Saturday, July 20, marked the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing by the crew of the Apollo 11 mission. Three short years later, in 1972, the Apollo 17 mission would mark the last manned expedition to the moon. This is all common knowledge. What you may not know, however, is that when NASA launched the astronauts into space in December of that year, they sent a little bit of eastern Kentucky to the moon with them.
As they were planning for Apollo 17, the space agency contracted with Ashland Oil to produce the RP1 rocket fuel that would power the rockets that would propel the astronauts into space – 950,000 gallons of it, according to the internal company magazine. What they didn't know was that a sample of the highly refined kerosene would end up in a garage in Grayson for the next 47 years.
Donald P. Malone was a young chemical engineer at Ashland Oil at the time, explained his son Donald M. Malone – also a chemical engineer – when a sample of the fuel was sent to his father, likely for analysis. It was then that the senior Malone, realizing the historical significance of the fuel, likely bottled his sample of it. When his father passed, the younger Malone knew that he wanted to retrieve the sample and keep it safe.
"What this actually is is RP 1, which is what it says right here," Malone explained, pointing out the label his father placed on the sample bottle. "That stands for rocket propellant 1. It's the grade of fuel, just like JP 1 is jet propellant 1... this is a spec of fuel. RP 1, just like JP 1, JP 3 and JP 8, are different refined grades of, basically, kerosene. So it's highly refined kerosene."
"The reason it's highly refined," he continued, "is that rockets take tremendous torture. You've seen the ice falling off a rocket when it takes off? So parts of a rocket engine are cryogenically cold, because of the liquid oxygen and the liquid hydrogen. So it's minus 300 Fahrenheit. But of course the business end of the rocket is all fire. So parts of a rocket engine are terribly hot. So you have to have a fuel that can both withstand great cold, and not solidify – because petroleum will freeze up if it gets cold enough – and a product that will resist great temperature. That's kind of the challenge from an engineering point of view. So Ashland, and a few other people, could meet that challenge, and they made this fuel that met that spec, and they called it RP 1."
"It's nothing that is going to blow up in your hand," he explained. "It would burn just fine in a kerosene heater. But it is really expensive, highly refined kerosene."
In a rocket engine the fuel is combined with liquid oxygen so that it burns at an even higher temperature, providing the immense thrust needed to break free from the earth's atmosphere. The liquid oxygen also provides the oxygen needed for the fuel to burn in the oxygen free vacuum of space.
"It burns with the explosive power you see in the picture," Malone said of the rocket fuel and oxygen mixture.
"My father worked for most of his career with Ashland Petroleum Corporation, Ashand Oil, and he was in research and development for most of that time," Malone continued. "While he did all his work for Ashland he had a lot of fun, he got to do a lot of strange and fun things, because Ashland was a very creative company as far as oil companies went. So they did strange and fun things, and where he was in the research end, he got to experience all those strange and fun things... In the process he got hold of samples of material, because he had to run the specs on them, things like that. So that's how he came to get this product was he probably, I imagine, is he was probably running the specs on it (to make sure it was refined enough for rocket use.) He obviously thought it was neat enough to save."
It wasn't the only thing he thought was neat enough to save. His son said that his garage was more akin to the laboratory of a mad scientist than a place to park your car, and it was known in the neighborhood that if you needed something unique, you should come see his father. When the younger Malone went to clean out the garage after his father's passing he sent some of the items he had stored there to the University of Kentucky for proper storage or disposal. But the rocket fuel came home with him.
"This fueled the first stage of the rocket, which is when you're seeing all the (fire) as it's taking off, the first two and a half minutes of lauch. This is what powered it. And Ashland Oil, right there in Cattletsburg, was what sent them to the moon, which is kind of a neat story in and of itself. So not only do I have a bottle of it, which is kind of neatly logoed, which makes a good (display piece) the story alone, that our local refinery, sent people to the moon (is worthwhile.) So not only does it fill up our cars to this day, but it sent astronauts to the moon. That's kind of a neat story."
But the family has yet another story that points out what kind of character Malone's father was. Malone pointed out that the bottle wasn't completely full any longer. About half of it had been used at various times in the past. According to the story his father told, he had used some of the rocket fuel to help light a charcoal grill when he was out of conventional lighter fluid.
Not only was this quite possibly the most expensive charcoal accelerant ever used to fuel a barbecue, but it burns so cleanly that it likely made burgers and hot dogs that were out of this world.