Why You Don't Let Rocket Scientists Get Bored
April 1, 2024 2:18 PM   Subscribe

Rocketdyne is notable among the space exploration set for developing a number of NASA's workhorse chemical rocket engines, such as the main thrusters of the Shuttle. But during the Space Race, they created a monster of such an engine, built around a tripropellant mix of molten lithium, liquid hydrogen, and liquid fluorine - an engine where the safest component was the asbestos cladding. (SLYT)

Needless to say, this engine never got off the testing frame for very obvious reasons. They even came up with a variant that added radioactive cesium to the lithium to keep it molten, fittingly named TOXMAX.
posted by NoxAeternum (26 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
Obligatory SMBC

This is also probably a great place to mention that Ignition! is back in print. If you want informal stories of making thrust with fantastically dangerous chemicals it's awesome.
posted by Dr. Twist at 2:25 PM on April 1 [23 favorites]


Seconding that Ignition! is essential if you find this kind of thing interesting/entertaining. It's a really fun read.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 2:36 PM on April 1 [1 favorite]


This is the 1968 first study referenced in the video at about 19:00, for those who really want to get into the details of this one.

I think this is the second one, or at least the date of 1970 matches up.

You might be able to get better performance by using dioxygen difluoride as your oxidizer with liquid hydrogen, but it's even more insane than this one. FOOF is hypergolic with liquid methane, at a (literally) cool -180 Celsius, for example.
posted by Quindar Beep at 2:56 PM on April 1 [3 favorites]


See also Scott Manley describing the nuclear salt water rocket
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 2:57 PM on April 1 [1 favorite]


Obligatory SMBC

Having worked in an oil analysis lab in my youth, the NFPA diamond on that bucket gave me the willies. And where are your goggles, rocket lady? Glasses are not sufficient eye protection!
posted by notoriety public at 3:01 PM on April 1 [5 favorites]


I have a copy of that Ignition! reprint, and I'd almost forgotten about that El*n quote on the cover: A good book on rocket[s]... that's really fun. Possibly the most boring thing ever said about the book.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 3:04 PM on April 1


Check out pentaborane nonahydride's hazard diamond, notoriety public. All cherries! And the best part is that its colloquial name is "stable pentaborane" because pentaborane unadecahydride is worse.
posted by Quindar Beep at 3:10 PM on April 1 [11 favorites]


willies sensation intensifies
posted by notoriety public at 3:19 PM on April 1


wow, 4's in both red AND yellow!
posted by Dr. Twist at 3:23 PM on April 1 [2 favorites]


I work right next door to Aerojet Rocketdyne (the coolest name for any company ever, btw). I didn't realize they were this crazy!
posted by riotnrrd at 3:48 PM on April 1 [4 favorites]


obligatory (mefi's own) Stross: “So we brainstormed the most suicidal rocket motor we could come up with. And you wouldn’t believe just how mad it was.”
posted by BungaDunga at 4:02 PM on April 1 [5 favorites]


The Aerojet half was founded by Jack Parsons, so they had a certain amount of crazy built right in at the foundation.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 4:04 PM on April 1 [3 favorites]


Dioxygen Difluoride is insane and I definitely would not want to be close to it let alone sitting in a rocket using it. This post about it from Derek Lowe is a classic.
posted by WaterAndPixels at 5:55 PM on April 1 [6 favorites]


This is a field where "red fuming nitric acid" is a middle-of-the-road option
posted by credulous at 5:59 PM on April 1 [6 favorites]


The best description of a dangerous substance, ever: Satan's kimchee (commentary on the link WaterAndPixes posted above.)
posted by blob at 6:09 PM on April 1 [1 favorite]


Ahhhh exotic fluorides.....
Sand Won't Save you This time

“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.”

― John Drury Clark, Ignition!: An informal history of liquid rocket propellants
posted by lalochezia at 8:29 PM on April 1 [12 favorites]


I work right next door to Aerojet Rocketdyne (the coolest name for any company ever, btw). I didn't realize they were this crazy!

Related to the Rocketdyne that ran the Santa Susana Field Laboratory? Not sure I'd want to be next door to them for any length of time. Crazy is one way to describe it.
posted by ctmf at 11:57 PM on April 1 [1 favorite]


Related to the Rocketdyne that ran the Santa Susana Field Laboratory? Not sure I'd want to be next door to them for any length of time. Crazy is one way to describe it.

There's a whole section in the video devoted to the SSFL and their...methods of dealing with hazardous waste. At one point, the narration goes "The nuclear reactor, laser research facility, plutonium lab, and other experiments at Aperture Scien-uuuhhh I mean SSFL", which really says it all.
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:33 AM on April 2 [4 favorites]


“A tedious yet wholly necessary process”24:29

In this case he's describing the way they passivized the liquid fluorine piping so it wouldn't react with the fluorine flow, but in fact, it's every single painstaking step of making this. Just so much ingenuity and patience!

It's like the question of “Can God make a stone so heavy he can't lift it?” writ large. And the answer is “Yes, as long as extreme Heath Robinson/Rube Goldberg methods keep everything safe(ish)”.
posted by ambrosen at 6:26 AM on April 2


(sorry, I'm kind of liveblogging my watch, but it's very very good)

There's a whole section in the video devoted to the SSFL and their...methods of dealing with hazardous waste. At one point, the narration goes "The nuclear reactor, laser research facility, plutonium lab, and other experiments at Aperture Scien-uuuhhh I mean SSFL", which really says it all.

“…there, the barrels were partially submerged in water and shot with a rifle until they exploded”
posted by ambrosen at 6:46 AM on April 2 [3 favorites]


“…there, the barrels were partially submerged in water and shot with a rifle until they exploded”

This part needs further context. When the video gets to this part, the visuals are from the original Doom, having the Doomguy shooting toxic waste barrels.

Followed by the narrator peacing out, and a Rocketdyne "we love the environment" corporate video turning on.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:37 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Clearly the only things missing from the SSFL site are:

* A spider farm
* A brain implant/primate research lab
* A particle accelerator so powerful it can create quantum black holes
* Doctor Evil
posted by cstross at 9:50 AM on April 2 [2 favorites]


Project Orion never even made it this far. :(
posted by jeffburdges at 12:32 PM on April 2


Project Orion never even made it this far. :(

However, Project Pluto, a nuclear powered ramjet, did reach prototype stage and a full power test. There is a documentary about the project. It can be watched in five parts in a Youtube play list at Project Pluto.
posted by RichardP at 1:23 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Project Pluto, a nuclear powered ramjet
Russia's still trying this. Burevestnik was supposedly test fired/flown last year.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 2:37 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]


... the barrels were partially submerged in water and shot with a rifle until they exploded
The best part about this story is that this is far from the most dangerous activity involved in building and testing this rocket engine. Not even close.

Acknowledging that there was undoubtedly massive damage done to the local environment that can never be remediated (a very bad thing), I'm grateful for (and jealous of) the generations of scientists who literally put their lives on the line to tinker with chemicals, rocks, metals and whatever else they can get their hands on in an attempt to design cool things for us. For the things that aren't primarily aimed at wiping humanity from the face of the earth, that is.

BungaDunga's link above took me to an excellent story that I kind of want to believe because, while it seems outlandish in the cold light of day, it sounds exactly like the kind of thing where, if it didn't happen, it was through mere chance and not for lack of trying.
posted by dg at 9:31 PM on April 2


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