Ignition! An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants - John D. Clark

This may sound like a somewhat random book, but it was in the middle of a list of books highly recommended by Elon Musk, and then I'd heard it recommended by a couple of other people. If you like Things I won't work with, this is good stuff.

The chemicals involved in making rockets tend to, for obvious reasons, be fairly reactive. Over the course of a few decades, there's been research into finding chemicals that do the job well without being really, really, really, really unpleasant. This is that story.

To spoil the plot, it turns out that fairly run-of-the-mill unpleasant chemicals do the job reasonably well, and if you use super-unpleasant chemicals, it's not really worth the extra effort, death and destruction. It's not really much of a spoiler, because the fun is in all the anecdotes. Sometimes he'll talk about how chemical A or chemical B is unpleasant, and it may put you in mind of something reasonably tricksy, before illustrating it with an anecdote which suggests that anyone working in the industry is completely insane, with a life expectancy somewhat shorter than that of a military test pilot.

If you know your chemistry, or want to build large rockets, the details are perhaps useful to you too. I don't know. It's still fascinating if 90% of the science goes over your head. Anyway, I certainly don't want to work in rocket chemistry now.

Posted 2014-11-09.