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In some rural areas, folks heat their homes with oil. Some buy kerosene, especially in the coldest months because it doesn’t gel in the lines. The rest of us fondly remember kerosene for all the times we used a Coleman lantern when camping. It was easy to love. Believe it or not, all this connects with astronomy—and rockets in space.
When America first blasted astronauts into space inside claustrophobic little Mercury capsules, the propellant those Atlas rockets used was, yep, kerosene. It was the most popular rocket fuel of all, and still is. The idea was the brainchild of Russia’s Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who, a century ago, recommended kerosene as a great fuel for space travel.
Fast forward to the Apollo years, 1969 to 1972, and the wonderful Saturn rocket that got us to the Moon. Its second and third stages used J-2 engines that burned hydrogen and oxygen like the recently decommissioned Space Shuttle. But it won’t surprise you to learn that the Saturn’s incredible first-stage engines, each more powerful than any entire previous rocket ever built, burned ordinary kerosene.
That’s right. Humans went to the Moon powered by smelly kerosene.
Lots of it. That first stage’s five colossal F-1 engines consumed 15,000 pounds per second. Getting so much kerosene sprayed at once required a big fuel pump with an astonishing 65,000 horsepower.
Imagine: Your car’s entire engine is probably around 180 horsepower and here’s a mere fuel pump with 65,000. Werner Von Braun and his friends didn’t mess around. And these days, most of the world’s rockets STILL use kerosene to launch satellites.
These days kerosene is also what gets us around: it’s the fuel used by big commercial planes. Jet fuel IS kerosene. It’s relatively cheap, and large jets need “cheap” because a jumboliner’s wings hold 48,400 gallons, or twice the liquid in a big 44-foot pool. You may have already noticed that, outdoors, big airports smell like burning kerosene.
This is starting to sound like that Ode to Kerosene written by Keats long ago. Like me, he obviously knew how easy it is to have a love affair with special hydrocarbons. Especially when they also keep you warm and cozy on chilly winter nights.