This year marks 87 year of the launch of the first modern rocket. In the span of a human life, the rocket has been an artifact to merry festivals, a hobby for "Mooniacs", a Nazi war weapon, the bringer of nuclear holocaust and launch vehicle to carry humans to the Moon.
In ancient times, the stars were considered divine, totally different from all that is below. In 1609, Galileo Galilei observed the Moon with the newly invented telescope and discovered that far from being a perfect and mystical sphere, it was filled with craters, mountains and valleys. Galileo realized that the moon was "a place".
Soon appeared people who dreamed of walking on the Moon. Cyrano de Bergerac, a popular Renaissance story teller, characterized himself in an alleged trip to the Moon, using glass spheres filled with dew tied to his waist. The heat of Sun evaporated the dew, which rose with such force that made him rise. But unfortunately, instead of going from France to the Moon, he swerved and ended in Canada. In the literature there are other ideas like that, like capturing flocks of migratory geese, or let a sail boat be blown by the force of a hurricane... to the Moon. Actually, nobody had the slightest idea of how to go to the Moon, and if this was possible in the first place.
This changed in 1687, when Isaac Newton published his book "Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy". In it, Newton explained how the force of gravity works, and for the first time in History, showed that the secret to escape Earth was speed. It is for this reason that Jules Verne, in his 1865 novel "From the Earth to the Moon", proposed using a giant cannon to launch a manned bullet.
In Russia, an obscure schoolteacher also dreamed about going to the Moon: Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Self-taught, he sought some method of propulsion contained within the ship itself, so it can change direction in the vacuum of space. It should be a system that needs no external air for combustion, and most importantly, that do not need an external support medium to propel itself. It occurred to him that the only solution was a folk firecracker invented by the Chinese in the Middle Ages: the rocket.
Many people believe that the jet of the rocket hits the ground and so it rises, but it does not work that way. A rocket is simply a overturned cannon. The recoil of the gun when it is fired is an indication of the difficulty that the cannon has to push the mass of vaporized powder, recalling that the burning of 1 kg of fuel produces 1kg of gas, and that 1 kg of gas weighs the same as 1 kg of stones. It is the same difficulty we have when pushing a heavy piece of furniture: when we apply force we separate a cabinet from our body, but we also tend to fall over backwards, and even we slip. Newton also had explained this type of interaction in his "Principia". Tsiolkovsky realized that if the tube was light enough and the amount of fuel massive enough, the recoil (in this case, advance) will be considerable; upright, this tube would rise as if climbing up this massive gas column. Actually, in the interplanetary vaccum a rocket rests exactly in this column of gas (usually many tons of gas) that it generates. It is an interaction between the rocket and (only) those tons of gasified fuel from which it tries to separate: they mutually push away from each other.
In 1903 Tsiolkovsky proposed the construction of liquid-fueled rockets, of greater efficiency. In a time when the first aircraft just emerged, he studied various aspects common today in spacecraft. He said: "The Earth is the cradle of Humankind, but one can not live in a cradle forever."
In the 1920s, the German scholar Hermann Oberth came to the same conclusions. He also talked about using rockets stacked one over another, to get more speed. He presented his work as a doctoral thesis, but it was rejected "for being utopian".
In the United States of America, a school teacher, Robert Goddard, was also working on the same since his teens. And he was ridiculed too. For example, the New York Times newspaper issue of 13 January 1920 said: "That Professor Goddard (...) does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react - to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools." By 1926 he had ready a small model powered by gasoline and liquid oxygen, and he tested in on 16 March. It flew a few dozen meters: it was the first modern rocket in History. By the 1930 he was launching rockets carrying meteorological instruments to several kilometers high: the first sounding rockets.
