History of Rocketry, Part 1: From Early Beginnings up to the First Half of the 20th Century

 Jet Propulsion Vacuum Style: Rockets

I'm sure you all know about jet propulsion basics. It's coup and contre-coup. That's a fundamental principle in physics.

It was Sir Isaac Newton who found out that "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." (Newton's Third Law of Motion). I found a fine compilation of Newton's 3 Laws on the Web. (Hit the back button on your browser in order to come back here.)
Imagine a grasshopper sitting on a piece of driftwood which is floating in a quiet lake. If the weight of both the grasshopper and his perch were precisely the same, the grasshopper might  jump from the wood to the shore, a distance of maybe five inches, discounting any drag which might be imposed on the wood, the wood will move in the opposite direction, five inches as well. Because of their equal weight, both the grasshopper and the piece of driftwood will move at the same speed at the beginning, because of friction and water viscosity the driftwood will slow down soon, though.

Isaac Newton, painting by Godfrey Kneller, 1702

In ancient China, rockets had been invented for bringing fireworks to the sky while experimenting with black powder.
In 1799 British forces came across war rockets in India. William Congreve introduced them to their arsenal for a couple of years.

Fantastic Novels Paving The Way

Before the end of the 19th century, the idea of leaving the earth for space by means of rockets came up for the first time.  Jules Verne in France, Kurt Lasswitz in Germany, and H.G. Wells in England were authors who wrote novels about leaving the planet and enter space.

Jules Verne, 
Kurt Lasswitz. 
H(erbert) G(eorge) Wells, 


The Founding Fathers and Rocketry in the First Half of the 20th Century

Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky
(1857-1935) was a Russian school teacher who, without ever launching a single rocket himself, was the first to figure out all the basic equations for rocketry - in 1903. Consumed by his passion for the sciences, he tried his hand at fiction and began to write about interplanetary travel. He introduced real technical problems into his writings, such as rocket control in moving into and out of gravitational fields, evolved from fiction writer to scientist and theoretician. Hypotheses and calculations were to follow on a broad spectrum of matters such as escape velocities from the earth's gravitational field; gyroscopic stabilization; the principle of reactive action; and the use of liquid propellants. His "Tsiolkovsky Formula" established the relationships between rocket speed, the speed of the gas at exit and the mass of the rocket and its propellant. 

Robert H. Goddard
(1882-1945) from Massachusetts, one of the fathers of modern rocket propulsion, who envisioned the exploration of space and as a physicist had an unique genius for invention. In 1912 he explored mathematically the practicality of using rocket propulsion to reach high altitudes and even the  moon. In 1914 he received a U.S. patent in  the idea of a multi-stage rocket. He proved, by actual static test, that a rocket would work in a vacuum In 1926 he shot a liquid fuel rocket, in 1929 he shot a scientific payload (barometer and camera) in a rocket flight. In 1932 he used vanes in the rocket motor blast for guidance and developed a gyro control apparatus for rocket flights. He developed pumps suitable for rocket fuel. In 1937 he launched a rocket with a motor pivoted on gimbals under the influence of a gyro mechanism.In memory of the brilliant scientist, a major space science laboratory, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center,Greenbelt, Maryland, was established on May 1, 1959 

