Steve's Yarns-- All those years growing up and living
in Oklahoma, California, Arizona, Texas, and Africa.....
Ain't done growing up 'til I get over on the other side :-)

Steve Van Nattan





Bob Capen and I as (short..... very short) career rocket scientists




Bob Capen has become a science, math and astronomy savant in his later years. He taught these subjects in Tucson, Arizona until he retired, and he has spent many hours peeking through the great telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona.

Thus, I now divulge what Bob may not yet have told anyone-- Bob Capen and I were into rocket science clear back when he and I were in High School at Rift Valley Academy. This would have been in about 1960.

Here is how it happened.

I was in chemistry class and itching to branch out into research outside the assigned lab class projects given us by our teacher Sam Senoff. His classes were not dull in the least. He was a bit of a prankster at times. One day we sat down for chemistry class, and Sam had a beaker of water and a brown jug with some mysterious liquid in it on the lab bench. Sam told us to come gather around the lab bench, and he then used tweezers to reach into a liquid in the brown bottle and pick out a lump of what looked like dull metal similar to pewter.

Sam dropped the lump to the bottom of the water, and it soon started scurrying round and round the bottom of the beaker. He told us to watch closely. We all leaned over to see the lump better, and POW! The metal exploded, and Sam jammed his hands deep in his pockets and roared with laughter as we jumped back. The lump was raw pure sodium metal which explodes in water. The liquid in the brown bottle was kerosene, and we all figured Sam had done another trick on us. We loved it of course.

Now, don't get the idea Sam was careless. He was extremely cautious with our stock of chemicals, but he was also eager to let us experience examples of things that we learned in books so that learning was fun. One day Sam was talking about nitro glycerin and how it reacted chemically. I went up to him after class and asked if we could make some nitro glycerin. I had just read a book written by a safe cracker who finally got caught, and his favorite way to open safes was with nitro. I had no idea how touchy it was to make nitro.

Sam grinned at me, and he said, "If you can find the controlled process for making nitro glycerin I will do it with you." I was almost shocked that Sam would agree to do this because I knew the stuff was extremely powerful. It does not burn, it reacts chemically, which is why it is so powerful. This is also why it does enormous damage when it is confined and explodes. Nothing can restrain it.



Well, I could tell by his voice that Sam knew that I could not find the controlled laboratory process for making nitro glycerin, but he was wrong. I went to the school library and found a book he did not know was there with the whole procedure in detail. The trick is that if you pour the glycerin into the nitric acid, all is well. But, if you pour the nitric acid into the glycerin, BOOM. Also, as the two combine, even when done correctly, they produce water as a by product, and water causes the temperature to rise. At a certain temperature, BOOM again. Sulfuric acid must be added to the nitric acid which then absorbs the water and prevents the heat rise. So, it is a trick to do for sure, and those who err usually find themselves in a lovely box surrounded by flowers and weeping friends. The box is usually "closed" also because there ain't much to show for honey.

Once the mixture reaches a critical point it is only necessary to stop adding anything and wait. The temperature will rise slowly, and if the mixture is right it will explode spontaneously. If the mixture is wrong, it will sit there and do nothing. Of course you dare not move it or stop the experiment. You are stuck waiting. The method that is safe is to cut a tennis ball in half, embed it in the lawn, and use a long handled dipper (very long) to add the glycerin. The adding needs to be done while everyone watching is laying on the ground on their stomach, wearing goggles, and watching the process so that flying debris does not hit them. Any of you can do this with readily available products in the market place, and thus, any of you can go to heaven this way if you really like to live dangerously. Please do make arrangements as to your destination before starting this project though.

Sam Senoff was delighted when I told him I had found the procedure for doing this, but his face slowly changed to worry. He told me he wanted to review the thing for safety, and he would get back to me. If you want to see what he read, GO HERE and read the topic "Manufacturing." Rather frightening, right? To a responsible adult teacher this was out of the question, but to seventeen year old munitions aspirants this seemed simple enough. After he gave me a list of all the things that could go wrong, I eventually had to "get religion" and concede that Sam was right.



