“A good rule for rocket experimenters to follow is this: always assume it will explode.”
– Letter to the Editors of Astronautics, 1937
I’m sure that laughter isn’t the first emotion that one associates with rocket scientists, but if it were not for jokes, it is likely we would have all killed each other long ago. The funniest stuff comes from the accidents that happen around us and the unfortunate truth of how ignorant most scientists, mathematicians, and engineers are of the rationale behind their own fields. This often leads to some unlucky events. “It can’t be turned-off” is one of the most used – yet seldom understood – phrases in the world of rocketry.
There is an importance to humanising science, which often seems so cold, or on another plane of existence, but we can use it to teach better. In 1903 an unknown Russian school teacher Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky derived modern rocketry between teaching a class of children. By combining the conservation of mass (no matter can be made or lost in a reaction) and Newton’s second law of motion (force equals the rate of change a body’s momentum) he created the universal rocket equation. Eponymously named Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equation. It shows the ratio between the speeds of the rocket and the exhaust gases grows exponentially against the ratio of the original and final masses.
It was the genius of the Treaty of Versailles in not only helping cause World War II but providing for the development of the platforms for atomic weapons: rockets. Rocketry is a beautiful art form which allows us to create new technologies, and really screw things up. I have listed three of my favourite, thought provoking, rocketry anecdotes:
1) The Parable of the Greasy Rat
During the Cold War, at the height of developing rockets, a risk-adverse institutional culture popped up. And it gets funny when people become so risk adverse they become dangerous. One such story is about the use of an extraordinarily dangerous rocket fuel known as 90% Hydrogen Peroxide (not the stuff you bleach your hair with). Some admirals in the US Navy were concerned that an explosion might occur if a ‘greasy rat’ fell in a container of peroxide, and what would happen to a ship. This question worried some jobsworth (safely in Washington) so much that they instructed their scientists to build a 10,000 gallon tank, fill it up with 90% peroxide, and I quote “then drop into it – so help me God – one rat”.
We are thankful that the scientists had more sense than that.
2) The Space Shuttle and a Horse’s Arse
In 43 AD, in Roman Britain, the engineers and architects of the mighty Roman Empire built roads designed to connect this distant and rebellious province. In order for imperial troops to traverse Britannia a Roman road needs to be of two horses’ arses width. And the British, traditionalists that we are, built upon this system to create roads and eventually train tracks. This policy was copied in the Anglosphere, and especially in Britain’s rebellious descendent, America.
So what does this have to do with the Space Shuttle I hear you ask? Well the Solid Rocket Boosters for the Space Shuttle, which helped get it into orbit, were manufactured in places like Utah and then launched at Cape Canaveral, Florida. And the only way to get them there was – by train. So this 2.6 million lbs rocket owes millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours to a horses arse. Remember your past, it could save you time and money.
3) How to Lose Your Friends With Chemical Drums
Being smelly is hardly the top prerequisite most have in a friend, but that’s exactly what some suffer in our line-of-work. A clear volatile liquid used in stink bombs called Butyl Mercaptan is also an amazing rocket propellant, the downside? Its odour! The predecessor to Chevron, Standard of California, had this chemical in abundance in their oil drums. So in the name of thrift some poor technicians had to take all of this stuff from the drums and transport it for use. They suffered all day with this horrific skunk-like smell, and when it was time to come home, it was said they were for some time excluded from all car pools.
What’s the moral? Let someone else do the smelly work.
It is a messy and fun experience, and you should learn for yourself. I’d recommend Ignition by Mr J. D. Clark, a hilarious account of a rocket chemist during the prime years of rocket development. I think it is time for us to rediscover his book for the great and informative piece it is.