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The race into space

Updated on June 18, 2012


In March 1926 the American physicist Robert Goddard (1882 -1945) conducted the world's first tests with liquid-propelled rockets - in a field on his Aunt Effie's farm in Auburn, Massachusetts. His first rocket was fired from the back of a truck and ignited by means of a blow-lamp. At first, his rockets were only about 1.2m (4ft) tall.

But in 1929 he fired a far bigger rocket which carried a small camera, barometer and thermometer. The rocket made so much noise that Goddard's neighbours complained to the police. Goddard's work received no official backing and he and his colleagues frequently ran out of money. They got into further trouble with the police for illegally launching rockets from bits of wasteland - and their test models were often seized by the authorities or by angry farmers in whose fields the rockets had landed.

However. with the aid of a $50,000 grant from the philanthropist David Guggenheim, Goddard set up an experimental rocket station in the New Mexico desert. There he built rockets which reached heights of up to 2.5km (1.5 miles) and speeds of more than 800km/h (500mph).

In 1935 Goddard became the first person to fire a liquid-propelled rocket that travelled faster than the speed of sound - in the air at sea level this is about 1200km/h (740mph). Altogether, he took out more than 200 rocketry patents, including one for a multi-stage rocket. the basis of modern three-stage booster rockets.


When Neil Armstrong - commander of the Apollo 11 mission - became the first man to step on the surface of the Moon on July 21. 1969, he made a small slip in the words he spoke. He meant to say: 'That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.' Those are the words that have gone into the history books. In fact. the sentence lost its meaning because he actually said 'man', not 'a man'.


The first space vehicle to go into orbit around the Earth was launched on October 4, 1957 - the 40th anniversary of the Communist seizure of power in the Russian Revolution. It was the Soviet Sputnik 1, which weighed only 84kg (1851b) and was launched by means of a multi-stage rocket. Sputnik 1 which travelled at 28,000km/h (17,500mph). Then the highest speed achieved by any man-made object - transmitted a radio bleep that was picked up around the world.


The price of a brand-new Space Shuttle-about $600 million - would buy just nine hours of peak advertising time on US television. The cost of the Shuttle programme was a whole- $9000 million the equivalent of slightly more than £1 for every man, woman and child in the world.


The 47m (154ft) long main fuel tank on the US Space Shuttle holds 2 million litres of chilled liquid fuel. which it uses at the rate of almost 4000 litres a second. Eight minutes after blast-off, when the tank is empty, it is discarded and goes into orbit until it eventually falls back into the Earth's atmosphere to disintegrate. Astronauts have called the tank 'the world's largest throw-away cold drink can'.


The Crawler, the huge transporter which takes the Space Shuttle to its launch pad, is the world's largest and slowest vehicle. It weighs 3000 tonnes and its top speed is 3km/h (2mph). Nevertheless, in the interests of safety, the driver is ordered to wear a seat belt.


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