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NASA’s Plutonium Problem Could End Deep-Space Exploration

11 Oct


NASA’s Plutonium Problem Could End Deep-Space Exploration

The Voyager probe’s three radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) can be seen mounted end-to-end on the left-extending boom. (NASA)

In 1977, the Voyager 1 spacecraft left Earth on a five-year mission to explore Jupiter and Saturn. Thirty-six years later, the car-size probe is still exploring, still sending its findings home. It has now put more than 19 billion kilometers between itself and the sun. Last week NASA announced that Voyager 1 had become the first man-made object to reach interstellar space.

The distance this craft has covered is almost incomprehensible. It’s so far away that it takes more than 17 hours for its signals to reach Earth. Along the way, Voyager 1 gave scientists their first close-up looks at Saturn, took the first images of Jupiter’s rings, discovered many of the moons circling those planets and revealed that Jupiter’s moon Io has active volcanoes. Now the spacecraft is discovering what the edge of the solar system is like, piercing the heliosheath where the last vestiges of the sun’s influence are felt and traversing the heliopause where cosmic currents overcome the solar wind. Voyager 1 is expected to keep working until 2025 when it will finally run out of power.

None of this would be possible without the spacecraft’s three batteries filled with plutonium-238. In fact, Most of what humanity knows about the outer planets came back to Earth on plutonium power. Cassini’s ongoing exploration of Saturn, Galileo’s trip to Jupiter, Curiosity’s exploration of the surface of Mars, and the 2015 flyby of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft are all fueled by the stuff. The characteristics of this metal’s radioactive decay make it a super-fuel. More importantly, there is no other viable option. Solar power is too weak, chemical batteries don’t last, nuclear fission systems are too heavy. So, we depend on plutonium-238, a fuel largely acquired as by-product of making nuclear weapons.

But there’s a problem: We’ve almost run out.

“We’ve got enough to last to the end of this decade. That’s it,” said Steve Johnson, a nuclear chemist at Idaho National Laboratory. And it’s not just the U.S. reserves that are in jeopardy. The entire planet’s stores are nearly depleted.

The country’s scientific stockpile has dwindled to around 36 pounds. To put that in perspective, the battery that powers NASA’s Curiosity rover, which is currently studying the surface of Mars, contains roughly 10 pounds of plutonium, and what’s left has already been spoken for and then some. The implications for space exploration are dire: No more plutonium-238 means not exploring perhaps 99 percent of the solar system. In effect, much of NASA’s $1.5 billion-a-year (and shrinking) planetary science program is running out of time. The nuclear crisis is so bad that affected researchers know it simply as “The Problem.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The required materials, reactors, and infrastructure are all in place to create plutonium-238 (which, unlike plutonium-239, is practically impossible to use for a nuclear bomb). In fact, the U.S. government recently approved spending about $10 million a year to reconstitute production capabilities the nation shuttered almost two decades ago. In March, the DOE even produced a tiny amount of fresh plutonium inside a nuclear reactor in Tennessee.

It’s a good start, but the crisis is far from solved. Political ignorance and shortsighted squabbling, along with false promises from Russia, and penny-wise management of NASA’s ever-thinning budget still stand in the way of a robust plutonium-238 production system. The result: Meaningful exploration of the solar system has been pushed to a cliff’s edge. One ambitious space mission could deplete remaining plutonium stockpiles, and any hiccup in a future supply chain could undermine future missions.


The only natural supplies of plutonium-238 vanished eons before the Earth formed some 4.6 billion years ago. Exploding stars forge the silvery metal, but its half-life, or time required for 50 percent to disappear through decay, is just under 88 years.

Fortunately, we figured out how to produce it ourselves — and to harness it to create a remarkably persistent source of energy. Like other radioactive materials, plutonium-238 decays because its atomic structure is unstable. When an atom’s nucleus spontaneously decays, it fires off a helium core at high speed while leaving behind a uranium atom. These helium bullets, called alpha radiation, collide en masse with nearby atoms within a lump of plutonium — a material twice as dense as lead. The energy can cook a puck of plutonium-238 to nearly 1,260 degrees Celsius. To turn that into usable power, you wrap the puck with thermoelectrics that convert heat to electricity. Voila: You’ve got a battery that can power a spacecraft for decades.

“It’s like a magic isotope. It’s just right,” said Jim Adams, NASA’s deputy chief technologist and former deputy director of the space agency’s planetary science division.

