History of Rockets
rockets are remarkable collections of human ingenuity that have their
roots in the science and technology of the past. They are natural outgrowths
of literally thousands of years of experimentation and research on rockets
and rocket propulsion.
of the first devices to successfully employ the principles essential
to rocket flight was a wooden bird. The writings of Aulus Gellius, a
Roman, tell a story of a Greek named Archytas who lived in the city
of Tarentum, now a part of southern Italy. Somewhere around the year
400 B.C., Archytas mystified and amused the citizens of Tarentum by
flying a pigeon made of wood. Escaping steam propelled the bird suspended
on wires. The pigeon used the action-reaction principle, which was not
stated as a scientific law until the 17th century.
three hundred years after the pigeon, another Greek, Hero of Alexandria,
invented a similar rocket-like device called an aeolipile. It, too,
used steam as a propulsive gas.
mounted a sphere on top of a water kettle. A fire below the kettle turned
the water into steam, and the gas traveled through pipes to the sphere.
Two L-shaped tubes on opposite sides of the sphere allowed the gas to
escape, and in doing so gave a thrust to the sphere that caused it to
when the first true rockets appeared is unclear. Stories of early rocket
like devices appear sporadically through the historical records of various
cultures. Perhaps the first true rockets were accidents. In the first
century A.D., the Chinese reportedly had a simple form of gunpowder
made from saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal dust. To create explosions
during religous festivals, they filled bamboo tubes with a mixture and
tossed them into fires. Perhaps some of those tubes failed to explode
and instead skittered out of the fires, propelled by the gases and sparks
produced by the burning gunpowder.
Chinese began experimenting with the gunpowder-filled tubes. At some
point, they attached bamboo tubes to arrows and launched them with bows.
Soon they discovered that these gunpowder tubes could launch themselves
just by the power produced from the escaping gas. The true rocket was
date reporting the first use of true rockets was in 1232. At this time,
the Chinese and the Mongols were at war with each other. During the
battle of Kai-Keng, the Chinese repelled the Mongol invaders by a barrage
of "arrows of flying fire." These fire-arrows were a simple form of
a solid-propellant rocket. A tube, capped at one end, contained gunpowder.
The other end was left open and the tube was attached to a long stick.
When the powder was ignited, the rapid burning of the powder produced
fire, smoke, and gas that escaped out the open end and produced a thrust.
The stick acted as a simple guidance system that kept the rocket headed
in one general direction as it flew through the air. It is not clear
how effective these arrows of flying fire were as weapons of destruction,
but their psychological effects on the Mongols must have been formidable.
the battle of Kai-Keng, the Mongols produced rockets of their own and
may have been responsible for the spread of rockets to Europe. All through
the 13th to the 15th centuries there were reports of many rocket experiments.
In England, a monk named Roger Bacon worked on improved forms of gunpowder
that greatly increased the range of rockets. In France, Jean Froissart
found that more accurate flights could be achieved by launching rockets
through tubes. Froissart's idea was the forerunner of the modern bazooka.
Joanes de Fontana of Italy designed a surface-running rocket-powered
torpedo for setting enemy ships on fire.
the 16th century rockets fell into a time of disuse as weapons of war,
though they were still used for fireworks displays, and a German fireworks
maker, Johann Schmidlap, invented the "step rocket," a multi-staged
vehicle for lifting fireworks to higher altitudes. A large sky rocket
(first stage) carried a smaller sky rocket (second stage). When the
large rocket burned out, the smaller
continued to a higher altitude before showering the sky with glowing
cinders. Schmidlap's idea is basic to all rockets today that go into
all uses of rockets up to this time were for warfare or fireworks, but
there is an interesting old Chinese legend that reported the use of
rockets as a means of transportation. With the help of many assistants,
a lesser-known Chinese official named Wan-Hu assembled a rocket- powered
flying chair. Attached to the chair were two large kites, and fixed
to the kites were forty- seven fire-arrow rockets.
the day of the flight, Wan-Hu sat himself on the chair and gave the
command to light the rockets. Forty-seven rocket assistants, each armed
with torches, rushed forward to light the fuses. In a moment, there
was a tremendous roar accompanied by billowing clouds of smoke. When
the smoke cleared, Wan-Hu and his flying chair were gone. No one knows
for sure what happened to Wan-Hu, but it is probable that if the event
really did take place, Wan-Hu and his chair were blown to pieces. Fire-arrows
were as apt to explode as to fly.
Becomes a Science
the latter part of the 17th century, the scientific foundations for
modern rocketry were laid by the great English scientist Sir Isaac Newton
(1642-1727). Newton organized his understanding of physical motion into
three scientific laws. The laws explain how rockets work and why they
are able to work in the vacuum of outer space. Newton's laws soon began
to have a practical impact on the design of rockets. About 1720, a Dutch
professor, Willem Gravesande, built model cars propelled by jets of
steam. Rocket experimenters in Germany and Russia
working with rockets with a mass of more than 45 kilograms. Some of
these rockets were so powerful that their escaping exhaust flames bored
deep holes in the ground even before lift-off.
the end of the 18th century and early into the 19th, rockets experienced
a brief revival as a weapon of war. The success of Indian rocket barrages
against the British in 1792 and again in 1799 caught the interest of
an artillery expert, Colonel William Congreve. Congreve set out to design
rockets for use by the British military.
