Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera

1950-1960: Rockets Propelled Humans into Space and Made the Exploration of the Moon a Reality

How Did Rockets Develop?

The science of rocketry has a long history, starting with the invention of fireworks in China near the beginning of the first millennium. Early fireworks were bamboo tubes filled with a primitive gunpowder (consisting of saltpeter, sulphur, and charcoal), and were tossed into ceremonial fires during religious festivals to frighten evil spirits. Rockets were likely first discovered when bamboo fireworks, rather than exploding upon ignition, flew through the air propelled by the burning gunpowder gases. This discovery lead to the invention of the first working rockets, which were used in battle by the Chinese as early as 1000 A. C. E. The use of rockets in warfare became widespread by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At the Battle of Baltimore in 1814, the rockets fired on Fort McHenry by the British rocket vessel HMS Erebus were the source of the "rockets' red glare" described by Francis Scott Key in The Star-Spangled Banner.

Chinese artilleryman prepares a rocket for battle

Rocket-powered Aircraft Reached the Threshold of Space

After World War II, researchers in the United States began to employ rocket-powered aircraft to investigate high-speed flight. On October 14, 1947, U. S. Air Force test pilot Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager became the first human to fly faster than the speed of sound aboard the X-1 rocket plane. American experiments using new and faster rocket planes continued throughout the 1950s, culminating in the X-15 rocket plane, which flew a series of suborbital flights beginning in the late 1950s. The X-15 was the fastest piloted rocket-powered research aircraft that has ever been flown, eventually reaching Mach 6.72 in 1967. Two flights of the X-15 achieved altitudes of 100 km (60 miles), the officially recognized limit of space, and 10 others achieved heights of at least 50 miles. The pilots on all of these flights earned astronaut wings. The lessons learned in the X-15 program led directly to the American Space Shuttle.

X-15 rocket on a test flight

The Three Visionaries of Space Flight

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky
Dr. Robert Goddard
Dr. Hermann Oberth

The work of three pioneering scientists, all working independently, directly led to the Space Age. At the end of the nineteenth century Russian schoolteacher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky first conceived of the rocket as a realistic means of human transportation into space and developed such concepts as liquid fuel propulsion, rocket staging, and crewed space stations, all of which eventually became reality.

American Dr. Robert Goddard (center) designed and successfully flew humanity's first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926 and continued to build increasingly sophisticated rockets through the 1930s.

At the same time, German scientists led by Dr. Hermann Oberth (right) founded the German Society for Space Travel in 1926, which began to experiment with similar designs. These German experiments led to the development of the V-2 rocket during World War II.

What Are Rockets?

A rocket is a vehicle or device that obtains thrust by forcing or pushing extremely hot gasses at high speed out of a specially-shaped nozzle. In turn, the gasses push back on the rocket in the opposite direction, propelling the rocket forward. Unlike a jet engine, a rocket must carry both fuel and an oxidizer, such as oxygen, that allows the fuel to burn. Because rockets carry their own oxidizer, they can operate outside of Earth's atmosphere in the vacuum of space, making space voyages possible. In fact, rockets operate more efficiently in space than they do in the Earth's atmosphere! Rockets that carry spacecraft are called launch vehicles, and need to reach a speed of 17,500 MPH to achieve orbit around the Earth and 25,000 MPH to escape Earths orbit for lunar voyages.

Schematic drawing of a simple liquid-fueled rocket

A Weapon of War Left an Enduring Legacy of Peace for All Mankind

The V-2 was the world's first mass produced liquid-fueled rocket. Developed by the Germans during World War II, V-2 rockets were designed to deliver bombs to allied cities in Europe and Great Britain. Over 1000 rockets fell on Allied Europe between 1944-1945, killing over 8000 people. Out of this destructive past, the V-2 became the catalyst of rocket research and development into the space age. Postwar testing of captured V-2's trained both American and Soviet engineers in the construction and operation of large rockets. All of today's rockets can trace their lineage to the V-2.

Robert Goddard, with his liquid-fueled (gasoline and liquid oxygen) prototype rocket in 1926