U.S. Space-Launch Vehicle Technology – Viking to Space Shuttle

Article written: 15 Dec , 2008
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015

The concluding volume to J.D. Hunley’s historical technical reference picks up directly right where his first left off. Entitled ‘U.S. Space-Launch Vehicle Technology – Viking to Space Shuttle‘ , it also tracks the ever changing parameters of the engines, the guidance and control, and the structure of the rockets of the United States up to about the year 2000. However, time doesn’t constrain this material, as the volume’s beginning occurs with research developments in 1945 and the ending includes plans for the EELV, which still awaits final definition.

Being an historical review, this volume is, like the first, a thoughtful review of the technological changes and their defining reasons rather than a recitation of program development events. The thoughtfulness comes via linkages. For example there’s a description of the evolution from aniline-nitric acid propellants used in the WAC Corporal to the inhibited white fuming nitric acid propellant for Vanguard. And there’s a comparison of Astronautics having a more bold approach, a gamble to achieve significant improvements whereas von Braun’s engineers were more conservative. Equally emphasized is the ever increasing effort to prove systems. As an example, there’s a description of the many years of effort needed to define the preliminary seconds for a safe and reliable start-up for the space shuttle main engines. This becomes reasonable to the reader as the volume shows rocketry is “more of engineers doing than in scientists knowing”. Nevertheless, the reader will encounter again and again the determination of the practitioners to find a workable solution that then goes on to be a fundamental step in the progress of rocketry.

As with the first volume, this volume is heavy on technicalities. References to yaw torquing, fuel sloshing and clevis joints abound. As well, it mentions key people, significant contributing corporations, and deciding moments. One omission, that the author laments, is that the source of novel ideas, like the Atlas balloon tank, is not recoverable. Nevertheless, with an included list of notable technical achievements, copious notes to pages, a glossary, a list of sources, and, an index, this volume allows the reader to easily recover the author’s work and resolve any unclear technical issues.

Both this volume and its predecessor wonderfully serve as a technical reference for the U.S. space rockets. But, given the pace of change throughout industry, as with the maturing computational fluid dynamics, the contained information will likely be of little utility to today’s rocket designers. Hence, the volumes will likely be more for a matter of interest than for a design guide. Nevertheless, it does serve as a reference and a testament to the many individuals who greatly contributed to the depth of knowledge acquired.

The basic motive force for raising mass from the Earth’s surface into space remains the same. A rocket’s exhaust thrusts against the mass and the mass lifts off. The tuning of this basic concept into a viable capability is showcased in J.D. Hunley’s book ‘U.S. Space-Launch Vehicle Technology – Viking to Space Shuttle‘. It, together with its preceding volume on Goddard Rockets to Minuteman III, shows that, with the right resources, humans can accomplish near magical travel away from Earth.

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