Inventions that Changed the Course of History: The Rocket


Throughout history, there has been confusion between the words rocket and missile. A rocket generally refers to a device, which after launch, is recovered using a parachute or streamer. A missile is defined as a flying device which is not recovered. Therefore, any flying device which explodes or otherwise is destroyed on impact is a missile, not a rocket.

Around 1200 CE, the Chinese developed a method for containing their black powder that allowed them to produce the earliest forms of rockets. Tightly packing the powder into long cardboard tubes caused it to burn very quickly, generating large amounts of thrust. With the addition of a nozzle at the bottom of the combustion chamber, the thrust was increased even further. Originally used as weapons of war, Chinese rockets utilized long stabilizing sticks and relatively large explosive charges in the heads of the rockets.

These so-called fire arrows were feared by all enemies. Due to their relatively simple design, they could be produced in large quantities and fired in rapid succession.

It was not until the mid-17th century that rocket technology began to advance. In 1650, a Polish artillery expert named Kazimierz Siemienowicz published drawings and descriptions of a multiple staged rocket, the first in written history.

Perhaps the greatest period of advancement in rocketry occurred during the lifetime of Dr. Robert Goddard. As the father of modern rocketry, Goddard’s work in the field of liquid-fueled rocketry thrusted the world into a new age. Growing up in central Massachusetts, he theorized about high altitude space flight early in his career.

In 1912, he proposed a design for a multiple-staged rocket capable of reaching the moon, but his idea was quickly shot down as being absurdly impossible. He went on to prove that a rocket would work in complete vacuum, an idea that was crucial to the development of space travel. To stabilize his finless rockets, Goddard developed a gyroscopic stabilization system which kept even the most unfit-for-flight vehicle airborne. By 1926, he had successfully tested and flown the first liquid-fueled rocket. His contributions to modern rocketry reach far beyond his development of the first flying liquid-fueled rocket. Goddard’s creative thinking and open mind inspired others to follow his path, eventually leading to the space race in the 1960s.

By the mid-1950s, the world had been well exposed to the destructive forces of military missiles. It was at this point that people began to see the scientific uses of rockets as well. In 1958, the United States founded the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to provide for research into the problems of flight within and outside the Earth's atmosphere. One of the first goals of the new space administration was to build a successful rocket capable of lifting a large payload to the Moon. The Apollo Program, which started in 1961, had one basic goal: to land Man on the Moon. On 28 January 1968, a very large and complex rocket was launched from a pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Apollo V was one of first fully successful launch vehicles, and laid the foundation for the rocket that would change the world.


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