A radiation-shielded glove box at Savannah River Site. In chambers like these during the cold war, the government assembled plutonium-238 fuel for use in spacecraft such as Galileo and Ulysses. (Savannah River Site)

U.S. production came primarily from two nuclear laboratories that created plutonium-238 as a byproduct of making bomb-grade plutonium-239. The Hanford Site in Washington state left the plutonium-238 mixed into a cocktail of nuclear wastes. The Savannah River Site in South Carolina, however, extracted and refined more than 360 pounds during the Cold War to power espionage tools, spy satellites, and dozens of NASA’s pluckiest spacecraft.

By 1988, with the Iron Curtain full of holes, the U.S. and Russia began to dismantle wartime nuclear facilities. Hanford and Savannah River no longer produced any plutonium-238. But Russia continued to harvest the material by processing nuclear reactor fuel at a nuclear industrial complex called Mayak. The Russians sold their first batch, weighing 36 pounds, to the U.S. in 1993 for more than $45,000 per ounce. Russia had become the planet’s sole supplier, but it soon fell behind on orders. In 2009, it reneged on a deal to sell 22 pounds to the U.S.

Whether or not Russia has any material left or can still create some is uncertain. “What we do know is that they’re not willing to sell it anymore,” said Alan Newhouse, a retired nuclear space consultant who spearheaded the first purchase of Russian plutonium-238. “One story I’ve heard … is that they don’t have anything left to sell.”

By 2005, according a Department of Energy report (.pdf), the U.S. government owned 87 pounds, of which roughly two-thirds was designated for national security projects, likely to power deep-sea espionage hardware. The DOE would not disclose to WIRED what is left today, but scientists close to the issue say just 36 pounds remain earmarked for NASA.

That’s enough for the space agency to launch a few small deep-space missions before 2020. A twin of the Curiosity rover is planned to lift off for Mars in 2020 and will require nearly a third of the stockpile. After that, NASA’s interstellar exploration program is left staring into a void — especially for high-profile, plutonium-hungry missions, like the proposed Jupiter Europa Orbiter. To seek signs of life around Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, such a spacecraft could require more than 47 pounds of plutonium.

“The supply situation is already impacting mission planning,” said Alice Caponiti, a nuclear engineer who leads the DOE’s efforts to restart plutonium-238 production. “If you’re planning a mission that’s going to take eight years to plan, the first thing you’re going to want to know is if you have power.”

Many of the eight deep-space robotic missions that NASA had envisioned over the next 15 years have already been delayed or canceled. Even more missions — some not yet even formally proposed — are silent casualties of NASA’s plutonium poverty. Since 1994, scientists have pleaded with lawmakers for the money to restart production. The DOE believes a relatively modest $10 to 20 million in funding each year through 2020 could yield an operation capable of making between 3.3 and 11 pounds of plutonium-238 annually — plenty to keep a steady stream of spacecraft in business.


In 2012, a line item in NASA’s $17-billion budget fed $10 million in funding toward an experiment to create a tiny amount of plutonium-238. The goals: gauge how much could be made, estimate full-scale production costs, and simply prove the U.S. could pull it off again. It was half of the money requested by NASA and the DOE, the space agency’s partner in the endeavor (the Atomic Energy Act forbids NASA to manufacture plutonium-238). The experiment may last seven more years and cost between $85 and $125 million.

At Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, nuclear scientists have used the High Flux Isotope Reactor to produce a few micrograms of plutonium-238. A fully reconstituted plutonium program described in the DOE’s latest plan, released this week, would also utilize a second reactor west of Idaho Falls, called the Advanced Test Reactor.

That facility is located on the 890-square-mile nuclear ranch of Idaho National Laboratory. The scrub of the high desert rolls past early morning visitors as the sun crests the Teton Range. Armed guards stop and inspect vehicles at a roadside outpost, waving those with the proper credentials toward a reactor complex fringed with barbed wire and electrified fences.

The Advanced Test reactor’s unique four—leaf—clover core design. (Idaho National Laboratory)

Beyond the last security checkpoint is a warehouse-sized, concrete-floored room. Yellow lines painted on the floor cordon off what resembles an aboveground swimming pool capped with a metal lid. A bird’s-eye view reveals four huge, retractable metal slabs; jump through one and you’d plunge into 36 feet of water that absorbs radiation. Halfway to the bottom is the reactor’s 4-foot-tall core, its four-leaf clover shape dictated by slender, wedge-shaped bars of uranium. “That’s where you’d stick your neptunium,” nuclear chemist Steve Johnson said, pointing to a diagram of the radioactive clover.

