Space News Business


posted: 06 December 2007
02:32 pm ET

Little Mistake with Big Difference

This letter is in response to

the Commentary article “Dangers of Nitrous Oxide No Surprise” [



, page 19]

. Many causes are mentioned in this article for the tragic accident that

occurred at the Scaled Composites test site

July 26, which

led to the huge devastation of equipment and personnel casualty.

Among other things it is claimed specifically that

“nitrous oxide sprayed on an HTPB fuel grain can saturate that grain and turn into a substance as volatile as TNT.”

Such an assertion is not acceptable from our point of view. At temperatures below 600 degrees

Celsius, nitrous oxide

is an inert substance. This means that it does not react with any hydrocarbon like HTPB to form a highly explosive compound. Diffusion claimed by Mark Holthaus, which would lead to a mixture of oxidizer and fuel in explosive concentration, also can

be excluded because only very small quantities of

nitrous oxide could be deposited into the hydrocarbon.

It seems that the effects mentioned are more related to nitrogen dioxide

, a highly corrosive and nitrating substance. But that has nothing to do with nitrous oxide


Our organiz

ation, the

Scientific Workgroup for Rocketry and Spaceflight

, a non

profit organization located at the Technical University of Munich, has more than

40 years of extensive experience in hybrid rocket propulsion systems. Over the past years we have worked with many different oxidizers and propellants including nitrous oxide.

We performed some practical tests to disprove this claim. For this purpose small solid samples of HTPB were exposed to liquid nitrous oxide


approximately 2 minutes

. Afterwards the samples were ignited by several methods among other things by the use of unshielded flames. None of these tests showed the explosive effect that

is postulated in the related article.

A second interesting point is that

nitrous oxide also is

used in other technical applications besides the aerospace industry.

The application of

nitrous oxide in the food industry is exceptionally interesting. There the

nitrous oxide is used as a food additive due to its steriliz

ing character;

within this application it

also is designated as E 942. In particular

nitrous oxide is used as an additive in milk products, for example

to froth up cream.

Looking at it from this aspect, the following statement of Mark Holthaus is very interesting: “If the oxidizer [

in this connection related to N2O

] is exposed to any organic contamination it can become explosive.”

Now if we combine Holthaus

statement with the aforementioned fact, we would reach the conclusion, that if we stir up cream with a plastic spoon, the spoon –

and also the cream

– could turn into an explosive,
which destructiveness is beyond that of TNT. This would indeed be good news for any terrorist who wants to blow up an airliner. All required components would be brought up directly to the seat of the terrorist by the inflight service. Fortunately, this scenario will not happen –

the allegations of Mark Holthaus in reference to the characteristics of HTPB saturated with nitrous oxide

have nothing to do with reality.

Scaled Composites should continue with its choice of hybrid engines – it is the right and safe rocket propulsion for public spaceflight.

Joachim Sturm Stefan Koeglmeier

Scientific Workgroup for Rocketry and Spaceflight

Munich, Germany