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Rocketing into Space: The Beginnings of the Space Age

Rocketing into Space: The Beginnings of the Space Age


In the first half of the twentieth century, scientists and engineers in Russia, Germany, and the United States engaged in theoretical and experimental investigations of travel beyond Earth's atmosphere using rockets. Stimulated by science fiction fantasies of space travel and funded by meteorological and military organizations, pioneering rocket scientists of the time developed missiles that traversed distances ranging from thousands of feet to hundreds of miles. Their efforts laid the foundation for the successful missile and space programs of the United States and the Soviet Union in the post-World War II era and helped to launch the Space Age.


The promise and products of science and technology in the industrial age of the nineteenth century fed the aspirations of those who longed to conquer space with rockets. The close alliance of science and technology, especially in the emergence of the research and development laboratories which institutionalized change, provided a new landscape for those individuals who desired to improve the understanding of propulsion and reactive motion so critical to rocket travel within and beyond Earth's atmosphere. Understanding the physics of motion was a necessary first step to devising a successful rocket, and transforming theoretical designs into workable mechanisms required painstaking experimental tests. Typical of so much of the technology of the time, rocketry required an extensive period of trial and error to transform theoretical constructs into workable missiles. Institutional funding, experimental acumen, devotion, and patience combined to transform the dreams of rocket flight into reality in just one generation.

Three men hold a prominent place in the history of rocket technology: Russian engineer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), American physicist Robert H. Goddard (1882-1945), and German researcher and instructor Hermann Oberth (1894-1989). The Russian scientist Tsiolkovsky was the first person to translate Newton's law of action-reaction into a theoretical analysis of rocket motion. (English physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton [1642-1727] proposed three basic laws of motion, the third of which is that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.) Tsiolkovsky also was the first to propose liquid fuels and to devise a multi-stage design to provide travel beyond Earth's atmosphere. Although Tsiolkovsky is considered the father of rocketry by Russians, little of his extensive work was known outside of the Soviet Union, and his failure to perform experimental work limited the impact of his pioneering analyses.

Likewise, the extensive theoretical and experimental work of American physicist Robert Goddard had limited influence. Captivated as a young man by the science fiction accounts of space travel written by Jules Verne (1828-1905) and H. G. Wells (1866-1946), Goddard used his training as an academic scientist to analyze rockets and create an elaborate experimental program to test high-altitude designs. First with solid fuel and then with liquid fuels he tested various designs, and by 1914 he held patents covering key principles such as using a combustion chamber with a nozzle to exhaust burning gases, creating a system to feed fuel into that chamber, and using a multi-stage device. During World War I, he received modest support from the Smithsonian Institution for meteorological research and from the United States Army for weaponry research. After the war, U.S. government interest in rockets waned, and Goddard returned to his private experimental work.

In 1919 Goddard published A Method of Reaching High Altitudes, which, much like Tsiolkovsky's works, promoted space travel. The public reacted to Goddard's treatise with sensationalism, labeling him a mad scientist for proposing travel to the Moon. This misunderstanding of Goddard's work increased his desire to work secretly and to share his results with only a small, inner circle of associates. By March of 1916 Goddard was successful in launching a liquid-fueled rocket that reached a height of over 400 feet (122 m) and traveled almost 200 feet (61 m) from the launch site. This pioneering feat encouraged him to continue his experimental research efforts, which eventually captured the attention of American aviator Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974), who persuaded the Guggenheim Foundation to fund Goddard's rocket investigations. Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, Goddard, who established a research facility in Roswell, New Mexico, made many incremental improvements to his rocket design with these resultant developments: using a nozzle for thrust in a rocket; demonstrating that rockets would function in a vacuum; using liquid fuel; using gyroscopes (a body that spins on a movable axis) for controlling a rocket with an inertial guidance system; using a multi-stage rocket design; and, using deflector vanes for stabilization and guidance. He also developed several rocket motors and pumps during this era of extensive experimentation. These achievements gave Goddard nearly every part of a workable rocket for space travel—so much so that he is considered the father of American rocketry. But, because Goddard kept much of this technology secret from other Americans working in rocket design during his lifetime and resisted invitations from rocket societies to share these findings, he influenced a relatively small number of people.