Neptunium, a direct neighbor to plutonium on the periodic table and a stable byproduct of Cold War-era nuclear reactors, is the material from which plutonium-238 is most easily made. In Johnson’s arrangement, engineers pack tubes with neptunium-237 and slip them into the reactor core. Every so often an atom of neptunium-237 absorbs a neutron emitted by the core’s decaying uranium, later shedding an electron to become plutonium-238. A year or two later — after harmful isotopes vanish — technicians could dissolve the tubes in acid, remove the plutonium, and recycle the neptunium into new targets.

The inescapable pace of radioactive decay and limited reactor space mean it may take five to seven years to create 3.3 pounds of battery-ready plutonium. Even if full production reaches that rate, NASA needs to squeeze every last watt out of what will inevitably always be a rather small stockpile.

The standard-issue power source, called a multi-mission thermoelectric generator — the kind that now powers the Curiosity rover — won’t cut it for space exploration’s future. “They’re trustworthy, but they use a heck of a lot of plutonium,” Johnson said.

In other words, NASA doesn’t just need new plutonium. It needs a new battery.


In a cluttered basement at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, metal cages and transparent plastic boxes house a menagerie of humming devices. Many look like stainless-steel barbells about a meter long and riddled with wires; others resemble white crates the size of two-drawer filing cabinets.

The unpretentious machines are prototypes of NASA’s next-generation nuclear power system, called the Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator. It’s shaping up to be a radically different, more efficient nuclear battery than any before it.

On the outside, the machines are motionless. Inside is a flurry of heat-powered motion driven by the Stirling cycle, developed in 1816 by the Scottish clergyman Robert Stirling. Gasoline engines burn fuel to rapidly expand air that pushes pistons, but Stirling converters need only a heat gradient. The greater the difference between a Stirling engine’s hot and cold parts, the faster its pistons hum. When heat warms one end of a sealed chamber containing helium, the gas expands, pushing a magnet-laden piston through a tube of coiled wire to generate electricity. The displaced, cooling gas then moves back to the hot side, sucking the piston backward to restart the cycle.

“Nothing is touching anything. That’s the whole beauty of the converter,” said Lee Mason, one of several NASA engineers crowded into the basement. Their pistons float like air hockey pucks on the cycling helium gas.

For every 100 watts of heat generated, the Stirling generator converts more than 30 watts into electricity. That’s nearly five times better than the nuclear battery powering Curiosity. In effect, the generator can use one-fourth of the plutonium while boosting electrical output by at least 25 percent. Less plutonium also means these motors weigh two-thirds less than Curiosity’s 99-pound battery — a big difference for spacecraft on 100 million-mile-or-more journeys. Curiosity was the biggest, heaviest spacecraft NASA could send to Mars at the time, with a vast majority of its mass dedicated to a safe landing — not science. Reducing weight expands the possibilities for advanced instruments on future missions.

But the Stirling generator’s relatively complicated technology, while crucial to the design, worries some space scientists. “There are people who are very concerned that this unit has moving parts,” said John Hamley, manager of NASA Glenn’s nuclear battery program. The concern is that the motion might interfere with spacecraft instruments that must be sensitive enough to map gravity fields, electromagnetism, and other subtle phenomena in space.

As a workaround, each generator uses two Stirling converters sitting opposite each other. An onboard computer constantly synchronizes their movements to cancel out troublesome vibrations. To detect and correct design flaws, engineers have abused their generator prototypes in vacuum chambers, assaulted them on shaking tables, and barraged them with powerful blasts of radiation and magnetism.

But NASA typically requires new technologies to be tested for one and a half expected lifetimes before flying them in space. For the Stirling generator, that would take 25 years. Earnest testing began in 2001, cutting the delay to 13 years – but that’s longer than NASA can wait: In 2008, only one of 10 nuclear-powered missions called for the device. By 2010, seven of eight deep-space missions planned through 2027 required them.

To speed things up, Hamley and his team run a dozen different units at a time. The oldest device has operated almost continuously for nearly 10 years while the newest design has churned since 2009. The combined data on the Stirling generators totals more than 50 years, enough for simulations to reliably fast-forward a model’s wear-and-tear. So far, so good. “Nothing right now is a show-stopper,” Hamley said. His team is currently building two flight-worthy units, plus a third for testing on the ground (Hamley expects Johnson’s team in Idaho to fuel it sometime next year).

For all of the technology’s promise, however, it “won’t solve this problem,” Johnson said. Even if the Stirling generator is used, plutonium-238 supplies will only stretch through 2022.

