article image

A brief history of rocketry. Part 2: From World War to the Moon and beyond

Ben Gilliland
Mar 14, 2012, 7:00 UTC, Updated Dec 12, 2014, 18:29 UTC

Sen—For centuries, the rocket was little more than an amusing novelty but, at the turn of the 20th century, it was ready to take centre stage.

At around the same that the Wright brothers were achieving mankind’s first powered flight, other men were already dreaming of flying higher and faster than Orville and Wilbur could have imagined.

One such man was Robert H Goddard.

While the Wright brothers were figuring out ways to make an aircraft travel long distances along the ground, Goddard was trying to figure ways to make an aircraft travel long distances on a completely different axis – vertically.

His earliest experiments were with solid-fuel rockets that were little different from the first bamboo rockets used by the Chinese 1,000 years before.

In 1919, Goddard published a pamphlet entitled “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes”, in which he laid out his mathematical theories of rocket flight and described his experiments with solid-fuel rockets and the possibilities of exploring the Earth’s atmosphere and the space beyond.


Robert Goddard with his prototype liquid-fuelled rocket on March 16, 1926

Goddard became convinced that liquid fuels would make a much better propellant than the solid-fuel rockets he had been experimenting with. Unfortunately, no one had ever built a successful liquid-propellant rocket.

Where a solid-fuel rocket needs only a lump of fuel and a hole to vent the gases, a liquid-fuel rocket needs all sorts of complicated things – like oxygen tanks, turbines and combustion chambers.

Despite this, on March 16, 1926, a rocket designed by Goddard became the first liquid-propelled rocket to achieve flight.

It wasn’t very impressive – it flew for 2.5 seconds and only reached a height of 12.5 metres before it fell back to the ground and landed in a cabbage patch – but Goddard’s liquid oxygen and gasoline rocket was the forerunner of the fire-spewing colossi that, just 43 years later, would carry men to the Moon.

Goddard’s experiments continued and, over the next few years, his rockets got bigger and flew higher. He developed a gyroscope system, payload compartments for scientific experiments and a parachute recovery system.

For his achievements, Goddard has been called the “father of modern rocketry”.

On the other side of the Atlantic was another of the founding fathers of modern rocketry – a Hungarian-born German called Dr Hermann Oberth.

As a young man, Oberth had been inspired by the science fiction writings of Jules Verne. In 1910, at age 14, he had build his first rocket and arrived independently at the concept of the multistage rocket.

His proposed doctoral dissertation on rocket science had been rejected in 1922 for being “utopian” so, in 1923, he published a pamphlet entitled “By Rocket into Planetary Space”. By 1929, he had expanded his ideas into a 429-page book, “Ways to Spaceflight".

Oberth’s writings inspired the creation of small rocket societies, which were soon popping up all over the world.

In Germany, one of these societies was the Verein fur Raumschiffahrt (Society for Space Travel). Oberth joined this society and, in 1930, he began experimenting with liquid-fuelled rockets.

Assisting Oberth was a young German engineer that would have a massive impact on rocketry – Wernher von Braun.

Rockets go back to war
By 1932, von Braun (now at the society’s helm) demonstrated a liquid-fuelled rocket to the German Army who saw its potential as a long-range weapon. Von Braun was now working for the German military.

Meanwhile, Robert Goddard’s work on rockets had come to the attention of the Germans.

Up until the outbreak of World War 2, German scientists had been in contact with Goddard asking all sorts of technical questions. But it was von Braun who really took advantage of the American’s expertise.

By combining his own research with that of Goddard – which he extracted from technical journals – von Braun was able to build the most advanced (and infamous) rocket of its day – the V-2.


Wernher von Braun and his V-2 rocket

The Vergeltungswaffe 2 (retaliation weapon 2), or V-2, was a 46ft rocket that used alcohol and liquid oxygen as a propellant. It could carry a 1,000kg warhead to an altitude of 90km and travel 225 miles. Ready for service in 1944, the V-2 was the world’s first long-range ballistic missile – capable of devastating whole city blocks.

Despite its late arrival into the war, more than 3,000 V-2s were launched against Allied targets. By the end of the war, V-2s had claimed the lives of some 7,250 military personnel and civilians, while 12,000 labourers had died building the rocket.

With the fall of Germany in 1945, competing teams of Soviet, British and US scientists were dispatched to Europe to discover as much as possible about Germany's rocket programme.

