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Taming Liquid Hydrogen: The Centaur Upper Stage Rocket, 1958-2002
By Virginia P. Dawson and Mark D. Bowles
Published 2004


Taming Liquid Hydrogen chronicles the story of Centaur, the world’s first liquid-hydrogen rocket. Although never identified with the dream of landing human beings on the Moon, or the product of a massive military program like the Atlas, Centaur has enjoyed an unusually long and sometimes controversial career as an upper stage rocket. Today, liquid hydrogen is routinely used in many of the world’s launch vehicles, including the Space Shuttle. The authors argue that the development of liquid hydrogen for space propulsion can be considered one of the significant technical achievements of twentieth-century American rocketry.

Taming Liquid Hydrogen focuses on technical and political hurdles that Centaur faced over the three decades that it was managed by NASA Lewis (Glenn) Research Center. Centaur’s high-energy hydrogen fuel transformed the Atlas and Titan missiles into launch vehicles capable of sending space probes to the outer reaches of the solar system. The vehicle of choice for a series of spectacular planetary missions in the 1970s, Centaur was nearly phased out in the early 1980s when space policy dictated that all missions be carried out by the reusable Space Shuttle. The Book critically explores NASA’s effort to modify Centaur for launch from the Shuttle’s cargo bay—a controversial project canceled in the wake of the Challenger accident. Today, Centaur represents the successful transfer of technology from the government to the private sector; it still flies as the upper stage for the redesigned Atlas family of commercial rockets manufactured by Lockheed Martin.

    Published Reviews: "I enthusiastically recommend this book for anyone interested in space history…For technologists and project management fans, the story of translating the theoretical advantages of liquid hydrogen as a fuel into reality is entrancing."
    --James A. Painter, National Air and Space Museum, Air Power History (Summer 2005).
    Award Winner: Taming Liquid Hydrogen won the prestigious 2004 American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics History Manuscript Award. This is presented each year for the best historical manuscript dealing with the science, technology, and/or impact of aeronautics and astronautics on society.