The History of Rockets

The first rockets were developed in China and powered by gunpowder. They were in use by 1245.

In Europe, the German military engineer Konrad Kyeser described rockets in his military treatise Bellifortis around 1405. The word 'rocket' first appeared in English in the early 17th century; it comes from the Italian rocchetta, meaning 'bobbin' or 'little spindle' – due to the similarity in shape to the bobbin or spool used to hold the thread to be fed to a spinning wheel.

Iron–cased rockets were successfully deployed for military use against the British East India Company during the 1780s and 1790s, by the Mysorean army under Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan. British exposure to this technology led the English inventor Sir William Congreve to design and develop a rocket that was fielded in the Napoleonic Wars from 1804. It was Congreve rockets that Francis Scott Key was referring to when he wrote of the "rockets' red glare" while held captive on a British ship that was laying siege to Fort McHenry in 1814. Together, the Mysorean and British innovations increased the effective range of military rockets from one hundred to two thousand yards.

The first mathematical treatment of the dynamics of rocket propulsion (what we might refer to as "rocket science") was published in 1813 by the English inventor William Moore. In 1815 Alexander Dmitrievich Zasyadko, a Lieutenant General in the Imperial Russian Army, constructed rocket–launching platforms, which allowed rockets to be fired in salvos (6 at a time), and gun–laying devices. In 1804 William Hale – another English inventor – greatly increased the accuracy of rocket artillery, and the Congreve rocket was further improved in 1865 by Edward Mounier Boxer, a Colonel in the Royal Artillery.

The concept of using rockets to enable human spaceflight was first proposed in 1861 by the Scottish astronomer, naturalist and mathematician William Leitch; but Leitch's work remained undiscovered until 2015. Meanwhile, in 1903, the same idea was conceived by the Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who developed an extensive body of theory that has provided the foundation for subsequent spaceflight development.

It was in 1920 that Professor Robert H. Goddard, of Clark University (in Worcester, Massachusetts) proposed improvements to rocket technology in A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes. Goddard is credited with creating and building the world's first liquid–fuelled rocket. According to Wikipedia, "Modern rockets originated in 1926 when Goddard attached a supersonic (de Laval) nozzle to the combustion chamber of a liquid–propellant rocket. These nozzles turn the hot gas from the combustion chamber into a cooler, hypersonic, highly directed jet of gas, more than doubling the thrust and raising the engine efficiency from 2% to 64%. Use of liquid propellants instead of gunpowder greatly improved the effectiveness of rocket artillery in World War II, and opened up the possibility of human spaceflight after 1945."

A German scientist named Hermann Oberth had published Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (The Rocket into Planetary Space) in 1923. Production of the V-2 rocket began in Germany in 1943; the Germans also used rockets on aircraft, either for assisting horizontal take–off (RATO), vertical take–off (Bachem Ba 349 'Natter') or for powering them (Me 163). The Allies' rocket programs were less technological, relying mostly on unguided missiles like the Soviet Katyusha rocket in the artillery role, and the American anti tank 'bazooka' projectile. These used solid chemical propellants.

A large number of rocket scientists, including Wernher von Braun, were among more than 1,600 German scientists, engineers, and technicians captured by the Americans in 1945 and brought to the United States, in Operation Paperclip. After World War II scientists used rockets to study high–altitude conditions, by radio telemetry of temperature and pressure of the atmosphere, detection of cosmic rays, and further techniques; note too the Bell X–1, the first crewed vehicle to break the sound barrier (1947). Research continued independently in the Soviet Union's space program, under the leadership of the chief designer Sergei Korolev (1907–1966).

Rockets became extremely important militarily during the Cold War, with the development of modern intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The 1960s saw rapid development of rocket technology, particularly in the Soviet Union (Vostok, Soyuz, Proton) and the United States (e.g. the X–15). Rockets came into use for space exploration; American crewed programmes (Mercury, Gemini and Apollo) culminated in 1969 with the first crewed landing on the Moon. The Apollo programme used equipment launched by the Saturn V rocket, designed under the direction of Wernher von Braun at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, with Boeing, North American Aviation, Douglas Aircraft Company, and IBM as the lead contractors. The Saturn V remains the tallest, heaviest, and most powerful rocket ever brought to operational status.

© Haydn Thompson 2020