An early ASRG prototype. Its 10,016 hours of use has contributed to decades of combined data on the performance of NASA’s revolutionary nuclear battery. (Dave Mosher/WIRED)

Any hiccups in funding for plutonium-238 production could put planetary science into a tailspin and delay, strip down, or smother nuclear-powered missions. The outlook among scientists is simultaneously optimistic and rattled.

The reason: It took countless scientists and their lobbyists more than 15 years just to get lawmakers’ attention. A dire 2009 report about “The Problem,” authored by more than five dozen researchers, ultimately helped slip the first earnest funding request into the national budget in 2009. Congressional committees squabbled over if and how to spend $20 million of taxpayers’ money — it took them three years to make up their minds.


“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about plutonium-238,” said Jim Adams, the former deputy boss of NASA’s planetary science division.

At the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., Adams stares through the glass at the nuclear wonder that powered his generation’s space exploration. Amid the fake moon dust sits a model of SNAP-27, a plutonium-238-fueled battery that every lunar landing after Apollo 11 to power its science experiments. “My father worked on the Lunar Excursion Model, which that thing was stored on, and it’s still up there making power,” Adams said.

Just a few steps away is a model of the first Viking Lander, which touched down on Mars in 1976 and began digging for water and life. It found neither. “We didn’t dig deep enough,” Adams said. “Just 4 centimeters below the depth that Viking dug was a layer of pristine ice.”

One floor up, a model of a Voyager spacecraft hangs from the ceiling. The three nuclear power supplies aboard the real spacecraft are what allow Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, to contact the Earth after 36 years. Any other type of power system would have expired decades ago.

The same technology fuels the Cassini spacecraft, which continues to survey Saturn, sending a priceless stream of data and almost-too-fantastic-to believe images of that planet and its many moons. New Horizons’ upcoming flyby of Pluto — nine and a half years in the making — wouldn’t be possible without a reliable source of nuclear fuel.

The Viking lander needed to dig deeper. Now we do, too.

Is It Safe to Launch Nuclear Batteries?

Anti-nuclear activists often state that just one microscopic particle of plutonium-238 inhaled into the lungs can lead to fatal cancer. There’s something to the claim, as pure plutonium-238 — ounce-for-ounce — is 270 times more radioactive than the plutonium-239 inside nuclear warheads. But the real risks to anyone of launching a nuclear battery are frequently mis-represented or misunderstood.
Statisticians compare apples to apples by looking at a threat’s severity, likelihood and affected population. An asteroid able to wipe out 1.5 billion people, for example, hits Earth about once about every 500,000 years — so the risk is high-severity, yet low-probability. Nuclear battery disasters, meanwhile, exist as low-severity and low-probability events, even near the launch pad.

Cassini, for example, left Earth with the most plutonium of any spacecraft at 72 pounds . Late in that probe’s launch there was about a 1 in 476 chance of plutonium release. If that had happened, fatalities over 50 years from that release would have numbered an estimated 1/25th of a person per the safety design of its nuclear batteries. The overall risk of cancer to a person near the launch pad during an accident was estimated at 7 in 100,000. Beyond that zone, risk was even lower.

Statisticians also considered a second hypothetical and potentially dangerous event with Cassini. To get to Saturn, the spacecraft swung back toward and flew within 600 miles of Earth, zooming by at tens of thousands of miles per hour. The chance of releasing plutonium then was less than 1 in a million. If a release of plutonium occurred, statisticians estimated it might cause 120 cancer fatalities — for the whole planet — over 50 years. By contrast, natural background radiation likely claims a million lives a year, and lightning strikes about 10,000 lives.

A launch accident with NASA’s Curiosity rover had a roughly 1 in 250 chance of releasing plutonium. But the low chance of cancer fatalities brought individual risk down to about 1 in 5.8 million. “I feel that they’re completely safe,” said Ryan Bechtel, DOE’s nuclear battery safety manager. “My entire family was there at Curiosity’s launch site.”

7 minutes of terror – NASA style

25 Jun


MSL (Mars Science Laboratory) Style. 