Well, my yearning for making things explode was not satisfied by Sam's open admission that he was having cold feet. So, I consulted with my associate, Bob Capen, a young man well versed in things strange but possible. Neither of us were game enough to do the nitro trick on our own, so we diverted our creativity into rocket science. I did some research in making solid rocket fuel and came up with a shopping list-- powered charcoal, potassium nitrate, sulfur, and zinc powder. One of us was appointed to "borrow" these from the chemistry lab, and soon we had the makings of solid rocket fuel.

I opened a rocket fuel lab in my dorm room, and I was deep in manufacturing projects every afternoons after school. My test equipment for fuel burns consisted of a board with a long groove carved in it. That's it. Some of the greatest discoveries in science have had their start in simple ways, so I was not inhibited by my primitive arrangements. I would make a mixture, carefully measuring the quantities and writing down all details, and then I would pack the moist mixture into the groove in the board, light one end of it, and stand back.

At first I got too much of the sulfur and totally filled the room with a horrid rotten egg fog that sent me out the door gasping and coughing. My room mate came along at that time and would hardly believe the dorm was not on fire. Later, he became reasonably patient with me over this when I got the mixture improved. Thanks John Skoda for not turning me in.

Well, next was too much zinc. POW! That would blow the rocket up like a bomb. Finally, after many afternoons of "research," in the most liberal definition of the word, I had a mixture that I thought burned fast but was controlled, and it produced lots of smoke. You see, the smoke becomes the base against which the rocket pushes. It also becomes the big cloud that brings people running from all directions thinking the woods are on fire.

Now that I had come up with rocket fuel, I consulted with my associate Bob Capen again, and he suggested a metal film case for the rocket body. These film cases are antiques now days, but long ago they were everywhere. I packed a load of rocket fuel into the film case, and I formed the bottom of the load into an inverted cone with the fuse embedded into the very center of the cone point, like illustrations in books I had found. We needed a way to keep the rocket pointed skyward, and Bob suggested a stick hanging down and wired to the film case. This was done, and we found a section of water pipe three feet long, and we headed for the woods to launch our rocket into the stratosphere (well, maybe the tree tops).



The pipe was dug into the ground, and we contemplated the consequences if the rocket lit the nearby brush on fire. Of course, we didn't think of bringing along water, but we figured the rocket would burn out and fall harmlessly to the ground. What happened was somewhat the opposite.

Bob held the rocket with the stick down into the pipe so I could light the fuse. I lit it, and Bob dropped our strato-wonder into the pipe, and we went over near some bushes and waited form the great epiphany moment of our rocket launching career.



The rocket came roaring out of the pipe great, but the wire used to hold the stick onto the rocket film case was thin copper wire, and the bottom wire got ripped off by the inner edge of the launch pipe. This allowed the rocket body to swing at a 45 degree angle, and the rocket stopped climbing at once. But it did still go roaring along successfully. Problem-- the rocket was turned at precisely the right angle so that it could fly parallel with the ground, and it was roaring along-- straight at us. We dived to the ground, and the rocket went over our heads and into the bushes behind us and burned itself out, lighting the brush on fire.

Bob and I at once did what they do at Kennedy Space Center when there is a fire, but we had no foam to spray on the bushes. So, we got busy doing the rocket scientist's two step and stomped out the fire. We then stood contemplating our careers as rocket scientists, and, as is often the case when we are in our youth, we took stock of the hazards of the profession AFTER the hazards had come and gone. But then, if we all lived safely, imagine how many great discoveries would have never been made, and imagine how the morticians of this world would take a serious loss in trade.

So, I am one of the few people in this world who successfully retired at age 17, though I had nothing to show for it but the stench of sulfur in my hair. And, what happened to Bob? He is happily retired for the second time in Arizona, while I am retired in Texas. Bob wisely chose the safer profession of teaching, and I chose pastoring and piano tuning.

Now, if any NSA snoop is reading here I want you fellows to know that I would be happy to come out of retirement if you need a rocket engineer to do fuel test burns, but I don't come cheap, what with my many years of experience and success. Cough. I must decline to work with nitro glycerin though-- I am not ready yet to go to heaven until the Lord makes the arrangements himself.




Here is how it works-- Rocket launch gone bad.
This launch has an uncanny similarity to ours many years earlier.


Aren't you glad Bob and I retired early and moved on from rocket science
to teaching and piano tuning?

[ If you have blood pressure problems please do not watch all of this. ]