Ignition! is the inside story of the Cold War era search for a rocket propellant that could be trusted to take man into space. A favorite of Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, listeners will want to tune into this "really good book on rocket[s]," available for the first time in audio.
Ignition! is the story of the search for a rocket propellant which could be trusted to take man into space. This search was a hazardous enterprise carried out by rival labs who worked against the known laws of nature, with no guarantee of success or safety.
Acclaimed scientist and sci-fi author John Drury Clark writes with irreverent and eyewitness immediacy about the development of the explosive fuels strong enough to negate the relentless restraints of gravity. The resulting volume is as much a memoir as a work of history, sharing a behind-the-scenes view of an enterprise that eventually took men to the moon, missiles to the planets, and satellites to outer space. A classic work in the history of science, listeners will want to get their hands on this influential classic, available for the first time in decades.
I giggled so much reading this book that my coffee shop neighbor turned to me and demanded to know how a book clearly full of dry chemistry discussion could be so funny. The answer is easy to broadly furnish: when a motley gaggle of somewhat underfunded chemists are asked to find, somewhere on the frontiers of chemistry, substances that will, among other things, ignite upon contact and yet not be too explodey otherwise or burn through their containers, and a writer and chemist of the calibre of John D Clark decides to personally document the early days of such a search, hilarity is bound to ensue.
It is somewhat harder to explain how hordes of bats and the smell of skunks figure into the story, nor how the wholesale destruction of test equipment, limbs, and the occasional warehouse add humor. By the end of Ignition!, one should not be surprised to find a bundle of laughs even in a dry explanation of how yet another ill-advised exotic chemical freezes too soon to be useful.
Because by the end of the book, even for someone such as myself whose memory of Chemistry 101 is about as fresh as a tank of sludgy RFNA, the reader will have acquired some kind of the knowledge and sense these applied science heroes learned the hard way about rocket propellants, and likely some of same looney mentality towards horrifyingly unstable sounding compounds: "tetranitromethane? That's a terrible idea. Let's burn it and see what happens!"
For rocket history and chemistry enthusiasts, I have no reservations recommending this book. For everyone else, you may still find enjoyment out of it by skimming the drier sections on details like optimum exhaust products and looking for the parts that go bang.
In fact, the only flaw to the whole book, at least in the 2017 reprinting that I now own, is the unfortunate presence of perhaps three-dozen errors in the text ranging from the trivial (some missed or extraneous spaces) to the typographically minor ("mulecule") to the more-problematic (many strangely missing chemical terms in the explanatory prose following some of the reaction equations) to the untenable (one diagram is missing altogether, while one or two of the structural diagrams and reaction equations appear to be entirely incorrect; at one point Boron becomes Bismuth, a result that would surely have been quite spectacular). Ultimately, though, for the chemistry enthusiasts these errors are relatively straightforward to deduce around, and for everyone else they hardly matter anyway.
Informal is the right way to describe this book. The author basically gets us out for a drink and starts recounting about what he and his colleagues were up to in 50s and 60s.
And with conversations between chemists like these: “Joe? You know that stuff you sent me to test for thermal stability? Well, first, it hasn’t got any. Second, you owe me a new bomb, a new Wianco pickup, a new stirrer, and maybe a few more things I’ll think of later. And third (crescendo and fortissimo) you’ll have a couple of flunkies up here within fifteen minutes to clean up this (—bleep—) mess or I’ll be down there with a rusty hacksaw blade. . . .” I specified the anatomical use to which the saw blade would be put. End of conversation. You knew just how crazy it could get.
Now because this is a history of rocket propellants, the book can get technical at times, but nothing that can impede a 21st century reader who knows how to use the Wikipedia.
Hell just an introduction by Isaac Asimov, whom the author knew personally was an excellent incentive to read this book.
This is a curious book: one part memoir, one part scientific history, one part technical primer.
