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Rocket Science

Updated on April 23, 2010

Three brilliant men, Tsiolkovski, Goddard, and Oberth, are recognized as space flight pioneers. All were teachers, mathematicians and physicists, and modest men. All were passionately interested in the possibility of manned flight to the moon and the planets.


Three brilliant men, Tsiolkovski, Goddard, and Oberth, are recognized as space flight pioneers. All were teachers, mathematicians and physicists, and modest men. All were passionately interested in the possibility of manned flight to the moon and the planets.

Photo by Mike Gieson
Photo by Mike Gieson


In the United States, Robert H. Goddard experimented with solid propellants for rocket motors in college and graduate school. Early in the century he noted the potential for ion propulsion for interplanetary flight. In 1916-1917, while a professor at Clark College, he performed laboratory experiments in which he generated metallic ions in a vacuum and accelerated them by an electrostatic field.

Goddard devoted his entire life to developing rockets for upper atmospheric research, and dreamed of exploring interplanetary space. He was aided by modest grants from the Smithsonian Institution from 1916 to 1929. In 1921, Goddard switched from solid propellants to liquid oxygen and gasoline propellants. Five years later, at Auburn, Mass., he flew the world's first liquid propellant rocket a modest, but historic, 184 feet (56 meters). In 1929 he moved to Roswell, N. Mex. Supported by Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Foundation funds, and aided by a small team of machinists and technicians, he built and flew larger rockets with gyro stabilization, turbo-pumps, jet-exhaust and aerodynamic control vanes, and achieved supersonic flight.

Although he published only two papers (1919, 1936), he kept meticulous scientific notebooks and sent numerous reports to the Smithsonian Institution for file and record purposes. Some of these documents, which he asked to be held in archive, are concerned with exploration of the moon, lunar base site selection, and manned and unmanned exploration of Mars and Venus.

Goddard continued to improve the stability and reliability of his sounding rockets, and when World War II broke out he offered his services to the U. S. Navy. He was developing a liquid propellant (turbopump supply) jet-assist-takeoff (JATO) unit for aircraft at Annapolis, Md., when he died in 1945.


The third great pioneer was Hermann Oberth who was born in Transylvania (now in Rumania). In 1923 he published The Rocket Into Interplanetary Space. It was largely a mathematical proof of the potential of rocket propulsion in multistage space launch vehicles, and attracted little attention. Oberth's work was ignored by most scientists, as were Tsiolkovski's and Goddard's. Although they did not refute the assertions nor find fault with the mathematical proofs, they considered the practicality "obviously absurd." In 1929, Oberth published The Road to Space Travel, a. remarkable work with detailed drawings of large launch vehicles for manned spacecraft and retrorockets and parachutes for recovery. Also discussed was the utility of earth satellites for reconnaissance of the surface and signaling with mirrors since in 1929 long-distance radio transmission was still in its infancy.

Oberth was primarily a theoretician; he left to others the engineering development of rocket vehicles. Nevertheless, his writings were enormously influential in attracting interest and experimenters to rocketry. He is the only great pioneer who survived to see artificial satellites launched in 1957.

Kibaltchich and Ganswindt

Nikolai I. Kibaltchich, a Russian revolutionary and explosives expert, was arrested in the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881. While in prison awaiting execution, he sketched and wrote of the concept of a flying manned platform propelled by a series of successive explosions with controllable thrust. Kibaltchich's writings remained unseen in prison files until after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Hermann Ganswindt, a German inventor, conceived about 1890 of a spaceship propelled similarly to Kibaltchich's by a series of downward-firing cartridges. Ganswindt published little but gave lectures and wrote to newspapers while he battled lawsuits. His space concepts were little publicized for several decades. One of Goddard's earliest patents (1914), as well as his early rocket motor experimentation, was based upon the firing of successive explosive charges. This was not unrelated to Kibaltchich's and Ganswindt's concepts, but there is no doubt that Goddard's ideas were independently conceived.

Rocket Development

There was minimal use of rocket propulsion during World War I. Dreams of space flight, however, were awakened in the late 1920's by amateur rocket societies in many countries. Rocket enthusiasts with more or less technical skill formed these societies in the USSR, Germany, Austria, United States, Britain, and, sporadically, elsewhere. Imbued with the conviction that rocket power could be engineered, and recognizing that such propulsion was the key to space flight, these small groups met, published journals, and communicated with one another. Most of these societies experimented with liquid-oxygen-gasoline rocket motors and attempted launchings.

In Germany, the success and promise of rocket motor development led to take-over of research by the German Army in 1933. In the USSR the work of Friedrich A. Tsander and M. K. Tik-honravov culminated in successful launchings of liquid rockets. In Britain, the British Interplanetary Society was prohibited from testing rockets, but the group produced fundamental papers on spacecraft and launch vehicle design, studied space flight problems and even designed some instrumentation. The American Interplanetary Society (later the American Rocket Society) commenced their experimental program based upon that of the German society. In 1938 the first well-designed regeneratively cooled motor was tested successfully. This rocket motor laid the foundation of the first U. S. rocket engine industrial enterprise a few years later.

Peenemunde Team

World War II closed down the activities of rocket societies in all nations, with the exception of Germany, and instead major efforts were placed on conventional, if improved, armament. In Germany, Wernher von Braun, an enthusiastic young member of the German Spaceflight Society, was installed as technical leader of a small rocket activity of the German Army, headed by Capt. Walter Domberger. Dornberger, a talented officer, was convinced of the future of rocket power. During the next decade this team grew into a major installation at Peenemunde on the north German coast, employing tens of thousands of people. The group produced the A-4 (more popularly known as V-2), which was an immense step forward in rocket technology. At the war's end the German engineering achievement was recognized by von Braun as a stepping-stone to reaching the velocities necessary to achieve space flight.

After the war, von Braun and about 100 members of his Peenemunde team went to the United States and became citizens. Working first at White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico, they launched V-2's carrying scientific instruments to altitudes of over 100 miles (160 km). The high-altitude sounding rockets Viking and Aerobee, which were developed in the United States, continued to be tested at White Sands while von Braun and his team moved to the Army's Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville, Ala. There they developed the Redstone ballistic missile, an updated version of the V-2.

Later Rocket Societies

By 1954 the earlier rocket and space flight societies had been reorganized in most countries, augmented by guided missile engineers. The International Astronautical Federation had been formed by these societies in 1950, and annual congresses were being held in Europe. The American Rocket Society (ARS) had established its Space Flight Committee to consider ways of achieving space flight.

It is interesting to note that whereas prewar society members were interested in the dream of space flight, postwar membership, comprising young scientists and rocket engineers, was singularly lacking in interest in achieving space flight. Abetting the desire to remain "respectable," a major industrial member of the ARS even threatened to withdraw support if certain of the enthusiasts did not reduce public emphasis on the subject. Many rocket engineers, struggling with day-today problems, agreed. Nevertheless, von Braun and others authored a series in a major popular magazine, laying out a program for achieving space flight—first with an instrumented satellite, then manned flight in orbit, followed by moon and Mars missions. The technology of space flight was at hand, and the problems and unknowns were outlined or postulated. Those imbued with the excitement of realizing space flight in their time schemed and considered how an initial program could be justified.


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