Congreve rockets were highly successful in battle. Used by British ships
to pound Fort McHenry in the War of 1812, they inspired Francis Scott
Key to write "the rockets' red glare," words in his poem that later
became The Star- Spangled Banner.
with Congreve's work, the accuracy of rockets still had not improved
much from the early days. The devastating nature of war rockets was
not their accuracy or power, but their numbers. During a typical siege,
thousands of them might be fired at the enemy. All over the world, rocket
researchers experimented with ways to improve accuracy. An Englishman,
William Hale, developed a technique called spin stabilization. In this
method, the escaping exhaust gases struck small vanes at the bottom
of the rocket, causing it to spin much as a bullet does in flight. Variations
of the principle are still used today.
continued to be used with success in battles all over the European continent.
However, in a war with Prussia, the Austrian rocket brigades met their
match against newly designed artillery pieces. Breech-loading cannon
with rifled barrels and exploding warheads were far more effective weapons
of war than the best rockets. Once again, rockets were relegated to
1898, a Russian schoolteacher, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), proposed
the idea of space exploration by rocket. In a report he published in
1903, Tsiolkovsky suggested the use of liquid propellants for rockets
in order to achieve greater range. Tsiolkovsky stated that the speed
and range of a rocket were limited only by the exhaust velocity of escaping
gases. For his ideas, careful research, and great vision, Tsiolkovsky
has been called the father of modern astronautics.
in the 20th century, an American, Robert H. Goddard (1882-1945), conducted
practical experiments in rocketry. He had become interested in a way
of achieving higher altitudes than were possible for lighter-than-air
balloons. He published a pamphlet in 1919 entitled A Method of Reaching
Extreme Altitudes. It was a mathematical analysis of what is today called
the meteorological sounding rocket.
earliest experiments were with solid-propellant rockets. In 1915, he
began to try various types of solid fuels and to measure the exhaust
velocities of the burning gases. While
working on solid-propellant rockets, Goddard became convinced that a
rocket could be propelled better by liquid fuel. No one had ever built
a successful liquid-propellant rocket before. It was a much more difficult
task than building solid- propellant rockets. Fuel and oxygen tanks,
turbines, and combustion chambers would be needed. In spite of the difficulties,
Goddard achieved the first successful flight with a liquid- propellant
rocket on March 16, 1926. Fueled by liquid oxygen and gasoline, the
rocket flew for only two and a half seconds, climbed 12.5 meters, and
landed 56 meters away in a cabbage patch. By today's standards, the
flight was unimpressive, but like the first powered airplane flight
by the Wright brothers in 1903, Goddard's gasoline rocket was the forerunner
of a whole new era in rocket flight.
experiments in liquid-propellant rockets continued for many years. His
rockets became bigger and flew higher. He developed a gyroscope system
for flight control and a payload compartment for scientific instruments.
Parachute recovery systems were employed to return rockets and instruments
safely. Goddard, for his achievements, has been called the father of
A third great space pioneer, Hermann Oberth (1894-1989) born on
June 25, 1894 in Hermannstadt (Transylvania), and died on December
28, 1989 in Nuremberg, Germany, published a book in 1923 about rocket
travel into outer space. His writings were important. Because of
them, many small rocket societies sprang up around the world. In
Germany, the formation of one such society, the Verein fur Raumschiffahrt
(Society for Space Travel), led to the development of the V-2 rocket,
which was used against London during World War II. In 1937, German
engineers and scientists, including Oberth, assembled in Peenemunde
on the shores of the Baltic Sea. There the most advanced rocket
of its time would be built and flown under the directorship of Wernher
V-2 rocket (in Germany called the A-4) was small by comparison to today's
rockets. It achieved its great thrust by burning a mixture of liquid
oxygen and alcohol at a rate of about one ton every seven seconds. Once
launched, the V-2 was a formidable weapon that could devastate whole
for London and the Allied forces, the V-2 came too late in the war to
change its outcome. Nevertheless, by war's end, German rocket scientists
and engineers had already laid plans for advanced missiles capable of
spanning the Atlantic Ocean and landing in the United States. These
missiles would have had winged upper stages but very small payload capacities.
the fall of Germany, many unused V-2 rockets and components were captured
by the Allies. Many German rocket scientists came to the United States.
Others went to the Soviet Union. The German scientists, including Wernher
von Braun, were amazed at the progress Goddard had made.
the United States and the Soviet Union realized the potential of rocketry
as a military weapon and began a variety of experimental programs. At
first, the United States began a program with high-altitude atmospheric
sounding rockets, one of Goddard's early ideas. Later, a variety of
medium- and long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles were developed.
These became the starting point of the U.S. space program. Missiles
such as the Redstone, Atlas, and Titan would eventually launch astronauts
October 4, 1957, the world was stunned by the
of an Earth-orbiting artificial satellite launched by the Soviet Union.
I, the satellite was the first successful entry in a race for space
between the two superpower nations. Less than a month later, the Soviets
followed with the launch of a satellite carrying a dog named Laika on
board. Laika survived in space for seven days before being put to sleep
before the oxygen supply ran out.
months after the first Sputnik, the United States followed the Soviet
Union with a satellite of its own. Explorer I was launched by the U.S.
Army on January 31, 1958. In October of that year, the United States
formally organized its space program by creating the National Aeronautics
and Space Administration (NASA). NASA became a civilian agency with
the goal of peaceful exploration of space for the benefit of all humankind.
many people and machines were being launched into space. Astronauts
orbited Earth and landed on the Moon. Robot spacecraft traveled to the
planets. Space was suddenly opened up to exploration and commercial
exploitation. Satellites enabled scientists to investigate our world,
forecast the weather, and to communicate instantaneously around the
globe. As the demand for more and larger payloads increased, a wide
array of powerful and versatile rockets had to be built.
the earliest days of discovery and experimentation, rockets have evolved
from simple gunpowder devices into giant vehicles capable of traveling
into outer space. Rockets have opened the universe to direct exploration
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