The topic is the development of liquid rocket propellants (fuels, oxidizers, and monopropellants) roughly 1940 - 1970. This was a large intensive chemical-engineering effort. Rocket propellants have a remarkably wide range of design constraints, some of which I would never have thought of on my own. They have to be high-energy compounds that can be reliably lit, but that are safe to store (sometimes for years.) They need low freezing points and high boiling points (depending on application.) They should be dense. They should burn to produce gasses, and not leave soot all over the engine. They should be relatively non-toxic and non-corrosive. Ideally, they should ignite on contact. These constraints often work against each other -- chemicals that react quickly often react badly with piping and human tissue. High-energy compounds often decompose on their own, when that isn't wanted.
One of the major themes in the book is the development of hypergolic compounds -- those that ignite promptly on contact. This is harder than it sounds. "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 which generally demolishes the engine and its immediate surroundings. The accepted euphemism for this sequence of events is a "hard start." Thus a hypergolic combustion must be /very/ fast, or it is worse than useless.
The author has a vivid engaging prose style -- at one point he wrote commercial science fiction. The preface is by his fellow chemistry PhD Isaac Asimov. However, it gets quite wonky in places and I occasionally felt like I needed considerably more organic chemistry knowledge to keep straight what was happening. There are no footnotes, references, or technical background sections. You're expected to just know what the various chemical terms are. You should know what a eutectic is and what connection it has to freezing points.
For a prose sample: the specification for JP-3 jet fuel "...was remarkably liberal, with a wide cut (range of distillation temperatures) and with such permissive limits on olefins and aromatics that any refinery above the level of a Kentucky moonshiner's pot still could convert at least half of any crude to jet fuel."
In addition to illuminating the technical challenges of propellant engineers, the book is also a fascinating view into the social dynamics of the rocket world. Most investigations ran on defense R+D contracts, managed with varying degrees of wisdom. Test hardware was often home-made from salvaged parts. (The author describes a test rig for shock sensitivity as being made out of an old destroyer turret with additional reinforcement -- "the plating on a destroyer is usually thick enough to keep out the water and the smaller fish.") The number of researchers was very small, and they all went to the same conferences every year. On the other hand, once you had a chemical you wanted, you could put it out for bid to the chemical industry quickly and easily. I was struck by the names of the chemical firms that the author tosses off -- most of which are gone, and some of which are gone and disgraced -- the Ethyl Corporation, W R Grace, Standard Oil of California, and more.
If your library has a copy of this book, it is worth reading. I got through it in three hours on an airplane and wished there were more of it. PDFs are available online.
[Reread April 2022. I think it held up well on a re-read. Parts that were mysterious before now make sense; it's striking how well the technical aspects hold up. Most of the standard rocket fuels today are the ones Clark talks about.]
This book really had me giggling (descriptions of bizarre characters who were in rocketry, mentioning dioxygen diflouride in a mere aside) or gasping (ordering dimethyl mercury by the barrel). I also added a bit to my vocabulary (eutectic) and learned a heck of a lot about how difficult rocket science can be.
Parts become a bit dry in the latter half, as the basic science converges more and more on a few optimal fuels. As implied by the title, you won't hear very much about solid fuels or hydrogen-fueled rocketry here, alas.
A ton of fun for anyone who really likes science and can read or at least look past a few reaction equations (maybe 25 in the whole book, not essential to understanding).
You essentially cannot find this book in print, but if you enter "mad science" in a search engine, there it is for download in PDF form.
On some level I liked this book.....but I'm not sure how this book got such a good rating. It's not a particularly good "story", it's monotonous and dry....but is weirdly "not awful".
So if you can read the following random page from the book and then think...."I'll be happy to do that 200 times more"......then you're in for a treat....otherwise 3-stars.
