A Brief History of Rocketry

Courtesy KSC/NASA.


The earliest solid rocket fuel was a form of gunpowder, and the earliest recorded mention of gunpowder comes from China late in the third century before Christ. Bamboo tubes filled with saltpeter, sulphur and charcoal were tossed into ceremonial fires during religious festivals in hopes the noise of the explosion would frighten evil spirits.

It's probable that more than a few of these bamboo tubes were imperfectly sealed and, instead of bursting with an explosion, simply went skittering out of the fire, propelled by the rapidly burning gunpowder. Some clever observer whose name is lost to history may have then begun experiments to deliberately produce the same effect as the bamboo tubes which leaked fire.

Certainly by the year 1045 A.D.--21 years before William the Conqueror would land on the shores of England--the use of gunpowder and rockets formed an integral aspect of Chinese military tactics.

A point of confusion arises tracing the history of rocketry back before 1045. Chinese documents record the use of "fire arrows," a term which can mean either rockets or an arrow carrying a flammable substance.

By the beginning of the 13th Century, the Chinese Sung Dynasty, under pressure from growing Mongolian hordes, found itself forced to rely more and more on technology to counter the threat. Chinese ordnance experts introduced and perfected many types of projectiles, including explosive grenades and cannon.

Rocket fire-arrows were certainly used to repel Mongol invaders at the battle of Kai-fung-fu in 1232 A.D.

The rockets were huge and apparently quite powerful. According to a report: "When the rocket was lit, it made a noise that resembled thunder that could be heard for five leagues -- about 15 miles. When it fell to Earth, the point of impact was devastated for 2,000 feet in all directions." Apparently these large military rockets carried incendiary material and iron shrapnel. These rockets may have included the first combustion chamber, for sources describe the design as incorporating an "iron pot" to contain and direct the thrust of the gunpowder propellant.

The rocket seems to have arrived in Europe around 1241 A.D. Contemporary accounts describe rocket-like weapons being used by the Mongols against Magyar forces at the battle of Sejo which preceded their capture of Buda (now known as Budapest) December 25, 1241.

Accounts also describe Mongol's use of a noxious smoke screen--possibly the first instance of chemical warfare.

Rockets appear in Arab literature in 1258 A.D., describing Mongol invaders' use of them on February 15 to capture the city of Baghdad.

Quick to learn, the Arabs adopted the rocket into their own arms inventory and, during the Seventh Crusade, used them against the French Army of King Louis IX in 1268.

It is certain that, not later than the year 1300, rockets had found their way into European arsenals, reaching Italy by the year 1500, Germany shortly afterwards, and later, England. A 1647 study of the "Art of Gunnery" published in London contains a 43-page segment on rockets. The Italians are credited, by the way, with adopting military rockets for use as fireworks -- completing the circle, so to speak, of the bursting bamboo used at the Chinese festivals 1,700 years earlier.

The French Army traditionally has been among the largest, if not THE largest, army in Europe and was quick to adopt rockets to military operations. Records from 1429 show rockets in use at the siege of Orleans during the Hundred Years War against the English.

Dutch military rockets appear by 1650 and the Germans' first military rocket experiments began in 1668. By 1730, a German field artillery colonel, Christoph Fredrich von Geissler, was manufacturing rockets weighing 25 to 54 kilograms (55 to 120 pounds).

As the 18th Century dawned, European military experts began to take a serious interest in rockets -- if only because they, like the Magyars 500 years earlier, found themselves on the receiving end of rocket warfare.

Both the French and the British, during the Eighteenth Century, began wrestling for control of the riches of India. In addition to fighting one another, they also found themselves frequently engaged against the Mogol forces of Tippoo Sultan of Mysore. During the two battles of Seringapatam in 1792 and 1799, rockets were used against the British. One of Tippoo Sultan's rockets is now displayed in the Royal Ordnance Museum at Woolwich Arsenal, near London.

Tippoo Sultan's father, Hyder Ally, had incorporated a 1,200 man contingent of rocketeers into his army in the year 1788. Tippoo Sultan increased this force to about 5,000 men, about a seventh of his total Army's strength.

Profiting from their Indian experience, the British, led by Sir William Congrieve (KON-greeve), began development of a series of barrage rockets ranging in weight from 8 to 136 kilograms (18 to 300 pounds). Congrieve-design rockets were used against Napoleon.

It is surprising that Napoleon seems to have made no use of rockets in the French Army but it must be remembered Napoleon was an artillery officer and may have simply been too hide-bound a traditionalist to favor new-fangled rockets over more familiar cannons.

