ROCKETS, SATELLITES, AND LUNAR LANDINGS
Beginning 1926 AD
|The earliest liquid-fueled rocket, launched by Dr. Robert H. Goddard (pictured with his rocket inside a frame) on March 16, 1926 in Auburn, Massachusetts. Goddard is considered to be the father of modern rocketry.
Credit: Image from NASA, courtesy of Wikipedia.
On a dark, starry night you can usually spot a man-made satellite crossing the night sky. This seems usual to us now, but such satellites are relatively new in human history, and depended on the development of rocket technology. Rocketry has had a long, long history, going back more than a thousand years, but the guided rocket technology that has led us into the Space Age emerged during the 20th Century, less than 100 years ago. About 1000 years ago, the Chinese developed gunpowder-fueled projectiles, and such early rockets were used in warfare by the Chinese, and then the Mongols and Ottomans, between 1000 and 1500 AD The military use of rockets finally spread to Europe by the 1500s, but became especially important during the 1800s after William Congreve developed a rocket for the British military in 1805 (we often sing about the “red glare” of such early British rockets – fired on Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 – in the U.S. national anthem!). But it wasn’t until the early 1900s that scientists started exploring the possibility of using rocket technology to explore outer space.
Early theorists on space travel include a Russian teacher who in 1903 wrote The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices, a French engineer who in 1912 calculated energy required for travelling to other planets, and a U.S. physics professor, Robert Goddard, who also in 1912 theorized about how to improve rockets, including having them take off in stages. By the 1920s, Goddard and others were publishing serious works on improving rockets and sending them into outer space, and Goddard’s work on liquid fuel, multi-stage rockets formed the foundation for rocket science. Goddard’s launch in 1926 of the first liquid-fueled rocket was the beginning of modern rocketry, and by the 1930s, rocket science was thriving in the U.S., Germany, and the Soviet Union. These efforts led to the development of military use of rockets by Nazi Germany, especially the V-2 rocket, and also by the Soviet Union, during World War II.
After the war, the race for space soon began. Many of the German rocket scientists were brought to work in the United States building rockets that would help us reach into space, and meanwhile the Russians were also building on the earlier German rocket design, at first with the help of other German rocketeers. The Soviet Union ‘won’ the first few heats of the race, with the launching of the first satellite (Sputnik I) in 1957, the crash landing of a spacecraft on the moon in 1959, and sending the first man to orbit the earth, Yuri Gagarin, in April of 1961 (a few months after the U.S. had sent a chimpanzee named Ham on a suborbital flight in January). The U.S. then launched its first astronaut into orbit a few weeks later, in May of 1961, and the space race was truly underway. This race was especially heated in the 1960s, when Soviet and U.S. launched many spacecraft. The U.S. space program in these early years between the late 1950s and the early 1970s included Project Mercury, Project Gemini, and the Apollo Program, culminating in the first manned landing on the moon in 1969 by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin during the Apollo 11 mission.
WHY SHOULD I CARE?
The development of rocket technology has enabled the launching of satellites for a wide range of purposes – military observation, commercial GPS and navigation purposes, communications, weather monitoring, and scientific research. No satellites, no GPS, no satellite TV, no Google Earth. Over 50 countries have now launched thousands of satellites into space, with a few hundred of these still in operation. Mo dern military technology also depends greatly on sophisticated new rockets, often with self-correcting guidance systems. And rockets are also necessary for the launching of the many probes investigating our solar system and beyond.
This Smithsonian webpage describes the 1926 Goddard Rocket.
This is rare footage of Robert Goddard launching rockets.
This NASA webpage is about the first landing on the Moon, as told by the astronauts.
This video from NASA is of footage documenting the first lunar landing on July 20, 1969.
This CBS video is about the first moonwalk on July 20, 1969, with anchor Walter Cronkite commenting.
This video is from CBS, highlighting anchor Walter Cronkite commenting on the lunar landing.
This is NASA’s webpages about all the Apollo missions to the moon, including videos and archives.
This webpage briefly describes the first US satellite, Explorer 1.
Thi is a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory website about Explorer 1.