Liquid hydrogen was identified by all the leading rocket visionaries as the theoretically ideal rocket fuel. It had big drawbacks, however - it was highly cryogenic, and it had a very low density, making for large tanks. The United States mastered hydrogen technology for the highly classified Lockheed CL-400 Suntan reconnaissance aircraft in the mid-1950's. The technology was transferred to the Centaur rocket stage program, and by the mid-1960's the United States was flying the Centaur and Saturn upper stages using the fuel. It was adopted for the core of the space shuttle, and Centaur stages still fly today.
In Russia hydrogen fuelled upper stages were designed and developed by the mid-1970's, but the Russians never seem to have found the extra performance to be worth the extra cost. Europe and China developed liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen engines for upper stages of the Ariane and Long March launch vehicles.
The equilibrium composition of liquid hydrogen is 99.79 per cent parahydrogen and 0.21 per cent orthohydrogen. The boiling point of this composition is -253 deg C. Liquid hydrogen is transparent and without a characteristic odour. Gaseous hydrogen is colourless. Hydrogen is not toxic but is an extremely flammable material. The flammable limits of gaseous hydrogen in air are 4.0 to 75 volume percent.
Hydrogen is produced from by-product hydrogen from petroleum refining and the partial oxidation of fuel oil. The gaseous hydrogen is purified to 99.999+ per cent, and then liquefied in the presence of paramagnetic metallic oxides. The metallic oxides catalyse the ortho-para transformation of freshly liquefied hydrogen. Freshly liquefied hydrogen which has not been catalysed consists of a 3:1 ortho-para mixture and cannot be stored for any length of time because of the exothermic heat of conversion. The delivered cost of liquid hydrogen in 1960 was approximately $ 2.60 per kg. Large-scale production was expected to reduce the cost to $ 1.00 per kg. In the 1980's NASA was actually paying $ 3.60 per kg.