The scope of the British use of the Congrieve rocket can be ascertained from the the 1807 attack on Copenhagen. The Danes were subjected to a barrage of 25,000 rockets which burnt many houses and warehouses.

An official rocket brigade was created in the British Army in 1818.

Rockets came to the New World during the War of 1812.

During the Battle of Bladensburg, August 24, 1814, the British 85th Light Infantry used rockets against an American rifle battalion commanded by U.S. Attorney General William Pickney. British Lieutenant George R. Gleig witnessed the Americans' response to the new threat. "Never did men with arms in their hands make better use of their legs," he wrote.

On December 4, 1846, a brigade of rocketeers was authorized to accompany Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott's expedition against Mexico. The Army's first battalion of rocketeers -- consisting of about 150 men and armed with about 50 rockets -- was placed under the command of First Lieutenant George H. Talcott.

The rocket battery was used March 24, 1847, against Mexican forces at the siege of Veracruz.

On April 8 the rocketeers moved inland, being placed in their firing position by Captain Robert E. Lee (later to command the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the War Between the States). About 30 rockets were fired during the battle for Telegraph Hill. Later, the rockets were used in the capture of the fortress of Chapultepec, which forced the surrender of Mexico City.

With typical foresight, as soon as the fighting in Mexico was over, the rocketeer battalion was disbanded and the remaining rockets were placed in storage.

They remained in mothballs for about 13 years -- until 1861 when they were hauled out for use in the Civil War. The rockets were found to have deteriorated, however, so new ones were made.

The first recorded use of rockets in the Civil War came on July 3, 1862, when Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's Confederate cavalry fired rockets at Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's Union troops at Harrison's Landing, Va. No record exists of the Northerners' opinion of this premature "Fourth of July" fireworks demonstration.

Later in 1862, an attempt was made by the Union Army's New York Rocket Battalion -- 160 men under the command of British-born Major Thomas W. Lion -- to use rockets against Confederates defending Richmond and Yorktown, Virginia. It wasn't an overwhelming success. When ignited, the rockets skittered wildly across the ground, passing between the legs of a number of mules. One detonated harmlessly under a mule, lifting the animal several feet off the ground and precipitating its immediate desertion to the Confederate Army.

The only other documented use of rockets is at Charleston, S.C., in 1864. Union troops under Maj. Gen. Alexander Schimmelfennig found rockets "especially practical in driving off Confederate picket boats, especially at night."

As an interesting sidelight, the author Burke Davis, in his book "Our Incredible Civil War," tells a tale of a Confederate attempt to fire a ballistic missile at Washington, D.C., from a point outside Richmond, Va.

According to the author, Confederate President Jefferson Davis witnessed the event at which a 3.7 meter (12 foot) solid-fueled rocket, carrying a 4.5 kilogram (10 pound) gunpowder warhead in a brass case engraved with the letters C.S.A., was ignited and seen to roar rapidly up and out of sight. No one ever saw the rocket land. It's interesting to speculate whether, almost 100 years before Sputnik, a satellite marked with the initials of the Confederate States of America might have been launched into orbit.

The military appears to have remained underwhelmed with the potential of rockets. They were employed in fits and starts in many of the brushfire wars which punctuated the otherwise calm closing days of the late Victorian Era. If the military was lukewarm to rockets, another profession welcomed them with open arms.

The international whaling industry developed rocket-powered, explosive-tipped harpoons which were most effective against the ocean-going leviathans.

During the First World War, rockets were first fired from aircraft attempting to shoot down enemy hydrogen gas-filled observation balloons. Successes were rare and pilots resisted being asked to fire rockets from the highly flammable, cloth and varnish covered wings of their biplanes. The French were the principal users of aerial rockets, using a model developed by a Naval lieutenant, Y.P.G. LePrieur.

The principal drawback to rockets throughout this period of development was the type of fuel. Both here and abroad, experiments were under way to develop a more powerful, liquid-propelled rocket. Two young men stand out in this effort -- one an American, Robert H. Goddard -- the other a German, Wernher von Braun.

Radio commentator Paul Harvey tells a story of how young von Braun's interest in rocketry almost got him labeled as a juvenile delinquent. At the age of 13, von Braun exhibited an interest in explosives and fireworks. His father could not understand his son's consuming interest in so dangerous a hobby. He feared his son would become safecracker. One day the young teenager obtained six skyrockets, strapped them to a toy red wagon and set them off. Streaming flames and a long trail of smoke, the wagon roared five blocks into the center of the von Braun family's hometown, where the rockets finally exploded.

