Book Review: Rocket Science

Rocketry itself has a long history. Possibly its first instance saw gunpowder-driven, arrow-type rockets fired by the ancient Chinese. The modern history of rocketry, especially its science, gathered steam throughout the 1900s as advances in physics and the provisions of necessary materials made a thorough study possible. Within this book many of the relevant physical relationships show how to analyse rocket performance. These include the basics: the laws of thermodynamics, enthalpy and gravitational force, as well as the more particular: thrust, specific impulse and mass ratios. Whenever equations first arise, examples guide the reader (e.g. comparative specific impulses for turbojets, ramjets, scramjets and rockets). However, no derivations or messy calculus appear, so no one will be overcome by the mathematics often associated with rocketry.

The discussion of the necessary materials principally revolves around the fuel. This isn’t surprising, as fuel accounts for well above 90% of the mass of a typical rocket. The many possible fuel types have their pro’s and con’s listed, e.g. whether storable, cryogenic, hypergolic, expensive or toxic. The different containment shapes and methods get described, as do the metals used to contain and support the fuel. Esoteric fuels, such as nuclear fission or fusion, have their due but the authors acknowledge that these are not likely to be a fuel source in the near future.

To compete their overview of rocketry, the authors first identify some of the key players in the pre-World War II time frame. Then they show how the German’s successes with the V-1, V-2 and Rheinbote during World War II led directly to the acquisition and enhancement of this technology by the USA and the USSR. Next, however, the authors pointedly show how these two countries diverged in their pursuits. The USSR stayed with a few capable techniques and from there developed a workhorse capability that today is providing the sole support for the International Space Station. The USA, on the other hand, has pursued many technologies and techniques; almost regularly spending billions of dollars to get to a demonstration phase only to drop further development. With this in mind, a final brief but insightful expos? on the future of rocket development shortlists the needs required to further people’s adventure into space.

As an overview, this book brings together a lot of information into a short, concise, yet expansive text. Facts and figures support many observations and opinions. Quotes and quips from bygone movers and shakers (e.g. Von Braun) add spice and warmth to these numbers. Many tables and figures show the progress (or lack thereof) within the industry. Photographs, both colour and black and white, show many of the rocket systems in use today. Most of NASA’s dreams and hopes (e.g. the NERVA, the nuclear rocket engine) have schematics and/or photographs as well, to round out the information provided.

Perhaps what isn’t expected is the information on satellite production and usage, solar sail utility, sex in space and politics. That is, this book includes more about the rocket or space industry than just the science of rockets. Some of the diversions, however, are worthwhile. For example, the authors include business details like the ‘cost per mile’ or ‘cost per person’. All in all though, this breadth of information makes for a handy reference to a general practitioner or an excellent introduction to a young student with a burgeoning interest in space.

Rockets just might be the pinnacle technical achievement of humankind. With artful combinations of liquids within a shaped chamber or from the pull of materials from a cylinder’s wall, a rocket counters the force of gravity to send people and material off our world. Alfred J. Zaehringer and Steve Whitfield in their book ‘Rocket Science‘ provide the facts, figures and photos to guide any interested person in some of the wizardry of rockets. Rocket science can appear daunting but with this book, anyone can easily delve into the magic.

To get your own copy, visit Countdown Creations.

Review by Mark Mortimer