Part II : 1950 -1957

5. NACA Research on High-Energy Propellants



Space Becomes an Acceptable Word


[90] The fall of 1957 was one of fast-paced activity. The new rocket facility at the Lewis laboratory was completed and system checkouts were under way. Plans were made to include it as an exhibit stop in the laboratory's triennial inspection, scheduled for October. These inspections were NACA's way of showing its facilities and latest research progress to congressmen, government officials, professors, engineers from industry, reporters, families, and friends. The affairs were exhaustively planned and rehearsed and executed with split-second precision.


For its part in the inspection, the rocket group showed the great advantages of high-energy propellants, including hydrogen-oxygen and hydrogen-fluorine. As an example, they illustrated the case of a manned satellite in an 1850-kilometer orbit with a winged glider for returning to earth. The use of high-energy propellants would reduce the required booster size and weight by half. The exhibit also demonstrated the powerful oxidizing property of fluorine. A steel bar, chemically cleaned, was exposed to a small jet of gaseous fluorine and nothing happened. The bar was then contaminated by a slightly greasy thumbprint and again exposed to the fluorine jet. The fluorine then reacted with the contamination, the reaction heating the steel bar until it burned-a spectacular and impressive demonstration of fluorine's potency.


Among the many rehearsals was a review by officials from NACA headquarters. The climate in Washington in the fall of 1957 was very negative towards space. It was all right to talk about the slow-paced scientific Vanguard satellite, part of the International Geophysical Year, but anything beyond it was considered "space-cadet" [91] enthusiasm. When John Victory, NACA executive secretary and one of its original employees, heard the word "space," he ordered that it not be used for fear of offending some of the visitors, particularly congressmen and other government officials. Before the inspection, however, the Soviet Union's Sputnik I put the word "space" in the headlines of every American newspaper, and guests heard the word in many of the laboratory is presentations.