As the smoke cleared, the toy wagon emerged as a charred wreck. Young von Braun emerged in the firm grasp of a policeman. Despite being severely reprimanded by his father, the youngster's interest would not be denied. By the age of 22 he had earned his doctorate in physics. Two years later he was directing Germany's military rocket development program.

Von Braun and his colleagues produced a number of experimental designs, the most famous of which was the A-4 rocket, which has gained distinction in history under another name -- the vengeance weapon number two -- V-2 for short. The V-2 was the first successful, long range ballistic missile, and von Braun is credited as its principal developer.

As World War II drew to a close, von Braun led his contingent of several hundred rocket scientists and engineers -- all marked for death by the Nazis to prevent their capture by the Allies -- into American lines.

In 1946, von Braun and his team arrived at White Sands, N.M., where, for the first time, von Braun learned of work done by the American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard.

Goddard's interest in rockets began in 1898 when, as a 16-year-old, he read the latest publication of that early science fiction writer, English novelist H.G. Wells. The book which so excited Goddard was later made into a 1938 radio program that nearly panicked our entire nation when it was broadcast. Orson Well's too realistic rendition of the "War of the Worlds" still causes many to shudder.

As the 20th Century began, Wilbur and Orville Wright were preparing to become the first men to fly. Goddard, however, was already designing rockets to probe the upper atmosphere and delve into space. Half a world away -- and unknown to Goddard -- a Russian school teacher, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, was thinking along much the same lines. Both came to the conclusion independently that, if a rocket was going to do the things they dreamed of, it would have to be powered by liquid fuels. Solid fuels of the time simply didn't have sufficient power. Tsiolkovsky lacked Goddard's practicality. While Tsiolkovsky worked out many principles of astronautics and designed suitable rockets, he never built any. By contrast, Goddard was a technical man. He could and did build rockets. By the time he died in 1945, Goddard held 214 patents in rocketry -- patents which still produce royalties for his estate.

Goddard began his experiments in rocketry while studying for his doctorate at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

He first attracted attention in 1919 when he published a paper titled, "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes." In his paper he outlined his ideas on rocketry and suggested, none too seriously, that a demonstration rocket should be flown to the Moon.

The general public ignored the scientific merit of the paper -- latching instead onto Goddard's Moon rocket proposal. At the time, such an endeavor was absurd and most dismissed Goddard as a "crank."

The experience taught Goddard a hard lesson -- one which caused him to shy away from future opportunities to publicize his work. Publicity was far from Goddard's mind on the morning of March 16, 1926. On that day, barely a year after Wernher von Braun's rocket wagon fiasco, Goddard launched a liquid-powered rocket he had designed and built from a snow-covered field at his Aunt Effie Goddard's farm in Auburn, Mass. The rocket flew only 46 meters (152 feet) -- about the same distance as the Wright Brothers' first manned flight -- but it did fly! It was the first flight of a liquid-fueled rocket in history.

When Goddard was later approached by the American Interplanetary Society in 1930 to publicize his work, Goddard refused. The society, rebuffed and learning that no one in the United States aside from Goddard was working with rockets, turned its attention to rocket research under way in Europe, where rocketry was beginning to develop a following.

In the spring of 1931, two founder-members of the American society, husband and wife Edward and Lee Pendray, travelled on vacation to Germany where they made contact with the German Rocket Society, which had been formed in 1927. The visiting Americans were given a preview of the future when a member of the German Rocket Society -- Prof. Willy Ley -- took the pair to the Germans' rocket flying test ground in the suburbs of Berlin.

Returning home, the Pendrays filed an enthusiastic report of their visit, prompting the American society to build its first rocket. The attempted test flight in November 1932 ended with the American design firmly on the ground. It's unfortunate the Pendrays didn't meet another future rocketry hall-of-famer who also was a member of the German society. Rumanian-born Hermann Oberth wrote, in 1923, a highly prophetic book: "The Rocket into Interplanetary Space." The book enthralled many with dreams of space flight, including that precocious German teenager, Wernher von Braun, who read the book in 1925. Five years later, von Braun had joined Oberth and was assisting with rocket experiments.

By 1932, the German Army was beginning to show an interest in the German Rocket Society's efforts, and in July of that year, a "Mirak" rocket was launched as a demonstration for the head of the newly created German Army rocket research group, Captain (later Major General) Walter Dornberger.

Mirak didn't impress Dornberger.

Von Braun did.