For America, “Project Paperclip” salvaged many unused V-2 rockets and, perhaps more importantly, brought back the German scientists that had built them – including Wernher von Braun.

The space race begins
In America and the Soviet Union, teams of “captured” German rocket scientists were put to work rebuilding and testing the captured V-2 rockets.

By 1953, under the guidance of von Braun (Robert Goddard had died in 1945), the US team developed the V-2 to become the Redstone rocket that was used in the early space programme.

Meanwhile in the Soviet Union the V-2 was the basis of development for the world’s first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), the R-7.


The children of the V-2. Left: America's Redstone rocket. Right: The Soviet R-7

On October 4, 1957 the world was stunned by the news that the Soviet Union had successfully launched the world’s first orbiting satellite into space.

Sputnik I had been lifted into orbit onboard a Soviet R-7 rocket. Less than two months later, an R-7 carried another satellite into orbit and this time it had a passenger on board – a dog called Laika. The plucky hound safely orbited the Earth for seven days, proving that it was possible for a creature to survive the rigors of launch and live in space.

But, after seven days, Laika was put to sleep before the oxygen supply ran out, which highlighted another problem – once in space, how do you get safely back to Earth?

Scientists were aware that a vehicle attempting to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere could generate enough energy (through friction with the atmosphere) to vapourise itself, which created a problem. Even the most enthusiastic astronaut would balk at the prospect of being  incinerated on the journey home.

Fortunately two American scientists, Harry Julian Allen and Alfred J Eggers, came up with a rather counter-intuitive solution, inspired by meteorites. These lumps of rock regularly survive the fiery descent through Earth’s atmosphere, and Allen and Eggers figured the key to their survival was their shape.

They realised that a blunt shape which created a lot of drag would make an effective heat shield. The discovery meant that a journey to space needn't be a one way trip after all.

On January 31, 1958 the United States followed the Soviet Union into space by launching their own satellite, Explorer 1, onboard a modified Redstone rocket, known as Jupiter-C.

Just seven years after the end of WW2 the descendants of the V-2 rocket had put two nations into space – not a bad legacy for a machine built to kill.

And it wasn’t done yet.

On April 12, 1961 another R-7 rocket lifted off from Russia and this one was carrying a very special cargo – a human. In his Vostok 1 spacecraft, former pilot Yuri Gagarin, became the first human to journey into outer space and orbit the planet Earth. More importantly, after 108 minutes in space, Gagarin returned safely back to Earth.


The Huntsville Times reports on Gagarin's historic flight on April 12, 1961

The human body could survive the g forces of launch, the lack of gravity of space and violent inferno of reentry.

Space was ours to conquer.

The race to Moon
Just twenty three days after Gagarin’s first orbit, America followed the Soviet Union into the manned spaceflight era when, on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard was carried by a Mercury-Redstone rocket into sub-orbital space.

The American space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which had been created on October 1, 1958 had had enough of playing catch-up with the Soviet space programme.

Russia had beaten America to each of the space flight landmarks, but the ultimate prize was still up for grabs – the Moon.

NASA once again turned to Wernher von Braun. Under his direction, NASA’s new development centre, The Marshall Space Flight Centre, started development on the Saturn family of rockets.


Saturn V launches on 16 July 1969 with the Apollo 11 crew. Image credit: NASA

On November 9, 1967, the daddy of all rockets, the Saturn V was launched. Capable of carrying 120 tonnes into space, the Saturn V was the most powerful rocket of its day and remains unsurpassed to this day.

On July 20, 1969, a Saturn V launched with a crew of three astronauts, Neil A Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” E Aldrin Jr, and 102 hours, 45 minutes later, NASA put a man on the Moon.

For the first time in the history of mankind, a human being had left the Earth and walked on the surface of another planetary body—and he had been put there by a rocket.

Cities in space
If the history of exploration has taught us anything, it is that when a new frontier is discovered, colonisation will quickly follow—why should space be any different?

In fact, long before the Gagarin’s historic flight had proved that humans could survive in space, people had been imagining ways to colonise space.

One of the first was the Russian school teacher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who imagined a “celestial castle”, built in geosynchronous orbit.

During WW2, German scientists researched a space station that would form the platform for an orbital weapon that would harness the Sun’s energy, called the “Sun gun’ and, in 1951, the ever-visionary Wernher von Braun designed a wheel-shaped space station.

