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Growing up in Proctor: Satellites, Bottle Rockets, and Thermite

By Gary Eller - | Feb 17, 2021

Tonight (11/15/2020) I watched the launch of four astronauts atop a non-government (!) rocket into earth orbit to dock with the International Space Station. Wow, did that take me back to the fall of 1957, when to American horror the Soviets put the first object into earth orbit. I vividly remember watching Sputnik’s dot of light pass over the Wetzel County night sky and hearing on our black and white TV the beep-beep-beep of Sputnik’s signal to earth.

Without a doubt, as was the case for many other kids, Sputnik was crucial to my life-long interest in science and engineering. Before too long, I had sketched out a ten-year old’s idea of what a multistage rocket would look like. That led to bottle rocket experiments with gunpowder as propellant, sometimes handmade by me from sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter. Needless to say, just as NASA experienced early on, I had some spectacular launch failures. I was hardly in the same league as Homer Hickham, the southern West Virginia coal camp kid who was a legend for his home-made rockets and later became a celebrated NASA engineer and author (see the movie October Sky). But then, I did not have access to blasting caps, dynamite, and a machine shop as the Homer mine superintendent’s kid did.

Later, I figured out how to get good stuff such as potassium permanganate and potassium perchlorate (very powerful oxidizers) from the local pharmacy. Experiments with those materials sometimes were “inspiring.” Also, I experimented with thermite, a chemical mix that had been used to weld railroad ties together. Wisely or unwisely, my parents allowed me to set up a “laboratory” on a stove in the basement of our house, where one of my thermite experiments became “irrationally exuberant,” to use a term that was popular decades later. Shortly after ignition of the thermite pile, an intensely hot jet of flame was licking the rafters over the stove, generating a monumental amount of smoke. I learned that scale matters and it’s good to start small when you don’t really know what you’re doing. My parents certainly noticed the smoke, but I never told them how close I came to burning down the house.

One of the best Christmas presents I ever got was a super-duper chemistry set. Back in those days, chemistry sets contained really good stuff, unlike the boring materials that are included these days. Really, how much fun can you have with vinegar and baking soda?

In any case, there is no question that the experiences mentioned above led me to my thirty-year career at Los Alamos National Laboratory, working with some of the most energetic oxidizers known to man, not to mention plutonium, and world-class scientists and engineers.