Space Shuttle Launch

An example of acid rain that is principally due to hydrochloric acid occurs in
Cape Canaveral, Florida when a space shuttle is launched. The space shuttle has two
solid rocket boosters that operate for the first two minutes of flight to provide the
additional thrust needed for the shuttle to escape the gravitational pull of the earth. The
incredible amount of energy comes from the oxidation of aluminum to alumina by
ammonium perchlorate. This reaction produces about 60 tons of HCl close enough to the
ground to cause severe environmental damage in areas within 20 miles of the launch site.
In this lab you will observe a reaction between a gaseous acid and base. You will
then be asked to alter the reaction conditions and make new observations, speculating as
to how the new conditions affected the course of the reaction.
□ 1. Take the lid off a clean, dry petri dish. Turn the lid over and place it on the
chart below. Put 12 drops of 6 M HCl in a circle on the inside of the lid. Use the
black dots for spacing the drops.
□ 2. Place 1 drop of 6 M NH3 in the center of the dish bottom. Use the chart to
find the center.
□ 3. Turn the lid over and place it on the dish. Slide the covered dish over a black
piece of paper.
□ 4. Watch for a reaction in the petri dish, and record your observations.
□ 5. Rotate the lid a few degrees and observe, and record your observations.
□ 6. Repeat steps 1 - 3 using a clean, dry dish, but this time place the 12 drops of 6
M HCl on the bottom of the dish and the 1 drop of 6 M NH3 on the inside of the
lid. Record your observations.
□ 7. Obtain a clear polystyrene cup. Place 1 drop of 6 M HCl in the bottom of a
cup and 1 drop of 6 M NH3 on the lid of a petri dish or on a chemical resistant lab
table. Carefully invert and place the HCl cup on top of the NH3 drop. Record
your observations.
□ 8. Rotate the dish somewhat and observe. Record your observations.
□ 9. Press your finger against the cup over the drop of HCl, and record your
□ 10. Cup your hands around the sides of the cup and record your observations.
□ 11. Hold a piece of ice on the side of the cup and record your observations.
□ 12. Hold a piece of ice on the top of the cup over the HCl drop and record your

Questions and Calculations:
1. Where does the white powder always form?
2. What is the formula for the white powder?
3. Explain why a difference is observed when your finger is touched to the top of the
cup and when an ice cube is touched to the top of the cup.
4. Explain why a difference is observed when your hand touches the side of the cup
and when ice touches the side of the cup.
5. Which gas moves faster, HCl or NH3?
The following reaction details the chemistry involved in the operation of hte solid
rocket boosters; see if you can balance the equation.
NH4ClO4 +

Al !

HCl + Cl2 +

NO + Al2O3 +


Space Shuttle Launch
Teacher’s Supplement
Objectives: Students will…
• Observe the effects of the kinetic theory of gases through the diffusion of HCl and
NH3 vapors.
Prior Knowledge: Students should…
• Understand the concept of vapor pressure and diffusion.
Curriculum References:
1. State Goal 11
a. CAS B; CFS 1, 7-8
2. State Goal 12
a. CAS D; CFS 1-3
3. State Goal 13
a. CAS A; CFS 4
b. CAS B; CFS 2
c. CAS D; CFS 1-3
4. CASE Blueprint
a. CS 4; SI 4
b. CS 5; SI 4-5
Unfolding of Lesson:
Adjustments and Variations:
Guiding Questions:
1. This experiment can be used in connection with gas diffusion, vapor pressure,
gravity, or neutralization reactions.
2. Each time a space shuttle is launched, the solid rocket boosters release 240 tons of
HCl gas, 26 tons of chlorine gas, 7 tons of nitrogen dioxide gas, and 304 tons of
aluminum oxide into the atmosphere. The resulting hydrochloric acid dissolves eight
inches of concrete on the launch pad, raises the concentration of hydrochloric acid in
nearby lakes to 3 M, produces massive fish kills in the ocean, and destroys the paint on
cars. Leading chemists believe that the HCl is a major contributor to the holes in the
ozone layer.
3. Every launch the shuttle uses 1.1 million pounds of solid fuel propellant costing
1.72 million dollars. This solid propellant is 70% ammonium perchlorate (oxidizer), 16%
aluminum powder, 12% polybutadiene acrylic acid acrylo nitrite as a complex polymeric
binder, 2% epoxy curing agent and 0.17% iron oxide powder as a catalyst.

4. A challenge for your super students. Balance the following reaction for the space
shuttle launch assuming the following products:
NH4ClO4 + Al ! HCl + Cl2 + NO + Al2O3

+ H2O

Time (min)
Class business
Petri dishes
Discuss and compare results
1. Dr. Stephen Thompson, Chem Trek, Allyn and Bacon, 1989, “Space Shuttle
Launches: An Example of Severe Local Hydrochloric Acid Deposition.”
2. Pellett, Sevacher, Bendura and Wornom, “HCl in Rocket Exhaust Clouds:
Atmospheric Dispersion, Acid Aerosol Characteristics, and Acid Rain
Deposition,” Journal of the Air Pollution Control Association, April 1983.