March 16, the day after tomorrow (at least in the Pacific time zone) will be the 76th anniversary of the first liquid fuel-launched rocket by Robert Goddard, father of American rocketry. I found myself thinking about the early days of rockets, and what it was like to grow up in a family involved with that field, after I talked to my father on the phone last night. He has Alzheimer's and these days I'm the one who tells his stories back to him, so he can enjoy his own past life.
One of the names I always like to bring up to get a spark out of him, maybe a chuckle even, and every so often an actual reminiscence of his own, is Bob Truax, the wunderkind protege of Goddard and the guy who hired my Dad to manage the Naval Air Rocket Test Station in New Jersey. Truax is the reason my father went into rockets as a career, I'm sure of it. And even now, I can remember his hyena laugh and high spirits. Our families went on camping trips together after Truax moved west where the rocket business went.
One of the stories Dad likes to hear best is the one about the NARTS test lab he blew up. A colleague, J.D ("Doc") Clark, told about the wildness of their experimenting to find a liquid rocket fuel in that early lab:
That's my Dad. That's the sort of solution he brought to just about every problem in my childhood.
We had a lot of pyridine around the place, and for some unknown reason, a
tank of liquified trimethylamine. Plus of course, unlimited nitric acid, so
things went fast.
They named the pyridine nitrate/acid mix "Penelope" and tried to fire it.
Normal ignition methods did not work, so Bert Abramson, who was in charge of
the test work, then took an acetylene torch and heated the motor red hot,
and opened the prop valve. This time he got ignition, and some half hearted
operation for a few seconds.
Inspired to further effort, he crammed about a yard of lithium wire into the
chamber, and pushed the button. Penelope sprayed into the chamber, collected
in a puddle in the bottom, and ***then*** reacted with the wire.
The nozzle couldn't cope with all the gas produced, the chamber pressure rose
exponentially, and the reaction changed to a high order detonation which demolished
the motor, propogated through the fuel line to the propellant tank, detonated the
propellant ***there*** (fortunately there were only a few pounds in the tank)
and wrecked just about everything in the test cell. Penelope should have
been named Xantippe. She also scared everybody to death - particularly
His other favorite story is about how a piece of a rocket he had launched nearly started a war between America and Castro before the Cuban Missile Crisis, but that's a tale for another evening.