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Chemical Propulsion Research

Chemical propulsion research to increase propellant energy release is currently non-existent, as are its practitioners. Is this fact justified? Are no further significant advances possible or practical? If significant advances are possible, what are these? What is the justification for new research? What are the benefits? What are the impediments? This is a description of an ongoing investigation of the past and future of chemical propulsion research.

Propellant energy release is most usefully measured as specific Impulse, Isp, defined as thrust divided by the amount of propellant used per unit time. The current propellant with the highest Isp that is in current use is H2/O2 (Isp = 450). It has been used since the beginning of cryogenic rocket propulsion and has never been surpassed for practical systems as of 2012.

First we investigate how Chemical Propulsion research died in the US. I am a struggling researcher, not a manager, so I have not been involved in the broad picture of chemical propulsion research. As with all science, the primary guides to research funding are perceived payoff, semi-science based assessment of the likelihood of that payoff, politics, overall economics, strength of the overall field, the qualifications of the researcher, and, lastly, the scientific soundness of the research proposal

Publication is one monitor of the health of a scientific endeavor, although it lags funding and the health of the area. The primary society for combustion science is the Combustion Institute. The primary conference for (non-classified) chemical propulsion is the Joint Propulsion Conference (JPC), held annually. The primary funding sources for chemical propulsion research are NASA and the Air Force through the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Again, classified work is excluded. It has been a long time since there was a section on chemical propulsion research at the JPC, although odd papers appear in the Far Future session. How long I have not found out yet. Amazingly enough JPC programs are not kept by the AIAA for more than 5 years, presumably because there is no money in it and nobody cares.