In Germany, Oberth was not discouraged and in Berlin he helped to found a club for fans who shared his ideas. One of these was an 18-year-old named Wernher von Braun. From an aristocratic family, he had been expelled from school for asking too many stupid questions, like: "How do you calculate the trajectory of a rocket going to the moon?". But in the Berlin rocket club von Braun soon stood out. Meanwhile, Hitler had come to power, and because after the First World War Germany was forbidden to manufacture war airplanes, the military sought an alternative. The rocket attracted their attention, and von Braun was offered a scholarship for his doctorate in engineering.
After graduation, he began working under the orders of Colonel Walter Dornberger. At 25 years old, von Braun was appointed technical director of a new center for research and development of rockets at Peenemünde, next to the Baltic Sea. The complex grew fast and quickly his 500 subordinates were working on different projects. The ultimate goal was the huge A4, a missile 12-meters high, which worked with alcohol and liquid oxygen, feeded by turbopumps, capable of reaching 5000 km/h and launch 1 ton of explosives to 250 km away. On 3 October 1943 it rose to more than 80 km in altitude, the first object built by humans to scratch outer space. Colonel Dornberger, excited, said to von Braun: "Do you know what we did today? Today the spaceship was born". But the harsh reality was that they were in the Second World War, and despite the technicians' dreams about the Moon, Hitler made the weapon enter into series production and used it to bomb London. Thousands of prisoners of war were used as slave labor, in "subhuman" conditions, to build the A4, now called V2 (V for Vendetta). Von Braun himself was sent briefly to jail for talking too much of Astronautics and not concentrating on military work.
Near the end of the war part of his team was captured by the Soviets, but von Braun fled and managed to negotiate a surrender of himself and a hundred technicians at the hands of the United States of America. Thanks to them, by 1950 the V2s were taking-off from Florida. With a small U.S. WAC Corporal rocket on the tip (creating the first multi-stage rocket) soon heights of 400 km were reached, well into outer space.
But now its military derivatives, such as the Jupiter and the Redstone, transported atomic bombs and in subsequent years this arsenal of missiles would endanger the very survival of the human species.
However, in 1955, the U.S. decided to demonstrate their technology by placing a small artificial satellite in orbit, in the context of the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year. The Soviets quickly announced the same thing, but no one believed them: the common notion held of the Soviet Union was that the most sophisticated thing they had were tractors. Nevertheless, with the help of German technicians captured after the war they had an advanced intercontinental missile project. The leader was the Russian Sergei Korolev, who like von Braun, in his youth had been a member of rocketeers clubs.
The U.S. project, for various reasons, was civilian, and von Braun was not involved. But the Soviets did not hesitate to use their intercontinental ballistic missile, and on 4 October 1957 they launched Sputnik 1. A month later they launched another R-7 missile and placed the first living being in orbit, the dog Laika. The U.S. project, Vanguard, was far behind, so von Braun was given the opportunity he had been waiting for. He modified a Jupiter C missile, adding additional stages built by the team of William Hayward Pickering in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, and in January 1958 launched the satellite Explorer 1. An instrument package, prepared by James Van Allen of the University of Iowa, discovered that the Earth is surrounded by radiation belts, proving that rockets can bring great benefits to Science.
In 1958 NASA is created to manage all U.S. civilian programs.
In 1959 the Soviet Lunik 3 photographs the back side of the Moon, never seen before.
On 12 April 1961, three weeks before the U.S. suborbital flight of Alan Sheppard, the Soviet Yuri Gagarin made one complete revolution around the Earth. In February of the following year John Glenn managed the same feat for the U.S.. Humankind entered into the Space Age.
On 16 July 1969, a massive Saturn V rocket, designed by Werhern von Braun, placed the Apollo 11 mission on its way to the Moon. The following day the New York Times published a correction, apologizing for the error of the 1920 editorial and confirming that Isaac Newton (and Robert Goddard) at the end of the day were right.
If you wish to share this article with others, you can establish an Internet link, but you cannot copy any part of this page. Copyright © 1999-2013. Reproduction prohibited. All rights reserved.