Hermann Oberth
(1894-1989), born in Hermannstadt, Transylvania, Romania, is the third of the founding fathers of rocketry. At age 11, he read Jules Verne's novel From The Earth To The Moon and was fascinated by the subject of space flight. By the age of 14, Oberth had already envisioned a “recoil rocket” that could propel itself through space by expelling exhaust gases (from a liquid fuel) from its base. Oberth realized that the higher the ratio between propellant and rocket mass the faster his rocket would be. As the rocket expends fuel, its mass (not including fuel) remains the same, in essence becoming heavier and heavier in relation to the engine’s ability to provide thrust, he thought of stages as a solution. He reasoned that as one section of the rocket cylinder becomes expended, and therefore also becomes dead weight, why not just get rid of it?  Oberth wrote, “If there is a small rocket on top of a big one, and if the big one is jettisoned and the small one is ignited, then their speeds are added.”  In 1912 he started studying medicine, served as a medic during WW I. He realized that he wouldn't become a medical doctor after that experience. 
After the war, he changed to physics. In 1922 his doctoral thesis on rocketry was rejected. In 1923, he published the 92-page article Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (The Rocket into Planetary Space). A longer version (429 pages) in 1929 was internationally celebrated as a work of  great scientific importance. 
In the 1930s, Oberth worked with a young assistant who was to become one of the leading scientists in rocketry later, Wernher von Braun. They teamed up again at Peenemünde during WW II, building the V-2 rocket, and after the war, in the United States at the U.S. Army’s Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama. Oberth retired early and went back to his native Germany.
Hermann Oberth had always been a humble man with humble goals. He outlined them in the last paragraph of his 1957 book Man into Space: “To make available for life every place where life is possible. To make inhabitable all worlds as yet uninhabitable, and all life purposeful.” 

Eugen Saenger
(1905-1964), a German rocket scientist from Pressnitz, Bohemia (then a part of Austria), who did pioneering work on space planes and new forms of space transport. He was influenced by Oberth's book The Rocket into Interplanetary Space which made him change from civil engineering studies to aeronautic classes in 1923. Saenger believed in a combination of rocket and aircraft technology. His The Technology of Rocket Flight shows his idea of rocket planes while working as an assistant at the Technical University in Vienna, from 1930 to 1935. After 1936 he worked in Germany on ramjet engines and hypersonic aircraft which would lead to the construction of the X-15 and the space shuttle in the end. After WWII and a stay as a consultant engineer in France, he joined Stuttgart University in 1954 and worked for a number of German aerospace companies. In the 1950s he suggested a design for a photon rocket, in the 1960s he made up a concept for a two-stage, reusable aerospace plane for the purpose of inexpensively transporting men and payloads into space.


Wernher Von Braun
(1912-1977) was born in Wirsitz, Posen (now Poland). After reading Hermann Oberth's Rocket into Planetary Space, and the gift of a telescope from his mother, he decided to become a space pioneer and physicist. Von Braun's natural leadership and ability to encourage and inspire others led him, at the age of 16, to organize an voluntary observatory construction team building a complete observatory in their spare time. Two years later, he enrolled at the Berlin Institute of Technology in 1930. In 1932, at the age of 20, he received his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, and was offered a grant  to conduct and develop scientific investigations on liquid-fueled rocket engines. In 1934, he received his PhD in physics from the University of Berlin. 
In the early 1930s  Artillery captain Walter Dornberger was searching for a weapon which would not violate the Versailles Treaty of World War I on behalf of the German military. Dornberger was assigned to investigate the practicality of using rockets. He was impressed with Von Braun and hired him to lead the military's rocket artillery unit. A new facility was built at Peenemunde on the Baltic coast. At that time, Hitler had taken over Germany. Von Braun designed and built the A-4, also known as V-2 ('vengeance weapon #2') for the war against Britain, but kept on dreaming of using rockets for going into space. 
Near the end of the war, after stealing a train with forged papers, von Braun led 500of his staff through war-torn Germany to surrender to the Americans and finally found an American private. Realizing the importance of these engineers, the Americans immediately went to Peenemunde and captured all of the remaining V-2's and V-2 parts, then destroyed both places with explosives. They brought over 300 train car loads of spare V-2 parts to the United States.
Much of Von Braun's production team was captured by the Russians, though.       (More on Von Braun and his work in the U.S.)

Move on to History of Rocketry, Part 2

Newton's Three Laws of Motion
A Short History Of Rocketry (Courtesy KSC/NASA)
Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky
Robert H. Goddard
Hermann Oberth: Father Of Space Travel
3rd Eugen Sänger Memorial Lecture: The X-15 Program In Retrospect
Eugen Sänger (Danish site)
Wernher Von Braun

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