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©2018 Reaching Space Science. 

A Brief History of Rocketry

September 8, 2018

While scientific discoveries were being made in space science and astronomy, as were developments in the field of rocketry. The first concept of a rocket was developed in China beginning nearly fifteen hundred years ago. Used mainly for military purposes, these firework-like projectiles tossed arrows against enemy forces. With time, gunpowder was used in these weapons and this technology spread quickly around the world. This rocket-powered artillery was generally replaced by the use of other conventional tools, such as cannons, and was not improved upon for some time. The idea of developing rocket technology for both civil and military purposes was ignited by the work of Colonel William Congreve, who applied the concept of a rocket for the British army in the early 1800’s. Although their design was simple, these rockets helped establish the baseline for future developments in rocketry. 


This field of rocketry credits a handful of key pioneers for advancing its technology.  Historians have recently discovered that Canadian William Leitch gave the earliest scientific explanation for using rockets for spaceflight. In 1861, he correctly suggested that rocket thrust (the force that pushes rockets through the air) would be a useful way of travelling in the vacuum of space. Shortly thereafter, Russia’s Konstantin E. Tsiolkovski published the first major work on astronautics by explaining the basic mathematics of spaceflight. In the early 1900’s, American physicist Robert H. Goddard successfully designed the first liquid-fuelled rocket. The rocket burned liquid oxygen and gasoline for a total flight time of 20 seconds.


Robert Goddard and the first liquid-fueled rocket.



These early ideas helped inspire the spaceflight movement. In the Soviet Union, the Group for the Study of Reactive Devices was established in 1931. This program successfully launched the Soviet Union’s first liquid-fuel rocket, the GIRD-X, and laid the grounds for rocket technology development after World War II. Meanwhile, the Verein für Raumschiffart (or Society for Space Ship Travel) was created in Germany. This rocket program researched various ways of propelling rockets. With their defeat in World War I, Germany was forbidden from researching solid-fuelled rockets. This encouraged them to research into more complication liquid fuel rockets. One of the program’s most significant contributors and pioneers of liquid fuel rocket technology was Wernher von Braun. Having achieved his doctorate at only 22, this bright young man helped to develop a series of liquid-fuelled rockets with the country’s army and has since become the one of the most successful rocket developers. His early work for Germany produced the first man-made object to be launched into space, the V-2 rocket, which reached a height of 184 kilometres (an altitude of 100 kilometres is typically considered the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space). Developments of this rocket also created the first long-rage ballistic missile. Its basic design concepts helped create the technology for long-distance travel and to carry and deliver a warhead (a toxic or explosive material that was mounted on top of the rocket). The V-2 was used for lethal military purposes, primarily against Western Europe, in the 1940’s during World War II.


A new chapter in space flight began in July 1950 with the launch of the first rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida with a variation of the German V-2 rocket.


Upon defeat of Germany in World War II, Von Braun surrendered to the Americans and was brought to the United States. Here, he worked with the army to develop ballistic missiles and to train workers about guided missiles and rockets. Von Braun became a notable pioneer and advocate for space exploration by publishing his own concept of a manned space station, being a spokesman on space travel on Walt Disney television programs and eventually becoming the director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Here, he served as one of the chief architects of NASA’s Saturn V launch vehicle. This is the rocket that brought the NASA astronauts to the Moon.


The Second World War and the Cold War both accelerated rocket programs around the world because there was a rush to develop weapons that could be delivered across intercontinental distances. Advancements in rocketry evolved to become a source of national prestige during this era because the American and Soviet governments wanted to prove their capabilities to the other. The military missiles that were used in the first space launch vehicles helped to drive political and military interests, which meant that significant funds were being spent on these technologies to support spaceflight. In other words, national security, conflicts, and pride guided humans to go into space for the first time. During this period, often called the “Space Race”, the world’s first satellite Sputnik was launched in 1957, the first human (Yuri Gagarin) went to space in 1961 and humans first stepped foot on the moon in 1969. These events were important milestones not only for the space industry, but also for the public. Attention and interest was captured around the world for these events.  For example, an estimated 600 million people around the world watched the moon landing in 1969. 


Launch of Apollo 11 on the Saturn V rocket which successfully brought the first human lunar landing in 1969.


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