🍸 Rocket Science, Vodka & University: Learning new things in an exciting way

Why did the Russians use vodka as a rocket-fuel propellant?

🎓 Last semester at my university I studied chemistry, and I thought it would be interesting to accompany the theoretical lessons by reading books on their practical applications.

🚀 I had the chance to read “Ignition!: An informal history of liquid rocket propellants” and wow, I didn’t think chemistry could be that fascinating!

🧪 “Informal” is the right way to describe this book. The author basically gets us out for a drink and starts talking about what he and his colleagues were up to in the 50s and 60s.

‍🚀 Isaac Asimov says that the only people who were more courageous than astronauts were rocket scientists — or in his own words — “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

📚 Now, this is the history of rocket propellants, the book can get technical at times, but I’m sure you will fall in love with how the author manages to be both insightful and funny at the same time! ( I collected some quotes at the end of the article and I am sure they will make you laugh! )

It all started with me getting bored over studying 2000 pages of obscure chemistry…

There could be times where you study just for passing an exam, but please do not! You can get much more out of your education if you actively look for things that grab your attention and give you a real reason to study something! Always accompany your learning with something hands-on/practical!

🍒The cherry on top? This book was recommended by both Elon Musk and Isaac Asimov!

What about vodka?

Oh yes! Thanks for reminding me, it is probably the main reason you clicked on this article in the first place… So I might give Caesar what belongs to Caesar.

In the following paragraphs, you will learn everything you could ever want to know about the human consumption of rocket fuel!

“We did some studies for Princeton, using Liquid Oxigen and pure drinking-type alcohol — not the denatured stuff. The only difference we could find was that it evaporated a lot faster than denatured alcohol when a sailor opened a drum to take a density reading. We had some very happy sailors while that program was going on.”

“Human consumption of rocket fuel was actually regarded as a serious issue at the Peenemunde rocket facility and steps were continually taken to limit this pastime.

Early on a nasty pink dye was added to the fuel to make it undrinkable and that worked for about a week until somebody figured out how to filter out the dye bypassing it through a potato (wasn’t exactly rocket science).

Next, it was decided to add a purgative to the fuel and predictably this resulted in huge levels of absenteeism at all levels and threatened to derail the schedules as key personnel kept having to rush to the bathroom at inopportune moments…

At some point, the levels of methanol allowed in the fuel were relaxed, and soon after one man lost his sight and another died as a result.

And if you think that’s pretty dark… it gets worse! There were suggestions to display the victim’s corpse publicly as a warning. The war at this point was not going well and resources being were being stretched thin. Eventually, the war ended and the German rocket engineers were recruited by both the US and Soviet rocketry programs”.

Best quotes found in the book:

“How he avoided suicide is an interesting question, particularly as JPL later demonstrated that you could make the mixture detonate merely by shining a bright light on it.”

“I would have been afraid even to draw the structure without at least five Martinis under my belt”.

“Asking what was his opinion of the motor, Lou blew up, and declared, with gestures, that it was a mechanical monster, an accident looking for a place to happen, and that he, personally, considered that flying with it was merely a somewhat expensive method of suicide”

“If your propellants flow into the chamber and ignite immediately, you’re in business. But if they flow in, collect in a puddle, and then ignite, you have an explosion that generally demolishes the engine and its immediate surroundings. The accepted euphemism for this sequence of events is a “hard start” or what the British, with precision, call catastrophic self-disassembly.”

“On paper, it sounds ideal… But! Any intimate mixture of a fuel and an oxidizer is a potential explosive. And a molecule with one reducing-end and one oxidizing-end, separated by a pair of firmly crossed fingers, is an invitation to disaster”.

“It is, of course, extremely toxic, but that’s the least of the problem. […] It is also hypergolic with such things as cloth, wood, and test engineers, not to mention asbestos, sand, and water-with which it reacts explosively. […] the operator is confronted with the problem of coping with a metal-fluorine fire: for dealing with this situation, I have always recommended a good pair of running shoes.”

“Fifteen years ago people used to ask me “What is an exotic fuel anyway?” and I would answer “It’s expensive, it’s got boron in it, and it probably doesn’t work.” I had intended, originally, to entitle this chapter “The Billion Buck Boron Booboo”

“The development of these compounds would have been an admirable academic exercise well worth several PhDs in inorganic chemistry. As a propellant development program, it can be classified only as an unfortunate waste of the taxpayer’s money.”

“Ethyl mercaptol and acetone: the odor of these was not so much skunk-like as garlicky, the epitome and concentrate of all the back doors of all the bad Greek restaurants in all the world.“

“They knew that tertiary amines were generally hypergolic with nitric acid, and it was reasonable to think that a di- or tri-tertiary amine might be more so. (Their guess turned out to be right, but one is reminded that the great vice of the Greeks was not sodomy but extrapolation.)”

“For ozone still explodes. Some investigators believe that the explosions are initiated by traces of organic peroxides in the stuff, […] Other workers are convinced that it’s just the nature of ozone to explode, and still, others are sure that original sin has something to do with it. So although ozone research has been continuing in a desultory fashion, there are very few true believers left, who are still convinced that ozone will somehow, someday, come into its own. I am not one of them.”

“working with ClF3, they knew enough to be scared to death and proceeded with a degree of caution appropriate to dental work on a king cobra”

“When you feed questionable data into the machine, questionable results come out at the other end. As the computer boys say, “Garbage in — garbage out.”

And there is one disconcerting thing about working with a computer — it’s likely to talk back to you. You make some tiny mistake in your FORTRAN language — putting a letter in the wrong column, say, or omitting a comma — and the 360 comes to a screeching halt and prints out rude remarks, like “ILLEGAL FORMAT,” or “UNKNOWN PROBLEM,” or, if the man who wrote the program was really feeling nasty that morning, “WHAT’S THE MATTER STUPID? CAN’T YOU READ?” Everyone who uses a computer frequently has had, from time to time, a mad desire to attack the precocious abacus with an ax”

“The only possible source of trouble connected with the acid is its corrosive nature, which can be overcome by the use of corrosionresistant materials.” Ha! If they had known the trouble that nitric acid was to cause before it was finally domesticated, the authors would probably have stepped out of the lab and shot themselves”

Robert H. Goddard, American engineer, professor, physicist, and inventor who is credited with creating and building the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket, launched on March 16, 1926, which ushered in an era of space flight and innovation.

Thanks for reading this article! I made sure it didn’t look like a book review or a chemistry lesson, Hopefully, you have learned something new about rocket propellants or perhaps, vodka…

The next time you find yourself in the disco and want to appear interesting to your friends, now you know what story to tell!

Filippo Sergenti 20/04/2021

Additional Resources:

For some strange reasons you seem interested in liquid rocket propellant? Here are some videos to satisfy your curiosity!