Rocket Science is Just Cool

After many years of long and difficult study, engineers can take comfort in the fact that they can be rewarded with a cool job, such as one in the field of rocket science. Companies like ATK allow engineers and others to combine their knowledge of math and science to the practical use of launching rockets and other crafts into atmosphere and outer space. As Dr. Janica Cheney, the Safety and Mission Assistance Director of ATK’s Defense and Commercial division explained, rocket science largely involves a combination of the principles of Physics and Chemistry combined with a fair bit of practical testing.

As Dr. Cheney put it, working with and designing spacecraft requires a basic knowledge of Newton’s Laws (particularly the first law), energetic material, basic Chemistry, and energy diagrams in relation to energetic material. Newton’s third law, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, is the principle that allows the solid rocket motor basis to work. Newton’s first law is what allows the rocket to overcome gravity and air resistance and the second law is what allows rocket scientists to calculate the necessary forces for the rocket to perform as intended.

Rocket scientists also need to understand energetic material which has a “high amount of internally stored chemical energy that can be released on demand without atmospheric oxygen.” Dr. Cheney also pointed out, if engineers can figure out how to get an “oxygen-hydrogen reaction out of the vehicle in a fast and efficient way to overcome…inertia…that would be a game-changer for space.”

The general considerations for energetic material include a need for high density, which can be achieved through high symmetry and increased cyclization, high heat of formation, at least oxygen balance to carbon dioxide and water, and a low average molecular weight of the gas products. In terms of basic chemistry, rocket scientists need to know the energy required to break metal-metal bonds, passive oxidation of expelled material, and how to make a very energetic reaction. They also need to understand how energy diagrams relate to energetic material so they can calculate and anticipate activation energy and hazard sensitivity as well as potential energy and energetic material performance.

Rocket fuel reactions usually require a large change in enthalpy, which can be achieved with materials that have a high atomic weight and bonds between electronegative chemicals. Dr. Cheney ended the presentation with some examples and explanations of the technologically impressive spacecraft that rocket scientists get to be partially responsible for creating and a reminder that sitting through years of study and hard work is most definitely worth the reward.

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