Mars Science Laboratory (MSL, or Curiosity) is a Mars rover launched by NASA on November 26, 2011.[1][3] Currently en route to the planet, it is scheduled to land in Gale Crater at about 05:31 UTC on August 6, 2012. The rover’s objectives include searching for past or present life, studying the Martian climate, studying Martian geology, and collecting data for a future manned mission to Mars.[11]

Curiosity is about five times larger than the Spirit or Opportunity Mars exploration rovers,[12] and carries over ten times the mass of scientific instruments. It will attempt a more precise landing than previous rovers, within a landing ellipse of 7 km by 20 km,[13] in the Aeolis Palus region of Gale Crater. This location is near the mountain Aeolis Mons (formerly called “Mount Sharp”).[14][15] It is designed to explore for at least 687 Earth days (1 Martian year) over a range of 5–20 km (3–12 miles).[16]

The Mars Science Laboratory mission is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort for the robotic exploration of Mars, and the project is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of California Institute of Technology. When MSL launched, the program’s director was Doug McCuistion of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.[17] The total cost of the MSL project is about US$2.5 billion.[18]



Curiosity’s mission site: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/msl/index.html

Drag racing pioneers or suicidal nutjobs?

21 Nov

This is basically a tribute to the crazy bastards who risked life and limb for that last bit of speed… and were willing to play with untold amounts of self-igniting, super toxic, incredibly unstable and deadly rocket fuel to get it.

Warning: It’s long, and I won’t Cliff’s Notes it.

Hydrazine was first used as a rocket fuel during WWII for the Messerschmitt ME163B. Hydrazine is also used as a low-power monopropellant for the maneuvering thrusters of spacecraft, and the space shuttle’s auxiliary power unit.

I’ve been doing some entertaining reading this morning. Mostly about the early days of drag racing… and more specifically, the use of hydrazine as a fuel additive. It all started when I came across a thread about a guy who found a 20lt drum of hyrdazine in the shop of a local drag racer who passed away.

He got responses like this:

Labratory Mice get Cancer just thinking about Shit like this.


DON’T FUCK AROUND WITH THIS STUFF!It is HIGHLY TOXIC! It is of the family of fuels that are known as.”oxygen scavengers” their latent heat value increases dramatically in the presence of oxygen.DO NOT BREATHE it in!It is very corrosive to non-ferrous metals when combined with water.It was banned in the 60’s from drag racing because some people were mixing it with nitromethane and getting a crude and very unstable form of nitroglycerine!I think Chris Karamesines still holds the “altitude record” for lofting a GMC blower when an engine he was running with a nitro/hydrazine mix exploded.I think it’s still used as an ingredient in liquid-fueled rocket engines.BAD NEWS SHIT!


The MSDS sheets read like a horror movie (sidenote: the racer who had the barrel stashed away… died of cancer )

Well that piqued my interest, so I did some more searching.

I’ll quote the stories word for word. Maybe they’ll be as entertaining to someone else as they were to me:

First an article, then some personal accounts.

The Doomsday weapon of the sixties

By Steve Reasbeck

Alton, Illinois, Sunday, April 4, 1960; on a typical spring Sunday in the Midwest – cool, crisp, and clear. The local drag strip is hosting a match race between one of the heaviest hitters of the day, Chris Karamesines Chicago based slingshot, powered by what was becoming the standard powerplant of fuel racing, the 392 Chrysler Hemi. The nickname for the hemi headed engines that were production equipment in big Chryslers was Chizlers, and the Golden Greek had named his state of the art slingshot after the engine itself.

On this particular Sunday, the Golden Greek’s Chrysler was ready to go in a manner that was a bit unprecedented. When the car was push started; many knowledgeable and seasoned watchers noted that the engine sounded a bit different – the cackle a bit louder, crisper. Don Maynard, the exceptionally sharp crew chief of the Chi-town star, appeared to have really done his homework.

The Greek left in the manner typical of dragsters of the day, the two rear tires throwing off a rooster tail plume of smoke. However, the car started to pull at mid range – hard –much harder than ever before. After a brief period of silence, the announcer read off the timers’ reading to the crowd – 8.82 @ 204.50 – a good 30 mph faster than the typical time of the day. The Greek did not back up the astounding mph that day, and did not in the immediate years afterward. However, a 199 mph clocking in Kansas a couple of weeks later indicated again that the Chizler had indeed come upon something.

What was the difference this time? Over the years, dark accusations and less than complimentary statements were made concerning the driver, the facility, and the pass itself. A hoax, it was called a PR stunt. Maybe…but, then again, maybe it was not.

