Rocket fuels, hypergolic or otherwise, must be mixed in the right quantities to have a controlled rate of production of hot gas. A hard start indicates that the quantity of combustible propellant that entered the combustion chamber prior to ignition was too large. The result is an excessive spike of pressure, possibly leading to structural failure or even an explosion (sometimes facetiously referred to as "spontaneous disassembly").
Avoiding hard starts involves careful timing of the ignition relative to valve timing or varying the mixture ratio so as to limit the maximum pressure that can occur or simply ensuring an adequate ignition source is present well prior to propellant entering the chamber.
Explosions from hard starts often cannot happen with purely gaseous propellants, since the amount of the gas present in the chamber is limited by the injector area relative to the throat area, and for practical designs propellant mass escapes too quickly to be an issue.
A famous example of a hard start was the explosion of Wernher von Braun's "1W" engine during a demonstration to General Dornberger on December 21, 1932. Delayed ignition allowed the chamber to fill with alcohol and liquid oxygen, which exploded violently. Shrapnel was embedded in the walls, but nobody was hit.
Rocket Combution: Combustion chamber
For chemical rockets the combustion chamber is typically just a cylinder, and flame holders are rarely used. The dimensions of the cylinder are such that the propellant is able to combust thoroughly; different propellants require different combustion chamber sizes for this to occur. This leads to a number called L
L = Vc/At where:Vc is the volume of the chamber
At is the area of the throat, L* is typically in the range of 25–60 inches (0.63–1.5 m).
The combination of temperatures and pressures typically reached in a combustion chamber is usually extreme by any standards. Unlike in air-breathing jet engines, no atmospheric nitrogen is present to dilute and cool the combustion, and the temperature can reach true stoichiometric. This, in combination with the high pressures, means that the rate of heat conduction through the walls is very high.