The Founding Fathers of Rocketry

The progression of rocketry from literary fancy to scientific reality is generally credited to three men, all of whom worked separately from each other at about the same time. All were inspired by Jules Verne.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) was a provincial math teacher who spent most of his life in the small Russian town of Kaluga. Tsiolkovsky was a theoretician in aerodynamic flight, working through some of the same prob­lems the Wright brothers did at about the same time. His theories extended into jet propulsion and rocketry, as well as to the mechanics of liv­ing in space. In 1895 he published Dreams of the Earth and Sky, in which he described the mining of asteroids.

Tsiolkovsky’s primary work, Explora­tion of the Universe with Reaction Machines, was published in 1903 and is generally recog­nized as containing the first scientifically prov­able theories on the use of rockets in space. His writings are very detailed, including his specification for a mix of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen to fuel the engine of his theo­retical spacecraft. Hydrogen was first liquefied in 1898, and it is nothing short of amazing that this mixture propels the Space Shuttle today. Tsiolkovsky was a true theoretician, never attempting to prove his theories by practical applications, like building models or attempt­ing motor or flight tests. In spite of the volume of his publications, his work was not widely known outside of Russia.

FIGURE 41-1 Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.

Robert Goddard (1882-1945) was inspired not only by Jules Verne’s writings but also by another science fiction tome, H. G. Well’s The War of the Worlds. He dedicated himself to aero­nautics and space issues from an early age, and his first article, “The Use of the Gyroscope in the Balancing and Steering of Airplanes,” was published by Scientific American in 1907.2 After earning a Ph. D. in physics in 1911, he regis­tered two patents describing multistage launchers and liquid and solid propellant rockets, which became central to the progression of rocket sci­ence. By 1916, his work was being partially sub­sidized by the Smithsonian Institution.3

Goddard’s 1919 manuscript entitled A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, pub­lished by the Smithsonian in 1920, is regarded as a seminal work in the pioneering of rocketry. He continued his experimentation with rockets, launching the first liquid-fueled rocket on March 16, 1926, in a cabbage patch near Auburn, Mas­sachusetts. Although it rose only 184 feet in 2.5 seconds, it proved the workability of liquid-fuel propellants in rockets.

Like many who had gone before, much of Goddard’s work was met by mocking and scorn, particularly by the press, and most particularly by The New York Times.4 Although he withdrew from public view and conducted his experiments in as much privacy as possible, Goddard still attracted notoriety with each rocket launch. Launch failures and ensuing ground fires caused the Massachu­setts State Fire Marshal to prohibit Goddard from conducting any further tests in the state.

Charles Lindbergh found Goddard’s work fascinating and full of promise, and contacted him in November 1929. Lindbergh was famous by this time, and the lending of his name and credibility to Goddard’s experimentation was invaluable. Through the influence of Lindbergh, Daniel Gug­genheim agreed to fund Goddard’s research in the amount of $50,000 beginning in 1930. Goddard continued to receive support from the Guggen­heim Foundation in the ensuing years.5

Seeking open space and relative solitude, in July 1930, Goddard relocated to, of all places, Roswell, New Mexico,6 where he continued his research and experimentation until the beginning of

FIGURE 41-2 Robert Goddard on March 16, 1926 with the first liquid-fueled rocket.

World War II. He experimented with rocket control through movable vanes and rudders, as well as the use of gyroscopes. His rockets carried aloft the first payload, a barometer and a camera. Details of all of his work were published in 1936 in the treatise, Liquid Propellant Rocket Development.

Efforts to interest the United States govern­ment in his work were unsuccessful. But not everyone was unable to grasp the potential of his work. The new government of Germany, which took power in January 1933, was highly inter­ested in Goddard’s work. The National Socialist German Workers Party, also known by its acro­nym, the “Nazi Party,” led by Adolf Hitler, was very interested indeed.

Hermann Oberth (1894-1989) was born in Romania but lived his life in Germany. He was one of the first to discover the works of Konstan­tin Tsiolkovsky, during the 1920s. He published the book, The Rocket into Interplanetary Space, in 1923. This book presented theories very simi­lar to Goddard’s, but Oberth denied that he had had the benefit of Goddard’s work beforehand.7 Oberth conducted his own experiments during the 1920s, and in 1929 published an updated ver­sion of his previous book under the title of The Road to Space Travel.

Largely due to Oberth’s efforts, rocketry became popular in Europe during the 1920s. In 1928, Wernher von Braun, while attending a boarding school in northern Germany, happened on Hermann Oberth’s book (The Rocket into Interplanetary Space). Fascinated, he launched himself into a program of physics and math­ematics that would prepare him for the fledgling science of rocketry. By 1930, von Braun was a student at the Technical University of Berlin, where Oberth was an instructor. An amateur rocketry group inspired by Oberth’s book, known as the “Spaceflight Society,” held meetings on the Berlin campus, and von Braun became a member. It was here that he met Oberth, and as a result von Braun was selected to assist Oberth in his liquid-fueled rocket motor tests. At this time von Braun was introduced to Goddard’s work, and he followed up with his own research into Goddard’s publications through scientific jour­nals and publications.

The German Army began its rocket pro­gram in 1931. When it came to power in 1933, the Nazi government placed the advancement of rocketry high on its military “want list.” At the time, the terms of the Versailles Treaty (the 1918 agreement that ended World War I) prohibited Germany from developing military aircraft, but it said nothing about rocketry, mainly because practical rocketry was unknown to anyone except to a handful of engineers. The German Army began recruiting bright university students with credentials and interest in rocket science.

By 1933, von Braun was working on his doctoral dissertation in physics. Because of a research grant from the German Army, von Braun began collaborating on a secret solid-fuel

FIGURE 41-3 Hermann Oberth (foreground) and Wernher von Braun (near right).

program at the ballistic weapons center at Kummersdorf. The Kummersdorf site was moved to Peenemunde on the Baltic coast in 1936. Peenemunde was the secret laboratory and test site for the development of the V-2 rocket, which is recognized as the immediate precursor of the launch vehicles later used in the U. S. space program. The V-2 was the first practical rocket, 46 feet in length and weighing 27,000 pounds. It flew at speeds in excess of 3,500 miles an hour and delivered a 2,200-pound warhead 500 miles away. It was put to use against Allied targets, including London, in September 1944.

With the approach of Allied forces toward the end of World War II, von Braun arranged the defection of about 125 of his top rocket sci­entists and engineers, who brought with them their plans, drawings, and test results. Von Braun and his “rocket team” became the backbone of the United States’ ballistic missile program after World War II, and ultimately were largely responsible for the development of the Saturn V super launch vehicle that propelled the Apollo modules to the moon. Although von Braun was central to the perfection of rocket science in its practical aspects, he is considered in the “second generation” of rocket pioneers.

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