The Greek had a secret that day and it was a dangerous, volatile secret. It was the same secret that would launch the USA’s Titan Rockets into space to put mankind into space orbit. The secret that the Soviet Union would use to power their ballistic missiles designed to thwart the threat of US aircraft. That secret was Hydrazine. Over the years, Hydrazine would prove to be the additive to use to put one’s name on the map, to make the “1320 news” as one of the players. It would also prove to be one of the most dangerous products that one could run, and would result in the destruction of equipment, and the injury of competitors

Hydrazine, technically named anhydrous hydrazine (N2H4) is basically designed as an oxygen-scavenging agent, and is primarily used in rocket technology. It has the aroma of ammonia, but is clear and colorless – and is extremely caustic. If absorbed through the skin, it would make one extremely ill, and in NASA environments one must use protective clothing to work with it. Its oxygen scavenging capabilities were so powerful that it was generally used at only 10cc per one gallon of nitro.

A monopropellant, (which means that it does not require an oxidizer to be a propellant) it uses a catalyst for ignition. It is typically used on spacecraft thrusters to adjust attitude and trajectory. Used also in liquid fueled rockets, often mixed with “hypergolic” fuels such as nitric acid, it requires no ignition source and combusts spontaneously. Nitromethane is also a “hypergolic” fuel, which is where its use in fuel dragsters came in.

Jim Miller, a Texas based Super Stock racer who has an extensive background with Hydrazine through both his military and NASA careers, states that it’s use in an internal combustion fuel motor is a bad combination.

“Since nitro (CH3NO2) carries oxygen with it already, and hydrazine needs that oxygen it makes for a bad combination. That would make a ready made bomb mixed in the right proportions.”

A 70’s era crew chief once told Miller that he set a record with only 2% hydrazine mixed with 90% nitro and 8% methanol.

Although relatively stable to store and transport, its reaction with other chemicals were unknown and could be extremely dangerous. A spokesman for one of the nation’s largest producers, appalled that hot rodders were messing with it in internal combustion engines, commented, “There is no way to pinpoint every phase of the reaction between hydrazine and nitromethane”, and went on to state it could easily “result in unexplainable engine explosions. You have got to remember that hydrazine can burst into flame when merely spilled on iron oxide (rusted metal)!”

Its use had been with drag racing since the early years. Not used until the use of hot fuels began early hot rodders in Southern California soon figured out that hot fuels would increase the performance of their early dragsters.

Miller added, “I would not think it would mix well with gasoline.”

Some were involved with the fledgling space program out at Edwards Air Force base, and soon they discovered that this magic elixir might indeed make their already developed out flatheads push the envelope just a bit more. Among early users were Jack Chrisman, as well as carburetor and fuel injection pioneer Holly Hedrich. What they found was that Hydrazine would push the flatties to about 380 horsepower, up about 90 from a state of the art, fully prepped nitro powered flattie. The down side, however, is that they generally only lasted for one or two nitro runs, and then became instant junk. The main webs and rods had a tendency to blow apart, taking everything else with them. As a result, its use was pretty much shelved after this sobering discovery.

The quest for speed, though, is addictive, so the success of the use of Hydrazine would prove too tempting. This would cause racers to tempt fate and use it to get those big numbers that would launch them into the record books. The Ramchargers 65 altered wheelbase Dodge cracked the eight-second barrier for the first time at Cecil County Maryland in the summer of 65, thus becoming the first stock bodied car into the eights. When driver Jim Thornton tripped the timers at 8.91, the Moon tank had been topped off with a dose of Hydrazine mixed in with the alcohol/nitro.

In 1967, Ed Schartman’s flip top Roy Steffey Enterprises Comet dominated the Indy Nationals, clocking a jaw dropping 8.28 on the FC final. Crew Chief Roy Steffey’s secret – you guessed it – Hydrazine. Along with the record setting performances, though, was continuing carnage. The Cleveland based SCS Comet was the last widely known use of hydrazine, however, and although

it was used off and on in years to come its use began to wane.

As the technology of the sport progressed, it became apparent that the engines were at the point where the good old nitromethane/methanol mix was capable of producing enough usable horsepower to make the cars run quick and fast. The technology was developing in other areas, and it was simply getting to the point where it was not a cost-effective option.

Every sport and every endeavor grows through innovation. Drag racing was and is no exception. However, one only needs to spend some time with some of the true pioneers of our sport to realize the extent of innovation attempted, and its subsequent cost in both dollars as well as physical injury. However, the use of Hydrazine propelled early racers to phenomenal performances, which resulted in big headlines throughout the racing world. Those early 200 mph times, however controversial, helped develop the quarter mile into a major motorsport, so perhaps it is just another reminder of the debt that today’s competitors owe those that came before.

PS. As you read the personal accounts, think about this. These days, this is what it takes to handle this stuff.

Operators in scape suits make adjustments to the monitoring equipment in preparation for the hydrazine fueling activities for the Herschel spacecraft.