The first real space station, the single-capsule Salyut 1, was placed into orbit by the Soviet Union in 1971. The US followed in 1973 with Skylab.

In 1986, the Russians launched Mir, a modular space station that could house three astronauts.

With the end of the Cold War, the US teamed up with their old spaceflight sparring partners and, together with Japan, Europe and Canada, construction started on the International Space Station in 1998.

Rocket-powered space taxis
Any good city needs a taxi service and space stations are no different.

To ferry astronauts, building materials and supplies to the new frontier, the space agencies would need to rethink their launch strategies. Huge, disposable rockets like the Saturn V were vastly expensive to launch. What they needed was a cheap, reusable launch system that could be sent into space, return to Earth and be reprocessed to launch again.

In 1981, NASA launched the Space Shuttle.


The launch of Space Shuttle Columbia on its first mission designated STS-1, 12 April 1981. The launch took place 20 years to the day since Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Image credit: NASA

The Space Shuttle combined a rocket launcher with an orbital spaceplane that could re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, and land on a runway like a conventional aircraft.

It would be 15 times cheaper to fly (per kg of payload) than Saturn V. After its mission, it would take less than two weeks to prepare the craft for its next launch – meaning that mankind could enjoy almost constant access to space.

Unfortunately, rather than being 15 times cheaper, the Space Shuttle eventually cost about £423million for each launch (about three times more expensive than the Saturn V). The two-week turn around time turned out to be around three to six months because the ‘reusable’ craft needed to be practically rebuilt every time it was used.

The Space Shuttle was retired from service in 2011 leaving America without the ability to launch themselves into space for the first time since the space race began.

Despite its failure live up to its billing as a cheap, re-usable spacecraft, the Space Shuttle did represent man’s first attempt to make space as accessible and traversable as the, once equally alien and perilous, oceans.

That dream looks like it will be made a reality, not by nationalistic governments but by a new breed of space enterprise – the privateers.

Space tourism and the age of private enterprise
At the end of the 1990s, the Mir space station was in the hands of a private venture, MirCorp. To offset some of the station’s running costs, the company started seeking space tourists. But the decision to de-orbit Mir put an end to their plans.

The baton was taken up by a US-based company called Space Adventures and, on April 28, 2001, Dennis Tito, an American business man, became the first fee-paying space tourist when he visited the International Space Station.

Since then, the company has carried several other so-called “spaceflight participants” (a term used by NASA and Russia to differentiate tourists from astronauts) into space.

The public’s willingness to pay for the experience of traveling into space spurred numerous companies into developing their own space craft. The private space race was on.

Vehicles offering varying levels of the spaceflight experience were soon under development by companies like RocketShip Tours, Scaled Composites, Space Adventures, Blue Origin, Armadillo Aerospace and XCOR Aerospace.

Most proposed suborbital flights that would carry customers to an altitude of up to 160km, where they would experience several minutes of weightlessness.

On October 4, 2004, SpaceShipOne, a suborbital spaceplane designed by Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites, won the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition. By 2014, Virgin Galactic had pre-sold over 700 seats for flights onboard SpaceShipTwo—a scaled up version of SpaceShipOne. The spaceline suffered a tragic set back in October 2014 when its SpaceShipTwo test vehicle crashed, killing one of the pilots. The company is building the next test vehicle and awaiting a full report from the National Transportation Safety Board to understand what caused the crash and whether any amendments are needed to the spacecraft's design.


Winner of the Ansari X Prize, SpaceShipOne shown here just before touchdown at 90 mph, SpaceShipOne returns to the runway. Image credit: Courtesy of Scaled Composites, LLC

Private companies are also venturing into areas that have for the last 50 years been the preserve of national space agencies.

US companies, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are already ferrying cargo to the space station on their own cargo freighters. As well as cargo, SpaceX is developing a crewed version of its Dragon spacecraft to be able to take astronauts to the space station. Boeing is also in the market for crew transportation with its CST-100

There are even privately-built space stations on the drawing board—orbiting hotels that will give space tourists the ability to enjoy extended stays in space. In 2015 Bigelow Aerospace will send a test module for its 'inflatable' space habitat to the space station.

The history of rocketry is littered with tales of the advances made by individual people—obsessive visionaries, without whom rockets might never have advanced beyond those early Chinese “fire arrows”.

Now rocketry is one again being driven by the spirit of private enterprise.

It’s a fitting way to start a new era of space travel.