Part II : 1950 -1957

5. NACA Research on High-Energy Propellants



Plans for Rocket Facilities


[79] By 1952, the Lewis rocket facilities consisted of four original test cells and four newer and larger cells built with operating funds by the "Hurry-Up Construction [80] Company"-the self-styled, in-house construction group. With the word from Washington, the imaginative and ambitious rocket group began turning out a series of grand plans for rocket testing that required a huge site in a remote area of the West. These went far beyond the intent of NACA officials and the bubbles burst one by one, until planning narrowed down to what could be built at the Cleveland laboratory site. By the time the NACA executive committee approved the rocket subcommittee's resolution, NACA had decided to request an $8.5 million rocket-engine facility at the Lewis laboratory. It was described at the November 1952 meeting of the rocket subcommittee by Walter T. Olson and the author. 18


The proposed facility provided complete engine systems research using two major classes of propellants: high-energy propellants for long-range missiles, and high-availability, low-cost propellants for boosters, superperformance aircraft, and medium-range missiles.* The facility was unique in four features: (1) high thrust and long durations (89 kN and 3 min. for high-energy propellants; up to 445 kN and 3 min. for high-availability propellants); (2) hydrogen liquefaction and fluorine generation and liquefaction in quantity at the test site; (3) exhaust-gas scrubbers, designed from data provided by NACA research, to remove hydrogen fluoride from the exhaust; and (4) silencing equipment to muffle the rocket's roar.


The subcommittee endorsed the proposed facility and its chairman, Maurice Zucrow, added his hearty endorsement.19 This support was crucial but despite it, the attrition process that had befallen earlier plans reappeared at the Bureau of the Budget. The rocket group began to get telephone calls about cutting various features to reduce the cost. One of the first items to go was the fluorine plant, but this was not too serious as Allied Chemical was becoming interested in supplying fluorine for rocket applications.** Hans Neumark of Allied Chemical, under contract with the Air Force, was developing an over-the-highway trailer for transporting liquid fluorine. The next item to go from the proposed facility was the hydrogen liquefaction plant, followed by the large-scale facilities for engines of 445 kilonewtons. The rocket group became depressed as they watched their dreams melting away. One day a call came from Washington: What can you do for $2.5 million? The answer: the high-energy propellant features with exhaust-gas scrubber and silencer. This was accepted and the facility was authorized and funded by Congress. Construction began in 1953 with scheduled completion in 1956. During this period, an existing rocket test-cell was modified to handle high-energy propellants in engines of 22 kilonewtons and the Arthur D. Little hydrogen liquefier was installed. The research program remained essentially the same, but four years after selecting liquid hydrogen as its first choice, the NACA had yet to experiment with it.


In spite of the increased NACA support, rocket research remained comparatively small during the construction of the new facility. Disappointed, the rocket subcommittee at its October 1954 meeting noted that the NACA was spending twice as [81] much on ramjet research as on rocket research,*** whereas the military services were emphasizing rockets, not ramjets-a clear signal that the NACA was about to miss the boat again as it had earlier with its late start in jet propulsion.


* The high-energy propellants were liquid hydrogen, hydrazine, and ammonia as fuels, with flourine and oxygen as oxidizers. The high-availability propellants were hydrocarbons as fuels with nitric acid and liquid oxygen as oxidizers.
** Six years later (October 1958), the author participated in opening ceremonies of Allied Chemical's fluorine plant at Metropolis, Illinois.

*** In October 1954, NACA rocket research was $1.2 million or 2.4 percent of the budget; ramjet research was $2.5 million or 5.1 percent of the budget. Minutes of meeting, NASA History Office.