Rockets have made it possible for humans to travel into space. The technology has taken us to the Moon and sent robotic probes to every planet in the solar system. They’ve helped us to better understand the universe and our place in it. The concept dates back nearly 2000 years and was originally conceived as a weapon of war.
The earliest rockets were created in China during the Sung Dynasty (960–1279 CE). They were hollowed out tubes of bamboo and filled with gun powder, which was also invented by the Chinese. One of their most effective tests came in 1232 when they were used to repel an invading Mongolian army. They were connected to an arrow and shot at the enemy via a bow.
The first multistage rocket (separating into two or more parts) was created and tested in 1591 by a German fireworks maker.
Sir Isaac Newton’s revolutionary book, Principia Mathematica, about his theories into physics was first published in 1687 and was a game changer. Newton’s laws of motion laid the foundation for modern physics and future ideas about rocketry. Rockets work on the principle of Newton’s third law, ‘for every action has an equal and opposite reaction’. As a rocket’s engine fires, the gas expelled pushes against Earth’s gravity making it possible for it to leave the ground. The greater the thrust the more weight (payload) a rocket can carry.
Scientific communities around the world started getting serious about rockets in the late 19th century. In 1898, Russian schoolteacher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky generated interest when he suggested rockets could be our key to exploring space. His 1903 paper, Exploration of Outer Space by Means of Rocket Devices, proposed mathematical equations that would make it possible. He stressed that the machine would have to be multistaged and would need to be flown using liquid fuels. Liquid fuels are more efficient than gun powder and are more powerful.
Another classic book, The Rocket into Planetary Space, by German scientist Hermann Oberth was published in 1923. Many amateur rocket societies around the world were inspired by its contents and it led to innovations.
American engineer Robert Goodard flew the first successful liquid fuelled rocket, for 2.5 seconds, on March 26th, 1926. Over time Goodard refined his tests and his rockets flew higher and for longer. He also invented crucial navigational instruments, such as the gyroscope.
Nazi Germany were interested in rockets for their capabilities as weapons. They developed the V-2 and used it against London during World War II. It could destroy entire city blocks and was fuelled with alcohol and liquid oxygen. When Berlin fell and the Nazis surrendered, the American and Russian armies were quick to take key personnel and rocket technology back home.
The two superpowers entered a race because whoever reached the sky first had the advantage. Over time rockets began to touch the edges of space and were taking the first photos of Earth from above.
The Russians had early victories in space with the first satellite (Sputnik 1 on October 4th, 1957) and the first man (Yuri Gagarin aboard Vostok 1 on April 12th, 1961). The United States followed with their first successful satellite, Explorer 1, on January 31st, 1958 and their first astronaut, Alan Sheppard in Freedom 7, on May 5th, 1961. The Americans would ultimately win the ‘space race’ when Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the Moon on July 24th, 1969. The Saturn V was the largest and most powerful rocket ever built.
After the last Apollo missions (1969–1972) went to the Moon, America’s space budget was reduced and they focused on low Earth orbit operations. They created the Space Shuttle, a reusable space plane. The program lasted from 1981 to 2011 and was responsible for many milestones, such as putting the Hubble Telescope into orbit and the construction of the International Space Station. Tragically two Shuttles were lost during the program’s run and fourteen astronauts were killed, Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.
The Russians stayed close to home during this period too. The Soyuz rocket first went to space in 1966 and still flies today. It is the most flown rocket of all time with over 1800 launches to its name.
With the retirement of the Space Shuttle, NASA is focusing on deep space missions. The Space Launch System (SLS) is currently under construction and is expected to have its debut flight in 2020. The SLS is planned to take astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.
The United States is also investing in the private sector. SpaceX has contracts for its rockets (the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy) and so does Blue Origin, with the New Sheppard. Both companies are designing their own heavy lift vehicles—similar to the SLS. SpaceX has Starship and Blue Origin has the New Glenn and both are expected to have their first flights in the next few years. New Zealand’s Rocket Lab is catering to the smaller payload market with its Electron rocket. It’s an exciting time for the future of rockets.
This article was originally posted on the now defunct Science Niche website on April 22nd, 2019.
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