"Then as O2 is essentially insoluble in nitric acid, it bubbles out of it and the pressure builds up and your acid turns red from the NO2. What to do about it? There were two possible approaches. The obvious one is suggested by equation (6): increase the concentration (or, in the case of the oxygen, the pressure) of the species on the right hand side of the equation, and force the equilibrium back. It soon became obvious that merely putting a blanket of oxygen over your WFNA wouldn't help. The equilibrium oxygen pressure was much too high. I have actually seen the hair-raising sight of rocket mechanics trying to determine the oxygen pressure developed over decomposing WFNA by measuring the bulging of the drums —and shuddered at the sight! The equilibrium oxygen pressure over 100 percent acid at zero ullage (no appreciable unfilled volume in the tank) at 1600 F turned out to be well over 70 atmospheres. Nobody wants to work with a bomb like that. To reduce the equilibrium oxygen pressure, you obviously have to increase the N2O4 or the water concentration or both. WFNA and anhydrous acid were definitely out. It was D. M. Mason and his crew at JPL and Kay and his group at Ohio State who undertook —and completed — the heroic task of mapping the phase behavior and equilibrium pressure and composition of the nitric acid-N204-H20 system over the whole composition range of interest, up to 50% N2O4 and up to 10 percent or so H 2 O - and from room temperature up to 120°C. By the time these groups were finished (all of the work was published by 1955) there was nothing worth knowing about nitric acid that hadn't been nailed down. Thermodynamics, decomposition, ionetics, phase properties, transport properties, the works. Considering the difficulties involved in working with such a miserable substance, the achievement can fairly be classified as heroic. And it paid off. An RFNA could be concocted which had a quite tolerable decomposition pressure (considerably less than 100 psi) even at 16O0 F (710 C). The General Chemical Co. came up with one containing 23% N2O4 and 2% H2O, while the JPL mixture, which they called SFNA (Stable Fuming Nitric Acid) contained 14 percent and 2.5 percent respectively. The freezing points of the HNO3-N2O4-H^O mixtures were soon mapped out over the whole range of interest. R. O. Miller at LFPL, G. W. ElverUm at JPL, and Jack Gordon at WADC among others, were involved in this job, which was completed by 1955. Their results were not in the best of agreement (the mixtures frequently supercooled and, as I have mentioned, RFNA is not the""
When I heard that Rutgers was reprinting this book, I jumped at the chance to own it (I had previously had a photocopied version of the book due to its extreme rarity).
It is astonishing that the book is so popular considering how technical it is. I am not a chemist and a rather slow mathematician, so a lot of the book was inaccessible to me. However, why people read it is for the other part, the snarky, candid, and fascinating look into the "Wild West" days of rocket propellant development from 1945 to around 1960. Although much of the book looks forbidding, and is, somehow it is very easy to navigate around it.
Space historian Michael Neufeld has argued that people confuse "rocket science" with "rocket engineering" where the former is seen as the search for basic knowledge and the latter is seen as the practical application of scientific knowledge. As a sociologist of science and technology, however, I am aware that the distinction can get tendentious, although I do agree at a basic level that Neufeld is right.
This book, however, shows how engineering and science can meet and in fact the book is a classic case of the melding of rocket science and engineering. Clark was the head of propellant research at the Naval Air Rocket Testing Station (NARTS) in the 1950s. As such, he was responsible for the development of liquid propellants under the aegis of military needs at a time when rocketry had shucked its association with mad science and had become legitimate. If I have any particular ding with the book, and it's really a minor one, I wish he had set the stage more with a discussion of the kinds of projects the US military was engaged with. For my own part, I am well versed in the history so it wasn't a problem.
The irony of the book is that it has relatively little to say about those propellants that have come to dominate the human space program and commercial rocket launches because those same propellants were not militarily useful. Whereas NASA and commercial launches can use relatively commonplace propellants like liquid oxygen and RP-1 (refined kerosene) as well as liquid hydrogen, these are not "storable" propellants, i.e. liquids that do not need cryogenic cooling to liquify and use.
So, what this book contains is perhaps the finest record we'll ever possess (as the participants are probably all dead now) of the efforts made in using storable liquid propellants primarily for military use. In terms of general space science, perhaps the chapters with the most ongoing relevance are the ones on hypergolic fuels and oxidizers such as nitrogen tetroxide, hydrazine (in its many forms), as well as other nasties such as red fuming nitric acid and so on. These fuels are being phased out. The Russian Proton and the Chinese Long March, both powered by hypergolics, are both on the road to retirement.
