My father, Harold Kaufman, is in the NASA Hall of Fame for his work on ion rocket engines. Ion propulsion uses vaporized, ionized mercury fired through charged grids. The actual mass of ionized particles is small, so the engine can’t lift a rocket out of the earth’s gravitational pull. But in space, the accelerated particles could theoretically propel a craft at speeds approaching twenty miles per second.
The Kaufman Engine has additional applications, from satellite orbit maintenance to depositing thin layers of materials used in integrated circuit processing. Growing up, my father brought home versions of his engine. I took them to show-and-tell.
We studied the skies, too. Dad saved lunch money to buy a telescope. Together, we built a wheel-within-a-wheel contraption that, with the help of star charts, could pinpoint locations for a telescope. Saturn. Jupiter. The Pleiades. The Andromeda Galaxy. All a part of my childhood.
In second grade, I designed a rocket, meant to carry me to the moon. Though I’d barely begun construction, I felt it was time to solve the problem of fuel, so I headed to the corner gas station with a five gallon can. Dad quickly put an end to that project, but in its place, we began building model rockets. We discovered Estes, a Colorado company that sold kits and solid fuel. I launched a hundred of these models—some with cameras and payload compartments. (My apologies to the earthworm.)
As an adult, I continued to design rockets, each one sillier than the last. One issue with real rockets involves drag (less drag means better acceleration). But model rockets leapt off of the launch rod, almost too fast to follow. I began designing drag into my rockets to make the launches seem more “realistic.”
Dad’s gone now, but my obsession with rockets remains. Like my other obsessions (baseball, the Alamo, blues guitar), I am best at expressing that fixation through writing. This week, my novel Dread Tribunal of Last Resort will be released by Five Star/Cengage. Set during the Civil War, the novel follows Decker Brown, a would-be fireworks manufacturer who finds himself at key moments in Civil War history having to do with rocketry.
A novice rocketeer with unusual ideas was easy to imagine.
The Civil War was an interesting time for technology. Submarine warfare, rocketry, trench warfare and aircraft carriers are things normally associated with other wars. But they were part of the Civil War story.
Civil War rockets were notoriously inaccurate. Great attention was paid to the design of the rocket, and almost none to the fuel. Odd, since black powder propellant had pockets that doled out thrust in fits and starts—a major contributor to inaccuracy Decker Brown is very interested in what he calls chemisms. This interest is a natural result of his knowledge of illuminations (fireworks), which use various chemical substances to create colored light effects.
Dad was encouraging of all my obsessions. (Though he disliked sports, we played catch most every summer evening.) But the obsession that was closest to his heart involved rockets. When I think back to time spent with him, I think of nights bent over a telescope and rockets hurtling through space. I hope that readers can glean a hint of those wonderful memories in the story of Decker Brown.