A brief history of rocketry
The foundations for modern rocketry were laid by Sir Isaac Newton’s three laws of motion in the 17th century. These laws are:
- An object at rest will remain at rest, and an object in motion will remain in motion, unless an external force is applied to it.
- Force is equal to mass times acceleration.
- For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
These principles explain and describe how objects can be propelled through the air. In the early 20th century, the Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky used calculus (another of Newton’s inventions) to publish the first equation describing the motion of a rocket – an object that can apply acceleration, or thrust, to itself by rapidly expelling part of its own mass.
In 1920, the American physicist Robert Goddard published A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, an essay proving that rocket flight could work in the vacuum of space – although this idea was widely ridiculed at the time. In 1926, Goddard successfully carried out the world’s first launch of a liquid-fuelled rocket.
A few years later, the German physicist and engineer Hermann Oberth – often called the “father of space travel” – published a book explaining in detail how rockets could escape the Earth’s gravitational pull. His book encouraged the flourishing of many “rocket societies” around the world.
During the Second World War, the German scientist Wernher von Braun oversaw the development of the world’s first long-range ballistic missile, the V-2. Although these weapons had little impact on the outcome of the war, they did become the first man-made objects to pierce the fringes of outer space.
After the war, hundreds of German scientists and engineers, including von Braun, defected to the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1957, the Soviet Union used an R-7 rocket to launch Sputnik 1, the world’s first Earth-orbiting satellite.
Shortly afterward, the USA formed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Space Race was on. Working with NASA, Wernher von Braun and his team eventually developed the Saturn V - the booster rocket that helped put Neil Armstrong on the Moon in 1969.