And now for some personal accounts from guys that were there.

Hat’s off to these fucking crazy sonsofbitches.

One of my Viper brothers, the late and sorely missed, John Hogan, used to work for Chris Karamazines, the Golden Greek. This was way back in the sixties, I know if we say we remember the sixties we weren’t really there, whatever. The Greek used to try every and anything to go faster and quicker. One of the craziest things was using hydrazine as an exciter and oxigenator for Nitro. John said he used to have to keep the 8oz of hydrazine in a box full of ice, covered with a towel. The Greek would do his burn out and after he backed up John would open the fuel tank and add the stuff while they took off the throttle stop and switched the pump to the high side. As soon as the pump picked the mixed potion up the engine started heaving and barking and making a hellacious noise. Started throwing big GREEN flames in the air. Then the green light would go on and the car would launch like nothing ever seen before. The deal was that they had to run the whole tank out or it would become hypergolic and blow a crater in the track. So they idled the car back down the return road until the tank was used up. Of course NHRA got wind of this shit and banned hydrazine in competition. Those were the days. The saying went something like: “If the ground is shakin; and the flames are green, he must be using that Hydrazine.” And that’s the inspiration for my calling my chili the Hydrazine Flash!


Once upon a time in the south……yea, some of us used Hydrazine….

Every now and then we would add a drop or two……kept it in a vinegar bottle in the glove compartment of our push truck…..

One of our “competitors” insisted that we give him some of our “special sauce”…we did, along with instructions……”DO NOT PUT IT ALL IN AT ONE TIME”…….he did not heed our warnings……heard this horrible sound…a certain hemi, with the front wheels sitting up on the trailer, just started up…something was definately going on there……looked over and saw him running around the car, pulling wires off, it still ran…..sounded like 10,000 rpms…..then the crank blew out on the ground……..we left.

That stuff was hell on parts, but was good for a while. I tried some in an old panhead…..big mistake.


“Wait, I’m old….I remember….I think!! If it’s burnin’ green–It’s hydrazine. One night at the “beach” I noticed a jr fueler(remember REAL jr fuel–850 lbs & the whole can) runnin’ kinda green. They came back to the pits to cool it down where the hoses and mud were. They parked it and walked away to get some hot-dogs or something. About 5 minutes later there was a loud explosion, and the cylinder heads had blown OFF the SBC and were just layin’ in the cool-down area.ANHYRDOUS ‘ZINE…exciting and unpredictable!I’m a professional….Don’t try this at home!!”

Shows what a crazy thing it really was…


I used to hang with a lot of heavy hitters from the 60’s that had top fuel dragsters. Most of them never messed with hydrazine. It was added to the tank in very small quantities right before the run. If it was allowed to remain in the tank or fuel system after the run; it began to gel and turned into a Class A explosive. If you tried to fire the car after it sat for awhile there was a possibility that the engine would explode similar to hydraulicing a motor. There was at least one pit death and some injuries that resulted from this.


Well, I have CRS real bad, but I do remember one story from Indy “68 or “69 about when nobody wanted to admit they used it.
I had reunited with Walton/Anderson for a few races and went to help. As anyone who ran the stuff knew, there was a story that anything over 5% of the stuff would turn the mix to a class A explosive within 20 minutes! Nobody knew if it was true or not, but did NOT want to find out!
I think I remember 65 T/F cars shooting for 32 spots. In the first three pair, there were oildowns, they didn’t do as good of a job as today, and were pretty quick clean ups but were almost 25 minutes behind from when the session started.
When the next pair BOTH blew up and oiled both lanes, Walton and I looked at each other and panicked ! Off came the nose, out came the tank and main line and a rush over to the grass area to dump it. While it was draining, I looked up to see about six or eight other guys also draining theirs.


Hydrazine it what the Germans powererd the Me 163 Comet with. They occasionaly blew up in flight as they flew through turbulence. Unstable shit.
These planes killed more than 50% of their pilots, they never lost one to enemy action.


