A History of the Rocket

Apollo 11 Launch Aboard the Saturn V Rocket / NASA
Apollo 11 Launch Aboard the Saturn V Rocket / NASA
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How Humanity Reached Space

Human beings have always looked up to the sky and yearned to reach it. A pantheon of mythology has been created to give meaning to the points of lights we see rotating around the Earth. Our quest to understand our place in the cosmos is as old as our history. And as our understanding of the Universe got better, we moved away from myths and wondered if we could fly like the birds.

What was early rocketry?

Just when we moved on from observing birds to actually experimenting with rockets is not clear. However, we know that principles of rocketry were being tested almost 2000 years ago. A Roman called Aulus Gellius wrote about a Greek from Southern Italy, named Archytus. Around 400 BC Archytus amazed his contemporaries by flying a wooden pigeon suspended on wires, using steam to propel it. Effectively, he used a principle of rocketry – the action reaction principle – to do so.

Aeolipile by Hero of Alexandria/ NASA

Aeolipile by Hero of Alexandria/ NASA

Move forward 300 years and another hero – actually called Hero of Alexandria – also used steam to propel a sphere. Hero invented a rocket-like device called aeolipile, which comprised of a large kettle of water with fire burning underneath. Steam from the hot water was supplied through pipes to a sphere mounted atop the kettle. The steam escaped through two L-shaped tubes on opposite sides of the sphere, allowing the gas to provide the thrust needed to rotate it.

On the other side of the world in 100 AD, the Chinese were inventing gunpowder, made from saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulfur and charcoal dust. They wanted to create explosions during religious festivals and to do so they filled bamboo tubes filled with a mixture and threw them on a fire. It is possible that some of the tubes failed to explode and instead swooshed out of the fires propelled by the gunpowder mixture.

Chinese Fire Arrows / NASA

Chinese Fire Arrows / NASA

They continued to experiment and perfecting this fascinating new technology by attaching the tubes to arrows and launching them with bows. Eventually, they realised that the tubes did not need any help and could launch by themselves because of the power produced by the burning gunpowder. They used this in their wars with the Mongols in 1232 – this is the first time we hear of the true rocket being used.

From China, we return to Europe where gunpowder technology arrived between the 13th and 15th centuries. In England, we know of experiments by the monk Roger Bacon, on improving gunpowder to increase the range of rockets. In France, Jean Froissart experimented with bazooka-like tubes to achieve more accurate flight. In Germany, 16th century  fireworks maker Johan Schmidlap invented a multi-stage rocket to lift fireworks to higher altitudes. In this, a larger rocket carried a smaller rocket and when the larger rocket burned out the smaller rocket continued to a higher altitude, finally igniting into glorious fireworks. This concept is now used in all space flights.

Rocket Science in the 17th Century

Enter Galileo in the early 17th century, who investigated the effect of gravity on falling bodies, showing that all bodies fall at a uniform rate of acceleration if there is no air resistance.

But the person who would take rocket science to new heights would be Isaac Newton. His three laws of motion were instrumental in laying down a solid foundation for rocket development. His scientific observations and laws of motion allowed experimenters to continue perfecting and creating larger rockets. However, no fundamental advancements were made in the manufacture of rockets for flight. In the late 18th century, Mysorean rockets were used against the British in India and compelled artillery expert Colonel William Congreve, to design the Congreve rockets – for use by the British military (early 19th century). These were highly successful and the Colonel standardized their parts and manufacturing techniques. However, the accuracy of rockets had not improved with all of these new adjustments and they went into disuse as military tools.

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Space Exploration and Fathers of Rocketry

It is the early 20th century and we meet the Father of Rocketry, Russian schoolteacher Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky. He proposed the idea of space exploration using rockets powered by liquid propellants to give them a greater range. In 1903, he published his rocket equation in an aviation magazine, highlighting the relationship between speed, mass, exhaust speed of escaping gas, and quantity of propellant. In 1929, he published the theory of multistage rockets. During his lifetime he wrote 90 works on space travel and created designs for rockets with steering thrusters, multistage boosters, space stations, airlocks for exiting a spaceship into space, and closed-cycle biological systems to provide food and oxygen to potential humans in space colonies. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky went from being a teacher to an actual rocket scientist and his work contributed immensely to the Soviet space programme.

