Jan/Feb 2004 Book Reviews

Rockets: Sulphur, Sputnik and Scramjets

Peter Macinnis
Allen and Unwin 266 pages
ISBN: 1 86508 794 7

reviewed by David Skea

Any intimate mixture of a fuel and an oxidizer is a potential explosive, and a molecule with one reducing (fuel) end and one oxidizing end, separated by a pair of firmly crossed fingers, is an invitation to disaster. —John Clark, Ignition. 1972

If you were to think that this book is a description of the various rockets that mankind has used over the years, you would only be half right. The book is really more about the history of rocketry and about what makes a rocket fly, that is, what fuels a rocket. But there's more.

The story starts with gunpowder, which was probably used to fumigate houses by the Chinese in about 700 BC. How it came to be developed for that purpose is a conjecture, and how and why it came to be an explosive fuel is another. However, gunpowder soon fueled Chinese rockets that were then used in war, although controlling the flight was not an exact science. But it did put the frighteners into the enemy. Chinese rockets were adopted by the Mongols and then by the Mughals, who used them in India as weapons against the English. Seeing a good thing, the English adopted the rocket as a weapon and used it against the French, the Danes and the Americans—although it is reported that Wellington was not a great advocate of the rocket, as at this time control of the rocket was, at best, more of an art than a science, and artillery was more accurate.

The book progresses through solid fuel propellants into the 20th century and the development of liquid rocket fuels and culminates with discussion on the German V2, Sputnik, and the space shots that followed. Part of the story here is the mixing of the fuel and the oxidiser and some of the problems associated with this. Mention is made of red fuming nitric acid (RFNA) and other "magnificently hypergolic" substances, and of the loss of fingers, limbs, and life to which the experimenters of the time were prone.

Finally to Scramjet, which is a supersonic combustion ramjet. This is a rocket engine that may one day lift mankind into space. Recently, the first flight of a Scramjet, the Australian Hyshot project, was made at Woomera... a flight witnessed by the author.

I can still remember the excitement when Russia launched Sputnik. I was a young technician working in a telecommunications facility. Soon after the announcement of the launch several of the radio engineers gathered in the laboratory and detected the sputnik signal, measuring its doppler change as it passed by. This was enough information to calculate the speed and hence the orbit and period of the new satellite, and although the result wasn't promulgated to the world (no internet then), the result was one of the first to be so derived.

Reading the book was very easy, and I enjoyed it so much that I read it through for a second time, as it's full of odd facts such as the story of William Huskisson's demise.

I knew Huskisson died as a result of a railway accident involving George Stephenson's "Rocket" at the opening of the Liverpool-Manchester railway line, and there is a statue of him on the Thames embankment in London. What I didn't know was that Huskisson, a member of the Tory party, was withholding support from its leader and prime minister, the Duke of Wellington, and unless a rapprochement could be made, the government would fall, which it did within the month. The opening of the new railway was considered a suitable venue for the meeting, and, had Huskisson survived, he might well have led the rebel faction back into support of Wellington and saved the government. Now he is only remembered as the first victim of a steam passenger railway accident.

The English used rockets against the Americans in the American War of Independence, and this earned a mention in the US national anthem as "the rockets red glare." I knew the words were there, but I didn't know of the connection until I read it in this book.

Then there's the story of Professor Robert Goddard, who was an early American space rocket pioneer, and who was publicly taken to task in 1920 by the New York Times for suggesting that rockets could work in a vacuum. The paper didn't retract this story until 1969.

This is an entertaining book and one that I'm sure to refer to again, so it will remain on my bookshelf.


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