The SyFy.com article If we’re going to go to Mars, this is how we’ll have to deal with trash ends with

Mars and deep space will be an even greater challenge because astronauts will be too far from the home planet to receive regular shipments of supplies or send bulging trash bags back in cargo ships. The Heat Melt Compactor (top photo) is being developed to evaporate the water from trash before compacting it, and another emerging technology will turn trash into methane gas to use as rocket fuel.

Now, that is something that hasn’t yet been seen in a science fiction movie.

Yet. (emphasis added)

(via NASA)

Both liquid hydrogen (LH2) and liquids of long hydrocarbons such as kerosene (in the US as RP-1) have been widely used in rockets to help get payloads to Earth orbit, the Moon, and beyond, and Goddard's early experiments even used gasoline! However, the use of single-carbon liquid methane has been popularized more recently for engines such as BE-4 and Raptor.

Methane's usefulness as a rocket fuel was no secret, it's just that hydrogen and RP-1 ended up being used first, a little bit like Uranium and Plutonium were explored first for nuclear reactors (on Earth) even though Thorium had known potential. Decisions had to be made. See also answers to Why did it take so long for methane to be used as a rocket propellant?.

I'd like to know, when was methane first described as a rocket fuel in an SF story or plot? For the purposes of this question it should be a "space rocket", not just a rocket-propelled plane, train, or automobile, etc.

I'm also curious to know if the advantage of it being product of decomposition (natural gas, swamp gas, garbage fermentation, etc.) ever mentioned or used as a plot device. The block quote suggests this has never been part of a science fiction movie plot, but that leaves the much larger body of written SF still open.

More about the advantages of methane in several answers to Why is SpaceX considering Methane as fuel for their next engine, the Raptor?

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    I'm not sure what story, but I did find a reference to a methane-burning engine in a 1938 issue of Astounding Science Fiction: books.google.com/… – called2voyage Jul 9 '18 at 12:49
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    Also, your query about garbage fermentation reminds me of the Mr. Fusion from Back to the Future. Since nuclear fusion can be fueled by methane, it is possible this is how the Mr. Fusion works (more likely, it is just handwavium). – called2voyage Jul 9 '18 at 12:55
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    @called2voyage Your quotation is from the non-fiction article "Why Rockets Don't Fly" by Peter van Dresser in the October 1938 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction, which is available at the Internet Archive. – user14111 Jul 10 '18 at 2:36
  • @user14111 excellent, what fascinating read, thanks! – uhoh Jul 10 '18 at 2:58

In Rip Foster Rides the Gray Planet by Harold L. Goodwin (aka Blake Savage) 1952, the Space cruiser Scorpius uses methane for fuel. The Captain, who dislikes Planeteers (read Marines) details Foster's men to clean out the (radioactive) carbon deposits left behind in the cruiser's exhaust tubes.

"Foster, the designation SCN means Space Cruiser, Nuclear. This ship is powered by a nuclear reactor. In other words, an atomic pile. You've heard of one?"

Rip controlled his voice, but his red hair stood on end with anger. O'Brine was being deliberately insulting. This was stuff any new Planeteer recruit knew. "I've heard, sir."

"Fine. It's more than I had expected. Well, Foster, a nuclear reactor produces heat. Great heat. We use that heat to turn a chemical called methane into its component parts. Methane is known as marsh gas, Foster. I wouldn't expect a Planeteer to know that. It is composed of carbon and hydrogen. When we pump it into the heat coils of the reactor, it breaks down and creates a gas that burns and drives[pg 034] us through space. But that isn't all it does."

The gases go through tubes," O'Brine went on. "A little nuclear material also leaks into the tubes. The tubes get coated with carbon, Foster. They also get coated with nuclear fuel. We use thorium. Thorium is radioactive. I won't give you a lecture on radioactivity, Foster. But thorium mostly gives off the kind of radiation known as alpha particles. Alpha is not dangerous unless breathed or eaten. It won't go through clothes or skin. But when mixed with fine carbon, thorium alpha contamination makes a mess. It's a dirty mess, Foster. So dirty that I don't want my spacemen to fool with it.

"I want you to take care of it instead," O'Brine said. "You and your men. The deputy commander will assign you to a squadroom. Settle in, then draw equipment from the supply room and get going. When I want to talk to you again, I'll call for you. Now blast off, Lieutenant, and rake that radiation.[pg 035] Rake it clean."

Rip forced a bright and friendly smile. "Yes, sir," he said sweetly. "We'll rake it so clean you can see your face in it, sir." He paused, then added politely, "If you don't mind looking at your face, sir—to see how clean the tubes are, I mean."

  • I've edited the quote so it's not hidden by a spoiler, that doesn't seem necessary, and also added the line breaks I believe you were trying to create with the dashes. – TheLethalCarrot Jul 9 '18 at 16:09
  • Thanks. That was what I wanted to do but just leaving a line blank seemed to mess up the concealment. – Mike Stone Jul 9 '18 at 16:11
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    If you want spoiler markdown to span multiple lines I believe the easiest way is like >! text<br>some more text. It can be a bit awkward to do though and with long quotes you're probably better off doing >! text<br><br>some more text to add more space between paragraphs. – TheLethalCarrot Jul 9 '18 at 16:14

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