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Taming Liquid Hydrogen: The Centaur Upper Stage Rocket, 1958-2002During its maiden voyage in May 1962, a Centaur upper stage rocket, mated to an Atlas booster, exploded 54 seconds after launch, engulfing the rocket in a huge fireball. Investigation revealed that Centaur's light, stainless-steel tank had split open, spilling its liquid-hydrogen fuel down its sides, where the flame of the rocket exhaust immediately ignited it. Coming less than a year after President Kennedy had made landing human beings on the Moon a national priority, the loss of Centaur was regarded as a serious setback for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). During the failure investigation, Homer Newell, Director of Space Sciences, ruefully declared: "Taming liquid hydrogen to the point where expensive operational space missions can be committed to it has turned out to be more difficult than anyone supposed at the outset." After this failure, Centaur critics, led by Wernher von Braun, mounted a campaign to cancel the program. In addition to the unknowns associated with liquid hydrogen, he objected to the unusual design of Centaur. Like the Atlas rocket, Centaur depended on pressure to keep its paper-thin, stainless-steel shell from collapsing. It was literally inflated with its propellants like a football or balloon and needed no internal structure to give it added strength and stability. The so-called "pressure-stabilized structure" of Centaur, coupled with the light weight of its high- energy cryogenic propellants, made Centaur lighter and more powerful than upper stages that used conventional fuel. But, the critics argued, it would never become the reliable rocket that the United States needed.
Document ID
Document Type
Special Publication (SP)
Dawson, Virginia P.
(NASA Headquarters Washington, DC United States)
Bowles, Mark D.
(NASA Headquarters Washington, DC United States)
Date Acquired
September 7, 2013
Publication Date
January 1, 2004
Subject Category
Spacecraft Propulsion And Power
Report/Patent Number
Distribution Limits
Work of the US Gov. Public Use Permitted.
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