Hypergolics are fuel/oxidizer combinations which automatically combust when mixed together. In general, they tend to be hideously toxic, corrosive, and carcinogenic (the worst rocket accident ever, the Nedelin disaster on October 24, 1960 involved a hypergolic fueled ICBM). However, they were used extensively because unlike liquid oxygen and its various fuel combinations, hypergolics started easily and had good combustion characteristics. For military use, the fact that these propellants were liquid at room temperature was critical for readiness. The Air Force's Titan II booster was the single hypergolic fueled rocket in the US inventory and the booster for the Gemini program.
Of course, since 1960 the state of the art has moved on. There have been hundreds of thousands of rocket firings, cryogenics have largely been tamed, and our current environmental consciousness is against hypergolics. This is no bad thing.
Much of the rest of Clark's book is taken up with other forms of storable propellant, including monopropellants (usually mixed oxidizer/fuel combinations) that are truly alarming. Indeed, Clark seems to have been lucky to have escaped unscathed from this research. I found highly amusing the section on using mercaptans as fuel. These are famously stinky, and we all know it from natural gas in our stoves and hot water heaters. As natural gas has no odor, a few drops of methyl mercaptan per thousands of cubic meters is enough to give that pungent odor. Burning many liters of the stuff left a smell that Clark was able to detect in the firing bay years later. Much more horrifying was the proposal to burn the metal mercury as fuel (!!). Talk about toxic waste!
The book does not address solid fuels, which in the end replaced liquid propellants for all tactical military purposes as well as for the United States' ICBM force (after the retirement of the Titan II). But Clark was not a part of that research, so he, rightfully, doesn't address it. It would be nice if someone could write the history of that program.
As a science and technology scholar, there is plenty of grist for the mill for me. Clark extensively discusses many of the practices and the foibles of rocket propulsion chemistry in a constructive way. He reveals that science is not pure, but impressive nonetheless. He also has a lot of harsh words for the ways, even then, that computers could be used in a very sophomoric way for research.
But through it all, it is Clark's lively storytelling that makes the book so readable. Highly recommended for any space nerd or person seriously interested in science and technology.
A weird book. For someone interested in rocket propellants, this would easily be 5 stars. The chemistry was inaccessible to me. I enjoyed the non-technical parts, but I can't explain why I thought I should read it.
I never actually liked Chemistry in general my entire life but I started this book only because I have some interest in Thermodynamics. Well Firstly this book has a lot of Chemistry than Thermodynamics, Nevrtheless I still enjoyed because of author's way of writing which he explained before in Introduction that he's gonna write this book in laymam terms( Though not completely true, I was thankful for my Gas Turbines and Applied Thermodynamics class to understand the performance chapter). This book made it clear that the Rocket Science chemists are completely mad putting their life on the line developing new propellants as required by their contarcters. The other people who shared their madness are the Rocket engineers who had to deal with the toxic propellants developed by chemists. This book would have been hella boring if it was not for the author. His way of writing is so funny that it makes reader giggle at times and keep him engaged to the awesome research of rocket propellants. I honestly started this book because I wanted to know about how UDMH and N2O4 are developed (isro's Vikas engine uses this combination) but ended up learning manythings about different propellants. I definitely see myself coming back and learning from this book again and again mostly because this book sparked an interest in me to take up Propulsion Engineering as my Masters.
Sometimes, it actually is rocket science. Clark was a leading liquid fuels scientist from the 1950s to the 1970s, and this book is a hilarious collection of anecdotes organized around rocket fuels. On the one hand, rocket fuel isn't that hard. Tsiolkovsky figured out that liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen were pretty much as good as chemical fuels can get, and they're used in high performance applications today. But LOX and liquid hydrogen are horrific to work with, and as rockets move from applied science experiment to key military technology, fuels have to get a lot less cryogenic and volatile. Hence, people like Clark, and billions of dollars of research into hydrazine, nitric acid, boron compounds, and more exotic chemistries.
Clark is a great story teller, and when he injects human interest, abound funding, lab explosions, and horrible ideas like mercury based rocket fuel, the book is quite good. But it's organized by chemistry, rather than chronologically, so expect to spend a lot of time with reaction diagrams and wandering in the forest of alternatives abandoned because their freezing points were too high, density too low, or they simply failed to ignite reliably.