The most successful theoretical and experimental rocket researches centered on the work of Hermann Oberth and his German associates. Like Tsiolkovsky and Goddard, Oberth was influenced by science fiction literature, especially the work of Jules Verne, and had an early interest in space travel. He spent his early years speculating about and devising the mathematical analysis for various aspects of rocketry. Oberth continued this interest in his university studies; the result was his publishing The Rocket into Planetary Space in 1923. This influential book treated manned and unmanned rocket flights, various aerodynamic and thermodynamic analyses, proposals for liquid fuel designs, and a host of other technical aspects regarding space technology. Unlike Goddard, Oberth did not experiment with his designs; instead, he produced mainly theoretical accounts and analyses, yet his book was well known, and, as a result, much more influential among his contemporaries than Tsiolkovsky's lesser-known publications and Goddard's relatively secretive works.


The possibilities of space travel using rocket technology articulated by Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, and Oberth spread interest in the subject during the 1920s and 1930s. Each independently concluded that space travel was possible with rockets, that liquid-fueled rockets and multi-stage designs were the best for space travel, and that mathematics could be created to describe the behavior of rocket technology. As a result, rocket societies emerged in the Soviet Union, Germany, and the United States. These groups encouraged and engaged in rocket research and experiments so that by the 1930s several successful tests of amateur rockets drew the attention of the military, especially in Germany. The emerging Nazi regime in Germany embraced work on this potential weapon, which was not banned by the Treaty of Versailles, and absorbed most civilian rocket research and development under the umbrella of military control.

That control centered on the work of Walter R. Dornberger (1895-1980) and his young assistant, Wernher von Braun (1912-1977), who headed a research and development program in Germany in the 1930s. Their efforts, particularly at Peenemunde, an isolated island in the Baltic Sea, eventually produced the V-2 (Vengeance Weapon 2) used against Britain during the closing months of World War II. Although this new weapon wreaked havoc on parts of Britain, it also demonstrated the potential for space flight by reaching altitudes of 60 miles (97 km) on the edges of space. Government support of rocket research, especially in Germany, had produced both a new weapon and a new opportunity for the development of travel beyond Earth's atmosphere. Having ignored the potential of long-range rockets during World War II, the United States military took advantage of German rocket achievements by capturing the devices, records, and documents, and even personnel central to the work of the V-2. In the immediate post-war period, the United States began a military rocket research program in earnest. By 1949, modified V-2 rocket designs allowed the American Army to launch a rocket which reached a record altitude of almost 250 miles (402 km). German V-2 rocket technology became the basis of much of America's missile and rocket development, for scientific and military purposes, in the post-war era.

In 1945, at the war's end, the Soviets also recognized the importance of German rocket advances during World War II. They removed what artifacts and documents they found remaining at the abandoned Peenemunde site after von Braun and many of his associates vacated the facility in order to surrender to the Americans rather than the Russians. Some of the staff at Peenemunde chose to work for the Soviets, and in the post-war era they recruited others to help with a high profile, well-funded government program in the Soviet Union to improve the V-2 and create a new generation of powerful rockets. The Soviets recognized the importance of long-range missiles for their post-war strategy and, once they had exploited the German staff, turned to their own engineers and scientists to develop intra- and inter-continental missiles for military use and space exploration.

By 1950, both the United States and the Soviet Union had active rocket technology programs in place designed to serve the military in the Cold War and the scientific community in learning more about the heavens. The origins of that rocket technology lay with the pioneering theoretical and experimental work of Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, and Oberth. Those achievements that made space travel sensible and possible generated amateur societies, private and government research programs, and military efforts that provided the foundation for the successful space age in the second half of the twentieth century. German success with the V-2 rocket made the space age possible because the United States and the Soviet Union based much of their post-World War II developments on the war work of the Germans. With strong government support, both countries developed rockets capable of traveling distances across oceans or into the atmosphere, thereby turning the science fiction musings of the nineteenth century into the technological reality of roaring rockets reaching for the Moon, Mars, and beyond.


Further Reading

Bainbridge, William S. The Spaceflight Revolution. New York: Wiley, 1976.

Braun, Wernher von, and Frederick I. Ordway III. Space Travel: A History. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

Lehman, Milton. This High Man. New York: Farrar, Straus & Company, 1963.

Pisziewicz, Dennis. Wernher von Braun: The Man Who Sold the Moon. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1998.

Winter, Frank H. Rockets into Space. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Wulforst, Harry. The Rocketmakers. New York: Orion Books, 1990.

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