat—sex not specified—into a 10,000-gallon tank of 90 percent hydrogen peroxide is a good one, as is the one about the rocket scientist sitting next to Scott Crossfield on an airplane.) That humor helps the accessibility, and as long as you remember some high school chemistry you shouldn't have a problem with the science either.

Some of his predictions for the field, made in 1971 after retiring from what by then was called then Liquid Rocket Propulsion Laboratory of Picatinny Arsenal, didn't stand the test of time. The US didn't field another liquid-fueled ICBM, nuclear rockets turned out to have an insurmountable environmental problem, and hydrogen did indeed have a first-stage role in the Space Shuttle. But I think it's fair to cut him a little slack here; after all, this is rocket science we're talking about.

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