A great friend of mine who passed away last year, James “Boston” Smith had some good hydrazine stories. He grew up traveling during the summers with Ezra Boggs and the Moby Dick funny car team in the 60’s and 70’s. Pretty good summer vacations for young kid. The original funny car summer.
Part of his job was pulling the drain plug on the fuel tank when the car got back to the pits when they were running a special fuel mix. Drain it into the ground and purge the system with methanol. According to his tales, every second counted. Said you could tell someone was running hydrazine when they’re car would “mysteriously” blow up in the pits after a run, or on the way back. If you knew someone was running the stuff, you took your time staging. One day he commented to me how he was another victim of hydrazine cancer. Apparently the stuff is extremely carcinogenic.
Here’s to all those who can’t be here, a round for the house


I have a good friend “dick belfattii- The Shadow” who was one of the original “greek fleet” fuel cars in the early 60’s. he played with hydrozine in his fuel car anlong with buddies karamasinis & don maynard and later payed a heffty price for it ,burned the skin off his legs after his engine exploded at a match race in York pa. that explosion made him a team owner and he had bobby vodnick do the driving after that. see the pics of the engine after the explosion (nitro/alky/hydrozine) dick said the hydrozine was good for about 10 mph on the top end (if you got the mix right?)


I once saw a sbc top fuel motor blow the valve covers and oil pan off the still running motor while staging(back when they push started toward the starting line and crossed over). Hydrazine was the accepted reason and it was later banned. Lots of unbanned stuff is found while trying to gain “maximum competitive advantage” and later made illegal. If you have not crowded the line on the rules, you have never raced sucessfully


Hydrazine however – nasty nasty stuff.

I heard that at nationals one year everyone was running ‘zine and there was a LOT of engine explosions. And after the third one everyone was running back to the pits and dumping their tank onto the grass before the stuff got too unstable and blew up the car!

I also heard of one digger that was sitting there after they drained the tank not running, and suddenly the engine blew one of the cylinder heads and blower right off of it because of the hydrazine laced nitro left in the injector lines and cylinders from cutting the mag while it was running.

If you ever look at some of those old color night photos of the md 60’s fuelers, some of them are blasting out green flames! Thats hydrazine!

“If the ground is a-shaken, and the flames are green, they is-a runnin’ that hydrazine!”

A few more…


Just a word of advice…if you get something on your hands and can immediatly taste it in your mouth….you have just screwed up big time.

Just make sure you have a will and your family is provided for


What do you get when you mix Nitromethane and Hydrazine?

Burned pistons. Cylinder heads that clear the grandstands. Vaporized superchargers. In other words, carnage.

If you use it quick, you get gobs of power. If you let it sit more than 5 or 10 minutes, you get a class III explosive that will detonate if you sneeze to hard…


It’s really not too surprising that when you take a nitrated(oxygen bearing)fuel and mix it with an,”oxygen scavenger”(a fuel whose latent heat value rises dramatically in the presence of oxygen),you are essentially left with a very crude(and unstable)form of nitroglycerin.You get about the same result mixing potassium permanganate and red fuming nitric acid although if you pour one into the other the wrong way it explodes.Bad mojo.


Hydrazine is extremely nasty shit. It is what is used in the space shuttle’s attitude control thrusters.

It’s a mono-propellant, which to the layman means it can go boom all by itself, no second reactant needed

It’s also highly carcinogenic.

It’s clear and smells like ammonia. Don’t ask how I know.


From what i hear it killed a lot of engines at the drags too untill it was banned. Stories of engine blocks falling in half. Another story relayed to me was of maybe tom senter or one of the early flathead pioneers running a stock flatmotor on it it made amazing HP for about 30seconds
then let go


There were a couple of deaths in the pits, I heard. NHRA won’t talk about it though. Liability issues, I guess. I remember a Jr Fueler the blew the heads off in the pits at Lions.


I think they’re STILL trying to clean up some stuff like that that they spilled around here back during the space race in the early 50’s…


Not positive, but I THINK it was Sneeky Pete who found out the hard way-
that it’s so highly oxygenated that it will burn back up the fuel line like a fuse and make your Moon tank into a car bomb.


I had access to hydrazine in the 50’s when I worked at Boeing.
I can tell you, It REALLY makes a flathead go fast.

(the post-it note is from David Freiburger to Gray Baskerville). Rumored to be a hydrazine related “failure”

From an article called “Great Race: 1969 US Nationals”

During the hey-day of N2H4 fun.

Contributing to the fun of watching what were essentially full-size street car look-alikes snake down the track to low seven-second, 200-mph times was the reliability of the automatic-transmission-equipped Funny Cars. Mixed in with the Top Fuel dragsters’ great times were more destroyed engines, superchargers, and centrifugal clutches — the result of hydrazine in the nitromethane and the fatiguing heat generated by the still new centrifugal-clutch technology — than any previous NHRA national event in memory.

If you can find this issue, there’s a piece in it called “A Look at Hydrazine.”

Can you imagine if they tried printing that today?

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