I want to close with the famous quote about, Flourine Trioxide, the best part of the book.
“It is, of course, extremely toxic, but that’s the least of the problem. It is hypergolic with every known fuel, and so rapidly hypergolic that no ignition delay has ever been measured. 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. It can be kept in some of the ordinary structural metals-steel, copper, aluminium, etc.-because of the formation of a thin film of insoluble metal fluoride which protects the bulk of the metal, just as the invisible coat of oxide on aluminium keeps it from burning up in the atmosphere. If, however, this coat is melted or scrubbed off, and has no chance to reform, 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.”
Ignition! is an informal history of the “Wild West” days of rocket propellant development from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. Clark writes in vivid prose and offers a fascinating view into the technical challenges of finding high-energy compounds that burn steadily without exploding in your face. He also sheds light on the social dynamics within the tight-knit rocket community and portrays how it was like to work on the frontier of liquid propulsion chemistry. It’s a surprisingly funny book considering that it’s full of dry chemical equations. My one knock is that the story loses a bit of steam in the second half.
Here is the complete history of propulsion chemistry in one hilarious book. It is very well written. And it's breathless pace keeps the story going (even when the chemistry threatens to bog it down).
At the dawn of the 20th Century humans around the globe -- in Russia, Germany, England, the United States and China -- dreamed of firing rockets into space. Initially unaware of each other, their efforts pursued similar paths. And by the middle of the century there was a consensus: a rocket engine fueled by chemical reaction would propel humans into -- and through -- outer space.
Physicists and engineers determined that the object of a rocket engine is to produce thrust —a force. This it does by ejecting a stream of gas at high velocity. And the thrust is dependent upon two factors, the rate at which the gas is being ejected, in, say, kilograms per second, and the velocity at which it is ejected. Multiply rate by velocity and you get thrust. (Thus, kilograms per second times meters per second gives the thrust in Newtons.)
It was up to the propulsion chemists to discover and develop the ingredients -- the chemical fuels -- that could be used to produce the necessary thrust to propel rockets into space.
"Ignition: An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants" by John D. Clark chronicles the ideas, theories, triumphs and tragedies of those efforts. And he recounts the explosions, fires, poisonings, deaths and other disasters with a sense of humor that had me laughing on almost every page. Rockets are dangerous and unforgiving. The price of a mistake -- and there are many -- is permanent and often fatal. Yet Clark somehow kept me laughing. And that hilarity in telling this comprehensive history makes "Ignition" one of the best books I've ever read.
This is a weird book. I suspect I don't know enough about chemistry to fully appreciate it, but it's also true that this is written as a memoir rather than a book intended for a general audience, so there's that. Most of the anecdotes here are essentially the same: "we tried mixing these two chemicals together. They are extremely toxic and explosive, and when we mixed them, they blew up." Theresa a surprising amount of variation on this basic arc though! I was most horrified (yet amused) by the combination that sent a large metal plate 1400 feet into the woods!
This was a fascinating book (published in 1972) about how propellants were developed. The author (himself a rocket fuel developer) described the history of propellants hilariously.
You should ideally remember your high-school chemistry if you want to follow along with the book. While the book wasn't meant as management guide, I found some interesting lessons about managing innovation from it:
1. Competition (in this case, the Cold War between the US and USSR) drives innovation. It's a good idea to keep tabs on what your competitors are or may be doing, and use that to drive your own developers
2. When trying to create new products, managers should only set specifications for what the outcome should be. Developers should be left the hell alone to try out what they want, and should be allowed to continue doing whatever they want as long as they meander towards the desired outcome.
Also, trust the judgement of people who have delivered results in the past (as long as it they don't ask for crazy resources). When working on 0-1 problems, something that may not appear to be moving at all to outside observers can suddenly come to life.
3. Ensure that your investors (in the author's case -- the US government) have realistic expectations. Don't harp on the probability of success. Instead, focus on the magnitude of benefits if a project does become a success, with the expectation that there is a real chance of it failing.
