Rocket Science

Peter Wood

            In the 1950s, as the United States raced against the Soviet Union to put rockets into space and to gain earth orbit, American scientists and engineers struggled with daunting new technical problems. A key advance came in Allegany Ballistics Laboratory’s X241 rocket engine that on September 18, 1959 lifted a Vanguard satellite into orbit. It was a third-stage motor that provided 2,720 pounds of thrust for 36 seconds. 

            The key innovation in the X241 was the replacement of the metal casing used on previous rockets with a fiberglass composite. The stuff was called Spiralloy, and was made by “winding layered glass filament coated with liquid resin in a cross-hatched helical pattern over a large cylindrical mandrel.”   In essence, it was an exceptionally strong, light-weight material that could be formed in any shape the rocket engineers needed. 

             Spiralloy was the invention of Richard E. Young (1904-1969). Young had been a test pilot back in the days of bi-wings and had helped to craft some planes of his own, including the 1936 Brown-Young BY-1, with an all-metal fuselage, fabric-covered, reverse-stagger wings, and an underslung lower wing. 

            Somehow in World War II, Young landed a job with a British think tank, M. W. Kellogg that was working on the Manhattan Project.   There he began to “play around” (his words) with spools and resins and discovered some basic processes. In history of technology books, he has the somewhat curious appellation, “Father of Modern Filament Winding.” He received a basic patent on his invention of fiberglass polyester rocket motor cases in 1946 and went on to form his own company, Young Development Laboratories. 

            Young established his lab in 1951 on 40 acres of land near Princeton, where he also built his house and an airfield for his two Cessnas. As it happens, the National Association of Scholars now resides in part of the office complex he built on the site. Or it seems to. The details are a little vague. When Young died suddenly in 1969, his widow sold the estate, which had grown to over a hundred acres. Part of it became the Princeton Airport, across the way from the NAS offices, which has a steady traffic of small craft and helicopters during the day. Part of it is the office park that NAS inhabits. And the largest part is Van Horne Park, created by Princeton’s municipal neighbor Rocky Hill in 2004. The Park is a welcome open expanse in Princeton’s heavily-wooded, heavily-mansioned, and university-girded hillsides.   Part of it has been barbered into Little League fields, a soccer field, and a plastic kiddie playground—are those tubes made of some chemical descendant of Spiralloy? There’s also a horseshoe pitch and a forlorn gazebo. But most of it is treeless weeds, creating a kind of heath, traversed by paths. 

            Van Horne Park doesn’t seem to be heavily used by the folks of Rocky Hill. I go biking and walking there and seldom see anyone other than an occasional dog walker. But it is a wonderful spot to get a sense of the local terrain: the succession of low slung ridges rising from the coastal New Jersey plain.   It has a pleasant sense of emptiness, but some sad touches too. The unused horseshoe pits speak of a town’s wistful imagining of a civic conviviality in the era of Bowling Alone. Where are the people? Half a mile away, the parking lot of the Princeton Health and Wellness Center is crammed full. The people are inside with their iPods on, spinning the wheels of their stationary bikes and pounding out their miles on the treadmills.

            Deep in Van Horne Park, along the edge of a footpath, stands a kiosk which identifies Richard E. Young and gives an abbreviated account of the “space age” inventor. Inevitably, I suppose, it bears witness to teenage vandals who have smashed its plexiglass into shards. A metal Louisville slugger lies nearby in the weeds—testimony perhaps to the frustration of kids who couldn’t find enough other players to start a game. (Rocky Hill, take note. Your only tribute to your greatest benefactor lies broken.)


Father Filament

            Since NAS by circumstance finds itself attached to this history, I’ve tried to learn a little more about the man and his inventions. The “Father of Modern Filament Winding” has a scant biography. Most of his work was classified as secret during his lifetime. One source is a biographical piece by Andres Rusnak about Larry Ashton, another composite materials engineer who was Young’s close friend and protégé.   Rusnak wrote a profile of Ashton in the May 2007 issue of Composite Manufacturing. Ashton recalled visiting Young’s Rocky Hill lab in 1959, when Young was helping to build the Minuteman missile:

            “He was a typical example of a guy who started out being hands-on, a know how to do it type person, an inventor if you want to call it that. He had his own plane, and whenever he and his wife used to fly cross country, they always stopped in Salt Lake to visit.” Ashton also commented on Young’s house, which the engineer had fabricated largely out of his own high-tech materials. It was perhaps the only house in the world made out of Cold War secret materials, a gingerbread house constructed of “filament wound fiberglass.” 

