book-reviews

Ignition!: An informal history of liquid rocket propellants

by John D. Clarke

Rating: ★★★★

Certainly one of the most quotable books I've encountered for a while. Each chapter presented several excerpts which it was impossible not to share with someone or other. Part of this is certainly Clarke's writing style, which exudes a sort of flippant humour even when he is detailing something as dry as the chemical structure of some complex hydrocarbon. But much of the book's appeal comes from how genuinely crazy and dangerous the history of rocket propellants was. In what other field could engineers claim to have corroded most of the expensive machinery in an engineering building, created both skunk-like and lemon-fresh odors, and created a constant flame as hot as the surface of the sun, all while routinely blowing up not only their complex test equipment, but also most of the surrounding area?

Clarke is abundant with these sorts of anecdotes, punctuating each chapter with remarkable attempts and catastrophes. However, this is not merely a slapstick surface history -- Clarke genuinely does communicate the history of his field, detailing the many fuel and oxidiser combinations which have been attempted, their chemistry, the intuition for test systems and standards, and the hurdles and the many secondary issues which prevent fuels from taking off. It turns out that, burn properties notwithstanding, a fuel component which eats through its drum, is toxic on contact with the skin, and produces nigh-undetectable but lethal fumes, is not all that welcome in the services. The ones that will freeze on a cold day, or suddenly explode for no reason at all on a warm one are even less welcome.

Despite Clarke's efforts, the chemistry does at times get a bit heavy for the layman; without a proper understanding of the chemistry and the substances, I sometimes found that I was reading passages of essentially arcane symbology, whose meaning is only dimly glimpsed, but which certainly contain great power, as Clarke goes on to explain how they would struggle to fire a rocket with such a structure because it would suddenly explode when they tried to pour it into the tank. Yet you have to applaud his attempts -- some of the terminology and struggles of his profession are now embedded in my memory like some shrapnel from a particularly hard start, and I have a much greater appreciation for the difficulties involved in experimental chemistry.