Invention and History of Rockets

Introduction: From Weapons to Space Travel

Redstone Rocket
Redstone Rocket. NASA

The evolution of the rocket has made it an indispensable tool in the exploration of space. For centuries, rockets have provided ceremonial and warfare uses starting with the ancient Chinese, the first to create rockets. The rocket apparently made its debut on the pages of history as a fire arrow used by the Chin Tartars in 1232 AD for fighting off a Mongol assault on Kai-feng-fu.

The lineage to the immensely larger rockets now used as space launch vehicles is unmistakable.

But for centuries rockets were in the main rather small, and their use was confined principally to weaponry, the projection of lifelines in sea rescue, signaling, and fireworks displays. Not until the 20th century did a clear understanding of the principles of rockets emerge, and only then did the technology of large rockets begin to evolve. Thus, as far as spaceflight and space science are concerned, the story of rockets up to the beginning of the 20th century was largely prologue.

Early Experiments

All through the 13th to the 18th ​Century, there were reports of many rocket experiments. For example, Joanes de Fontana of Italy designed a surface-running rocket-powered torpedo for setting enemy ships on fire. In 1650, a Polish artillery expert, Kazimierz Siemienowicz, published a series of drawings for a staged rocket. In 1696, Robert Anderson, an Englishman, published a two-part treatise on how to make rocket molds, prepare the propellants, and perform the calculations.

Sir William Congreve

During the early introduction of rockets to Europe, they were used only as weapons. Enemy troops in India repulsed the British with rockets. Later in Britain, Sir William Congreve developed a rocket that could fire to about 9,000 feet. The British fired Congreve rockets against the United States in the War of 1812.

Francis Scott Key coined the phrase the "rocket's red glare after the British fired Congreve rockets against the United States. William Congreve's incendiary rocket used black powder, an iron case, and a 16-foot guide stick. Congreve had used a 16-foot guidestick to help stabilize his rocket. William Hale, another British inventor, invented the stickless rocket in 1846. The U.S. army used the Hale rocket more than 100 years ago in the war with Mexico. Rockets were also used to a limited extent in the Civil War.

During the 19th century, rocket enthusiasts and inventors began to appear in almost every country. Some people thought these early rocket pioneers were geniuses, and others thought they were crazy. Claude Ruggieri, an Italian living in Paris, apparently rocketed small animals into space as early as 1806. The payloads were recovered by parachute. As far back as 1821, sailors hunted whales using rocket-propelled harpoons. These rocket harpoons were launched form a shoulder-held tube equipped with a circular blast shield.

Reaching for the Stars

By the end of the 19th century, soldiers, sailors, practical and not so practical inventors had developed a stake in rocketry. Skillful theorists, like Konstantian Tsiolkovsky in Russia, were examining the fundamental scientific theories behind rocketry.

They were beginning to consider the possibility of space travel. Four persons were particularly significant in the transition from the small rockets of the 19th century to the colossi of the space age: Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in Russia, Robert Goddard in the United States, and Hermann Oberth and Wernher von Braun in Germany.

Rocket Staging and Technology

Early rockets had a single engine, on which it rose until it ran out of fuel. A better way to achieve great speed, however, is to place a small rocket on top of a big one and fire it after the first has burned out. The US army, which after the war used captured V-2s for experimental flights into the high atmosphere, replaced the payload with another rocket, in this case a "WAC Corporal," which was launched from the top of the orbit. Now the burned-out V-2, weighing 3 tons, could be dropped, and using the smaller rocket, the payload reached a much higher altitude.

Today of course almost every space rocket uses several stages, dropping each empty burned-out stage and continuing with a smaller and lighter booster. Explorer 1, the first artificial satellite of the US which was launched in January 1958, used a 4-stage rocket. Even the space shuttle uses two large solid-fuel boosters which are dropped after they burn out.

Chinese Fireworks

Developed in the second-century BCE, by the ancient Chinese, fireworks are the oldest form of rockets and the most simplistic model of a rocket. Preluding the liquid fueled rocket, solid propellant rockets began with contributions to the field by such scientists as Zasiadko, Constantinov, and Congreve. Although currently in a further advanced state, solid propellant rockets remain in wide spread use today, as seen in rockets including the Space Shuttle dual booster engines and the Delta series booster stages. Liquid fueled rockets were first theorized by Tsiolkozski in in 1896.