LIQUID HYDROGEN AS A PROPULSION FUEL,1945-1959

 

- Foreword -

 

 

[xi] History is written and read for several reasons, and the NASA history program serves multiple purposes. John Sloop's history of liquid hydrogen as a fuel illustrates the most practical of those purposes: it is useful to current and future managers of high technology. Of course history does not repeat itself-there are too many variables. But similar situations often have similar results, and thoughtful study of the management of technology in the past can sometimes help us to recognize pitfalls in the present pitfalls that managers can then act to avoid. We may also find ways to make desired outcomes more likely. In any event, study of history lets us see current problems more clearly.

 

For example, notice in this book how many times something had to be rediscovered. This has been a real problem, and a costly one, in the recent past; it is apt to get worse in the future. Are we in NASA doing all we reasonably can to manage this problem-not just making new technology available to industry, not just trying to stay current in our respective fields, but contributing something to the process by which the knowledge explosion can be made more tractable?

 

It is a truism that technology feeds on itself-that work in one area often is quickly applicable in an entirely different area. Perhaps the sharpest example in this book is the Air Force's building of plants for liquefaction of hydrogen and developing equipment and procedures for its handling. That program was cancelled short of completion, but the technology was on the shelf, already paid for, when NASA needed it for the Apollo program. Can we explain this process to Congress and to the taxpayers more effectively? The problem is similar to that of justifying basic scientific research. Can future NASA managers, in defending their programs, do so more effectively by elaborating that similarity?

 

A recurring theme in this book is the widespread fear of hydrogen, originating with the explosion of the Hindenburg and reinforced by the H-bomb. Proponents of hydrogen-fueled rockets had to overcome that prejudice. Are other technologies ignored today because of a bias against certain materials or processes? Engineers and scientists remain subject to the human condition; they, like the rest of us, need to be reminded from time to time to take a fresh look at old attitudes and familiar procedures.

 

The author illuminates the overlapping, often conflicting roles of the individual, who originates ideas, and of the group, which manages today's complex technology. Many worthwhile ideas have doubtless been lost, at least temporarily, because individuals were unable to convince committees. Hence how consensus is achieved within groups is worth studying. When agreement seems impossible, an individual is occasionally big [xii] enough, wise enough, to forego his preferred solution, so that a project may continue. In this regard, timing is critical. If the individual does not press his case hard enough, he is labeled irresolute; but if he says, in effect, "My way or none," he is obstinate. The story of the decision to use liquid hydrogen in the upper stages of the Saturn launch vehicles contains several accounts of individual-group interaction from which any manager can profit.

 

Finally, the book argues against the casual hindsight judgment of " the idea whose time had come." More than once participants were convinced--wrongly-t hat hydrogen's time had come. Its time came only after a number of disparate events gradually took on a pattern. If we are sometimes tempted to assume that a favorite project is inevitable, or that a solution to a sticky technical problem will inevitably be found, then we may be contributing to the failure of our own purposes.

 

This book is also a good story, with real drama, colorful men, and fascinating technology. If hydrogen comes to occupy an important place in the energy field, as some now predict, this book will take on an importance that cannot now be foreseen. But at a time when NASA is emphasizing the solution of workaday problems facing the nation and seeking early return on the taxpayers' investment, it seems appropriate to point out the book's practical significance.

 

JAMES C. FLETCHER

Administrator

 

April 1977


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