Three months after the demonstration flight, von Braun was engaged to work on liquid propelled rockets for the Army. Most of the German Rocket Society followed von Braun into national service and the society disbanded.

By December 1934, von Braun scored his first successes with an A2 rocket powered by ethanol and liquid oxygen. Two years later, as plans for the follow-on A3 rocket were being finalized, initial planning began for the A4 rocket -- a rocket that was to be, in Dornberger's words, a practical weapon, not a research tool. As noted earlier, most know the A4 by another name -- the V-2.

The rocket researchers quickly outgrew their facilities at Kummersdorf on the outskirts of Berlin and, in 1936, operations were transferred to a remote island on Germany's Baltic coast -- Peenemuende.

Between 1937 and 1941, von Braun's group launched some 70 A3 and A5 rockets, each testing components for use in the proposed A4 rocket.

The first A4 rocket flew in March 1942. The rocket barely cleared some low clouds before crashing into the sea a half mile from the launch site.

The second launch in August 1942 saw the A4 rise to an altitude of 11 kilometers (7 miles) before exploding.

The third try was the charm. On October 3, 1942, another A4 roared aloft from Peenemuende, followed its programmed trajectory perfectly, and landed on target 193 kilometers (120 miles) away. This launch can fairly be said to mark the beginning of the space age. The A4, the first successful ballistic rocket, is the ancestor of practically every rocket flown in the world today.

Production of the A4 began in 1943 and the first A4s, now renamed V2s, were launched against London in September 1944.

The V-2 offensive came too late to affect the course of the war. By April 1945, the German Army was in full retreat everywhere and Hitler had committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin.

At an inn near Oberjoch, the Haus Ingeburg, von Braun and over 100 of his rocket experts waited for the end. The entire team had been ordered executed by Hitler to prevent their capture. Wernher von Braun's brother, Magnus, however, managed to contact nearby American forces before Hitler's SS henchmen could reach the rocket team. On May 2, the same day Berlin fell to the Soviet Army, von Braun and his rocket team entered American lines and safety.

With the fighting over, von Braun and his team were heavily interrogated and jealously protected from Russian agents. V2s and V2 components were assembled. German rocket technicians were rounded up. In June, General Eisenhower sanctioned the final series of V2 launches in Europe. Watching each of the three V2s which rose from a launch site at Cuxhaven was a Russian Army colonel, Sergei Korolev. Ten years later, Korolev would be hailed as the Soviet Union's chief designer of spacecraft and the individual responsible for building the Vostok, Voshkod and Soyuz spacecraft which, since 1961, have carried all Soviet cosmonauts into orbit.

Few members of von Braun's team participated in the Cuxhaven launches. Most had already begun setting up shop at Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas. Piled up in the desert near Las Cruces, New Mexico, were enough parts to build 100 V2s. Von Braun and his team soon moved to nearby White Sands Proving Ground where work began assembling and launching V2s. By February 1946, von Braun's entire Peenemuende team had been reunited at White Sands and, on April 16, the first V2 was launched in the United States. The U.S. space program was under way!

Up to 1952, 64 V2s were launched at White Sands. Instruments, not explosives, packed the missiles' nosecones. A V2 variant saw the missile become the first stage of a two stage rocket named Bumper. The top half was a WAC Corporal rocket. The need for more room to fire the rockets quickly became evident and, in 1949, the Joint Long Range Proving Ground was established at remote, deserted Cape Canaveral, Fla. On July 24, 1950, a two-stage Bumper rocket became the first of hundreds to be launched from "the Cape."

The transfer of launch operations to the Cape coincided with the transfer of the Army's missile program from White Sands to a post just outside a north Alabama cotton town called Huntsville. Von Braun and his team arrived in April 1950. It was to remain his home for the next 20 years, a period in which the city's population increased ten fold.

The von Braun team worked to develop what was essentially a super-V2 rocket, named for the U.S. Army arsenal where it was being designed -- the Redstone.

In 1956, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency was established at Redstone Arsenal under von Braun's leadership to develop the Jupiter intermediate range ballistic missile. A version of the Redstone rocket, known as the Jupiter C, was used on January 31, 1958, to launch America's first satellite, Explorer I. Three years later, Mercury Redstones launched Alan Shepard and Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom on suborbital space flights, paving the way for John Glenn's first orbital flight.

In 1958, NASA was established, and, two years later, von Braun, his team, and the entire Army Ballistic Missile Agency were transferred to NASA to become the nucleus of the agency's space program.

