The World’s Safest Business (Feb, 1957)
The World’s Safest Business
By G. Harry Stine
Viking-Aerobee Operations Engineer White Sands Proving Ground
AMATEUR rocketry is on the upswing in the United States. Many boys are building rockets today who would have been plane model fans a generation back. By rough count, there are approximately 100 amateur rocket societies in the U. S.—and no one knows how many young men building rockets.
When we get letters from amateur rocket men—most of them asking for detailed, specific information—we usually give three loud cheers and shake in our boots at the same time. It’s nice to know that there are people who are, unlike ourselves, interested in rockets not as a means of buying groceries and shoes for Junior.
But we shake in our boots because we know rocket flight testing is dangerous.
Professional rocketry today can truly be called the world’s safest business. In the 11 years of White Sands history, we have fired over 10,000 rockets and lost only two men—men who would still be with us if the rules had been followed. Working on the proving ground with highly toxic propellants, missiles going wild and explosions of bad rockets, we are actually safer than when driving to and from work. We follow the rules. If you are going to build and fly rockets, you must accept the responsibility which goes with it.
You must be willing to abide strictly by these rules of safety:
1. Rockets are high explosive devices, all of them. Treat them with great respect and caution at all times.
2. Do not expose rockets to heat over 125° F, or to shock of handling or dropping. Heat can ignite propellants. Shocks can crack solid propellant grains, exposing more burning area and so increasing burning rates and pressures inside rockets. Shocks can also damage any delicate devices in a rocket, misalign the rocket fins or structure, or actually crack vital parts or subject them to too much strain.
3. When mixing solid propellants, do so by diluting them with water and wear a shatterproof face shield. When working with liquid propellants, check with the manufacturer or a chemistry teacher to learn what protection you should have against their toxic effects.
4. When you fire a rocket, do so by electrical means. Keep the firing leads shorted or grounded both at the rocket and at the firing switch until the last possible moment. Make certain your are at a safe distance in case of an explosion. Do not use blasting caps for anything! Use a length of nichrome wire to heat up a small bit of black powder to give you a puff ball of flame for ignition. If you have a misfire with a rocket, put all safeties back on at once and do not approach the missile for at least an hour.
5. When you fire a rocket, do it far away from any building or inhabited area. Before shooting, obtain permission from the owner of the land to do so. Don’t fire in a wind, and always fire in a safe direction; “up” is not safe, so shoot at a slight angle at least.
6. Obtain the help and advice of somebody in your area who knows something about chemistry, physics, explosives, or science in general. Don’t go blundering by yourself. You won’t have trouble getting help for rockets are exciting devices! •