I never thought I'd describe anything like that, but this book is really fun and really chemistry-heavy. As someone with barely any chemistry knowledge, I found the second aspect quite tough. In general, the book is 50% of chemical explanations: how did engineers arrive to now-common rocket fuels like hydrazine, RP1 and so on. The other 50% are absolutely bonkers stories of engineers discovering a new field. Isaac Asimov describes rocket propulsion chemists as follows:
"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. 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."
I'd recommend this book for anyone who loves rocket engineering and doesn't hate chemistry.
The title doesn't lie: the book mostly telling the history of rocket propellant development in ~1930s-~1960s in the USA and a bit in Germany. * author was directly involved in the development of almost all compounds he's talking about * I liked that the stories are very detailed: e.g. answered why research on some propellant started, what particular problems were encountered, which solutions were tried and why most of them failed * a lot about practical issues of handling various oxidizers/fuels, like this oxidizer is super corrosive and almost couldn't be held in aluminum barrels, etc. * the book requires at least basic chemistry knowledge since it mentions a lot of compounds and reactions (crash course chemistry videos and chemistry textbook were rather helpful) * informal and appealing style of storytelling
I'm torn, as the style and story of this book is unique and special. I liked retrospectively looking into the world of a scientific effort in it's heyday. John D. Clark summarizes his life's work here informally and casually. It's great.
But, my rating rests on my own enjoyment of the book, and unfortunately for me, I found portions of it to be a slog. I just don't have the fluency in chemistry to truly follow in some sections. What I could appreciate, though, was the monumental and detailed work John D. Clark and his industry accomplished. I thought this book might have been more approachable than it was for someone completely new to the idea of liquid rockets, but I think some prior knowledge would go really far in appreciating this book. I'd say, either already be the target audience or read up before picking up this book in order to get as much enjoyment as you can.
huh this book was phenomenal, the author was great, and the whole book was very enjoyable. The author wrote in a very friendly, informal way and wrote his own personal opinion and added jokes. It was a great book, really, and I so, so wish I could give it 5 stars but, in all honesty I had no idea what I was reading. This book was recommended to me by my brother, who is a mechanical engineer, and is obsessed with rockets. Well, about an eighth of this book was written in a different language (math) and I couldn't comprehend about 4/5 of it. Please, its a great book, but if your going to read it, flip to any page, and try to pronounce the words. The whole book is like that. Overall great book! Totally Recommend!
If you want to know more than you've probably ever wanted to know about rocket fuels, read this. This is what all engineering history books should be. Thorough, quite technical, highlights both the perspiration and luck, deep knowledge of the individuals, opinionated but self-aware, and with a hilarious writing style, I can see why everyone who works in space propulsion has recommended this to me.
So glad this is back in print rather than being hundreds of dollars for a used copy (or with a PDF being traded between rocket fuels enthusiasts...). Get a copy before it goes out of print again!
Wirklich ein supergutes Buch, das ich allen Interessierten wärmstens empfehlen kann. Selbst wenn man keine Lust hat, immer gleich die Strukturformeln von allen erwähnten Compounds aufzuzeichnen, ist es sehr unterhaltsam, da der Autor, alles genüsslich sarkastisch kommentiert. Und ca. alle zwei Seiten explodiert irgend etwas. So mag ich das gerne!
I only got about halfway through this book. The prose is lively and punctuated with fun anecdotes, but ultimately it was too technical for me to really enjoy. One needs more than zero background knowledge in chemistry.
Funny, caustic, explosive, still relevant many decades later. A must-read for people working on rockets or launchers, chemists, and people who like to read about compounds that violently detonate if you look at them wrong or breathe in the wrong direction.
Not for the general public but more for chemists or engineers in the rocket business. Too many details on chemistry makes it hard to enjoy the witty parts. I should have tried the sample on Kindle before buying.
To be honest its hard to keep up when there is too much Chemistry involved. And after some point in the book, all you hear is the names of elements, molecules etc. I am sure its a good book for someone who is really good at Chemistry or has a degree in the field but it was too much for me, hardly finished.