The Army Missile Command, which owns Redstone Arsenal, continued its vital national defense mission after the transfer of ABMA to NASA, chalking up a remarkable number of successful programs to augment America's landpower. MICOM's successes include the Pershing II, the NIKE weapons systems, the HAWK system, Improved HAWK, Corporal, Sergeant, Lance and Chaparral, to name a few.

Pursuing a separate course -- that of developing rockets for space exploration -- the Marshall Space Flight Center's past quarter century has been a time of superlatives.

In 1961, almost as Alan Shepard was drying off from his landing in the Atlantic following his riding a Marshall-designed Redstone rocket on a sub-orbital flight which made him the first American in space, President Kennedy committed this nation to being first on the Moon. NASA's Marshall Center was charged with developing the family of giant rockets which would take us there.

The Saturn rockets developed at Marshall to support the Apollo program and to honor President Kennedy's pledge were, at the time, the most powerful space launch vehicles yet to have been invented.

Engineers, scientists, contractors, and other support personnel built well. On July 20, 1969, a transmission from the Moon's Sea of Tranquility reported: "The Eagle has landed."

Marshall's Saturn rockets first took us around the Moon, then to its cratered surface. Marshall-developed lunar excursion vehicles -- the ungainly Moon Buggies -- carried astronauts on far-ranging excursions in pursuit of samples of lunar soil and rock.

Closer to home, the team at Marshall developed America's first space station -- Skylab. Built to replace the upper stage of a Saturn V moon rocket, the Skylab module was successfully placed in orbit early on May 14, 1973.

Placing Skylab in orbit marked a major transition in the story of rocketry. Up until Skylab, the rocket had been the star -- the featured attraction. The focus had been on the up and down -- launch and recovery. Skylab, in essence stole the show. For the first time, space became a place in which to live and work. Flying aboard a rocket was about the Earthside equivalent of driving the family car to work. Just as having to drive to work is only incidental to work itself -- flying aboard a rocket became secondary to the work done once Skylab had been reached. The rocket, simply stated, became a means to an end -- the end in this case being the opportunity to learn to live and work in space.

A rash of malfunctions plagued Skylab's early days -- problems which tested the resourcefulness of the entire NASA team. The problems were overcome, however, and Skylab went on to become one of Marshall's proudest achievements.

A Marshall-developed Saturn I-B also carried aloft America's half of the first joint U.S.-Soviet space endeavor, the Apollo-Soyuz project.

After Apollo, the team at Marshall tackled designing a revolutionary national space transportation system, which came to be known simply as "The Space Shuttle."

It is anything but simple!

The space shuttle main engines are among the most powerful, most sophisticated devices ever invented. They represent a quantum leap in technology advancement over the engines which powered the Saturn V. Each of the three main engines in tail of the shuttle can provide almost a half-million pounds of thrust, a thrust equal to that produced by all eight of the Saturn I's first stage engines. Unlike most previous rocket engines, which were designed to be used only once -- and then for only a few minutes -- the space shuttle's main engines are designed to be used again and again, for up to 7.5 hours. The thrust to weight ratio for these engines is the best in the world -- each engine weighs less than 7,000 pounds but puts out the power equivalent of seven Hoover Dams!

Twenty-four successful flights of the space shuttle lulled America into a sense of complacency. Shuttle launches became routine -- a ho-hum event which had to scramble for an inch or two on page 2.

Then came the Challenger disaster....

The time since the loss of Challenger has been the busiest in the history of Marshall Space Flight Center. Teams of experts have been organized to find and fix the problems which led to the accident. Investigation quickly focused on a defective joint in the space shuttle's solid rocket motors. Rocket propulsion experts devised a number of modifications to the solid rocket motor design to remedy the fault.

A vigorous test program was undertaken to show that the problems had been solved.

The disaster-enforced hiatus in shuttle operations gave Marshall -- and other NASA installations -- an opportunity to address other shuttle-related concerns. Major steps were taken to enhance the reliability and safety of the turbine blades and turbo pumps in the shuttle's main engines. An escape system was created for the shuttle crew. Improvements were made to the orbiter's landing gear and brakes.

When America returned to manned spaceflight in 1988, it did so in a space vehicle which was vastly safer and more capable.

NASA also is examining using expendable launch vehicles on missions which do not require the shuttle's unique capabilities, and is looking into development of a new generation of heavy lift launch vehicles.

These will become the next chapter in the story of rocketry -- a story whose first chapters were written more than 2,400 years ago.

No one can say where our path will lead or when -- hopefully never -- the last chapter in this history will be written.


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