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Rocket Man


By John Drury Clark 

25 Jan, 2020

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John Drury Clark’s 1972 Ignition!: An Informal History Of Liquid Rocket Propellants is an informal history of rocket propellants. Mostly liquid, but some not. 

In addition to his career as a chemist, Clark was a minor SF author (credited with being the first author to use antimatter in a story) and an avid SF fan1. He died of natural causes at an advanced age, which is not the way anyone reading this text back in 1972 would have bet. 

Having inexplicably survived decades of rocket propellant research, Clark looked back on a eventful career of kaboom. He sets the scene by giving a short history of the field. For the most part Clark tackles subjects in temporal order, beginning with pioneers like Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, and Oberth, working his way through World War Two, and then introducing the Cold War and the Space Age. As is only natural, he spends more time on matters in which he played a personal role or knew people who did. Developments behind the Iron Curtain or carried on in languages other than English are treated cursorily. 

Any useful rocket propellant must, when combusted, produce a lot of energy per unit mass. How this energy is delivered … well, it takes a lot of experimentation to figure out to make the energy useful. Moreover, propellants are often extremely toxic or difficult to store safely. Extensive research in safety protocols is advisable.

The chemistry of possible propellants was poorly understood in the years immediately post-WWII. By 1970, the chemistry was pretty well understood. That knowledge was gained one perilous experiment after another. Researchers had to be bright, inquisitive, and almost entirely lacking any sense of self-preservation.

To quote the author 

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. 

It’s all grand fun … except for the wounded, the dead, and their survivors. 

Clark delivers a lot of information in a short dense text, cheerfully delving into the details of chemical reactions while regaling the reader with colorful anecdotes about experiments gone wrong, pre-doomed research projects, and the occasional moment when research unexpectedly delivers the results requested. It’s delivered in an amused tone, and the overall effect is comic. Highly recommended for rocket buffs. 

There is a glossary and more importantly an index.

Ignition! is available here (Amazon US), (Amazon US), (Amazon UK), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: As a university student, he roomed with L. Sprague de Camp. Much later, he married Inga Pratt, Fletcher Pratt’s widow. Inga was the one who vigorously encouraged Clark to write his account. He dedicated the book to her.