Other scientists known as the founding fathers of modern rocketry included Robert Albert Charles Esnault-Pelterie from France, who – independently from Konstantin – presented the rocket equation in 1913 and calculated the energies required to reach the Moon and nearby planets. He proposed the idea of using atomic energy (via radium) and nuclear power for vehicles towards planets in the 1930s. At the same time in Germany Hermann Julius Oberth worked on liquid fuelled rockets and wrote a book on how to use a rocket to escape Earth’s gravity. He also described what came to be known as the Oberth manauver or powered flyby (a maneuver in which a spacecraft falls into a gravitational well, and then accelerates when its fall reaches maximum speed) and Oberth effect (the use of an engine at higher speeds generates greater mechanical energy than use at lower speeds.). His writings were influential in the development of the V-2 rocket – the most advanced rocket of its time – used by Germany in WW II against London.

Which brings us to the Father of Modern Rocketry: Robert Goddard, an American physicist. Having read H.G Wells’ The War of the World’s he became interested in space travel at the age of 16. Goddard also recognized potential of rockets for atmospheric research, ballistic missiles and space travel like the others, but he was the first to study, design and construct the rockets needed to achieve that potential. He too, independently developed Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equation in 1912.

Robert Goddard and his rocket

Robert Goddard and his rocket / NASA

On March 16, 1926, he launched the first ever liquid-powered rocket in Massachusetts, fuelled by liquid oxygen and gasoline. It flew for two and a half seconds, reached 12.5 meters and landed 56 meters away. Although he did not receive much public support and was generally ridiculed, he and his team launched 34 rockets between 1926 and 1941. Modern rocketry was born.

Post WW II, many German scientists moved to the USSR and USA; among these were rocket scientists who helped the two countries in the Space Race. To the US went Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun, aerospace engineer and space architect. He was a student of Herman Oberth and had helped develop the V-2 rocket for Nazi Germany. In the US, he designed and developed the rocket that launched America’s first satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958. Among his many other achievements, his main claim to fame is as the chief architect of NASA’s Saturn V – the rocket that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the moon.

But before von Braun’s Saturn V made history, it was the USSR that took the lead in spaceflight primarily through the work of Sergei Pavlovich Korolev. He was Chief Engineer at the Jet Propulsion Research Institute but was arrested in 1938 after being accused of slowing down the Institute’s work. Although he was sentenced to death, he was not executed but was moved to sharashka – an experimental design bureau for secret research and development under the Soviet Gulag system. Here he helped design rocket assisted take-off boosters for aircraft. Finally discharged in 1944, he was brought to East Germany in 1945 to reproduce the documentation for the V-2 rocket. Based on this work his team developed the R1 – R7 rockets. The world’s first Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was the Soviet R-7 Semyorka.

R7 Semyorka Rocket by Sergei Korolov

Korolov proposed the idea of launching a satellite into space using the R-7 rocket but was rejected by the Soviet Communist Party. Therefore, his group planted exaggerated newspaper articles about the Soviet space programme, which compelled the Americans to up their speed. Korolov then used American urgency as a basis for another proposal to the Communist Party. This time it was approved – resulting in the design and development of Sputnik 1, within a month. Sputnik was launched on October 4, 1957, aboard Vostok (a family of rockets based on R-7 Semyorka) making history as the first ever satellite to be successfully launched into space. Vostok was also used to launch the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into space on April 12, 1961. On February 9, 1966, after Korolov’s death, Luna 9 became the first spacecraft to achieve a soft landing on the moon.

After the success of the Apollo programme (1969 – 1972) using the Saturn V rocket to land humans on the surface of the moon for the first time on July 20, 1969, the Americans used solid rockets in the space shuttle programme, which though successful for a time was finally retired in 2011 after several catastrophic and fatal explosions.

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However, the use of rockets to fulfil humanity’s desire to explore the cosmos continues. We have now sent spacecraft using a rocket to all the planets in the Solar System. In 2015, we reached Pluto and in 2019, we ventured into the Kuiper Belt with the observation and imagery of Arrokoth. The Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft have even left the solar system and gone into interstellar space.

With private companies now joining in, we are ready for the next phase of rocket science. Who knows where it will help us reach.

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I am a Chartered Environmentalist from the Royal Society for the Environment, UK and co-owner of DoLocal Digital Marketing Agency Ltd, with a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University, an MBA in Finance, and a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics. I am passionate about science, history and environment and love to create content on these topics.