            Unfortunately, what worked for rocket engines didn’t work so well in Rocky Hill:

            “A lot of the house consisted of long sections of tubes. It was funny because he used a Shell resin, something like a Shell hardener Y and cured it a nice pale green color. But it was epoxy and epoxy weathers badly outdoors, exposed to ultra violet light. So it kind of went to pot.” The design, however, modeled on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian house, caught public attention . In 1968 it was featured in a photo spread in the New York Times—Richard and his wife Florence posed in their living room with their Cessnas parked outside.

            Another document that turned up was a declassified report by a member of a British engineering team that in November and December 1953 visited U.S. firms working on plastic rocket motor bodies.   The document is repeatedly stamped “SECRET” and, more charmingly, “DISCREET,” but is it is evident that these visitors were swopping up as much technical data as possible, having concluded that “reinforced plastics for the manufacture of rocket motors" was the wave of the future. The document’s author announces the “objective” of the mission is “to acquire sufficient knowledge of Young Development Laboratories' machines and processes to enable [the British company, Imperial Chemical industries] to build a similar machine and to produce helically reinforced plastic motor bodies at Summerfield at the earliest possible moment.”   It seems unlikely that Dick Young realized that his hospitality was being abused in quite this way, and we are left to wonder if Agent 007 was along for the trip. 

            If so, he returned with the details of tube winding machines, end closures, nozzles, and the achievement of motor cases in which every component, including the grain hold back springs, had been made in reinforced plastics.” Young personally explained the fine points, and here and there the British spies express in their report a dollop of skepticism. “He [Young] outlined an idea he had, which tended toward the braiding technique, by which the amount of glass laid on could be increased very greatly but it is very questionable if the accuracy of the wind could be maintained.”

            So what should we make of this man? There seems too little to go on to paint a full-scale portrait, but his life does seem to blaze up in historical interest: a hands-on aviation pioneer of the Howard Hughes (b. 1905) generation, who tumbled into the Manhattan Project, America’s greatest secret of the Twentieth Century, and then imagined for himself a whole new space-age industry.   He seems a naïf in some ways, with his plastic house disintegrating in the sunlight and his gracious welcome to a team of industrial spies. But somehow his life was spent in the midst of great historical developments: the rise of the aviation industry, the creation of the atomic bomb, the Cold War, and the invention of the materials that gave us successful access to outer space. 

            Followed, of course, by the undeserved obscurity that befalls a lot of interesting and worthy lives. Florence, who was a painter and a teacher, survived until 1997, when she died at age 90. 


            Nothing but coincidence puts Richard E. Young and the National Association of Scholars on the same page, but coincidence often rewards attention. The NAS was born in the mid-1980s as the American university was in the full tide of “Cold War Revisionism”—the idea that the West in its feverish overreaction to communism was principally to blame for the world-wide hostilities of the preceding forty years.   It was a snide historical trope that trivialized the lives and erased the accomplishments of men like Richard Young, and it was part of the growing turn of liberal education against itself, as professors launched whole careers devoted to debunking the West and dismissing the claims of civilization itself.  

            That moment has passed. Cold War Revision itself looks like a relic, and its scholarship a monument to the bad faith of Western intellectuals as communism itself entered its terminal stages. In recent years there has been a tide of books, such as Jennet Conant’s Tuxedo Park and John Louis Gaddis’s The Cold War: A History, that have provided a more balanced and sober view of the perils of that age. Still, we are left with a university that inflicted intellectual enfeeblement on itself when it absorbed the basic anti-Western stance of Cold War Revisionism. That posture opened the way for much that followed: the notions that rationality is merely a mask for brute power; that literature and art are best seen as assertions of race, class, and sex; or that science produces only socially constructed knowledge. We continue to live with the consequences of these anti-intellectual infatuations.

            In the long view, of course, higher education will not go away, no matter what kind of mess my generation of college presidents and faculty members has made of it. Civilization will soldier on, though it may increasingly bypass the university as the instrument of its transmission. People still read books; musicians still make music; somewhere another Richard E. Young is playing around with spools and resins and inventing a new science. There are certain advantages to marginalization. Profound cultural change tends to come from the edges, not the centers—which have too much invested in the status quo to think seriously about what else might be done. One of Young’s contemporaries described him as “obsessed” with the “problem of strength-to weight ratios for rocket motor cases.”    Perhaps it was a Wright brothers’ sensibility: a determination to make solid objects take flight and an inner conviction that he could tinker his way past the obstacles.  

            We are incidentally in a great age of materials science. The fiber composites that Young invented evolved into materials Young might never have dreamed of—except that he did. And we are also in an age where physics has given us a strange vision of the underlying substance of the cosmos as a web of multi-dimensionally entangled strings. I suspect that the Father of Modern Filament Winding with his cross-hatched helical patterns would have enjoyed that thought.           

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