Rocket technology has evolved for more than 2000 years. Today’s rockets are a product of a long tradition of ingenuity and experimentation, and combine technical expertise from a wide array of engineering disciplines. Very few, if any, of humanity’s inventions are designed to withstand equally extreme conditions. Rockets are subjected to awesome g-forces at lift-off, and experience extreme hot spots in places where aerodynamic friction acts most strongly, and extreme cold due to liquid hydrogen/oxygen at cryogenic temperatures. Operating a rocket is a balance act, and the line between a successful launch and catastrophic blow-out is often razor thin. No other engineering system rivals the complexity and hierarchy of technologies that need to interface seamlessly to guarantee sustained operation. It is no coincidence that “rocket science” is the quintessential cliché to describe the mind-blowingly complicated.

Fortunately for us, we live in a time where rocketry is undergoing another golden period. Commercial rocket companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are breathing fresh air into an industry that has traditionally been dominated by government-funded space programs. But even the incumbent companies are not resting on their laurels, and are developing new powerful rockets for deep-space exploration and missions to Mars. Recent blockbuster movies such as Gravity, Interstellar and The Martian are an indication that space adventures are once again stirring the imagination of the public.

What better time than now to look back at the past 2000 years of rocketry, investigate where past innovation has taken us and look ahead to what is on the horizon? It’s certainly impossible to cover all of the 51 influential rockets in the chart below but I will try my best to provide a broad brush stroke of the early beginnings in China to the Space Race and beyond.

51 influential rockets ordered by height. Created by Tyler Skrabek

51 influential rockets ordered by height. Created by Tyler Skrabek

The history of rocketry can be loosely split into two eras. First, early pre-scientific tinkering and second, the post-Enlightenment scientific approach. The underlying principle of rocket propulsion has largely remained the same, whereas the detailed means of operation and our approach to developing rocketry has changed a great deal.

An illustration of Hero’s aeolipile

The fundamental principle of rocket propulsion, spewing hot gases through a nozzle to induce motion in the opposite direction, is nicely illustrated by two historic examples. The Roman writer Aulus Gellius tells a story of Archytas, who, sometime around 400 BC, built a flying pigeon out of wood. The pigeon was held aloft by a jet of steam or compressed air escaping through a nozzle. Three centuries later, Hero of Alexandria invented the aeolipile based on the same principle of using escaping steam as a propulsive fluid. In the aeolipile, a hollow sphere was connected to a water bath via tubing, which also served as a primitive type of bearing, suspending the sphere in mid-air. A fire beneath the water basin created steam which was subsequently forced to flow into the sphere via the connected tubing. The only way for the gas to escape was through two L-shaped outlets pointing in opposite directions. The escaping steam induced a moment about the hinged support effectively rotating the sphere about its axis.

In both these examples, the motion of the device is governed by the conservation of momentum. When the rocket and internal gases are moving as one unit, the overall momentum, the product of mass and velocity, is equal to P_1. Thus for a total mass of rocket and gas, m=m_r+m_g, moving at velocity v

mv = \left(m_r + m_g\right)v = P_1

As the gases are expelled through the rear of the rocket, the overall momentum of the rocket and fuel has to remain constant as long as no external forces are acting on the system. Thus, if a very small amount of gas \mathrm{d}m is expelled at velocity v_e relative to the rocket (either in the direction of v or in the opposite direction), the overall momentum of the system is

\left(m - \mathrm{d}m\right) \left(v+\mathrm{d}v_r\right) + \mathrm{d}m \left(v + v_e\right) = P_2

As P_2 has to equal P_1 to conserve momentum

mv = \left(m - \mathrm{d}m\right) \left(v+\mathrm{d}v_r\right) + \mathrm{d}m \left(v + v_e\right)

and by isolating the change in rocket velocity \mathrm{d}v_r

\left(m-\mathrm{d}m\right) \mathrm{d}v_r = -v_e\mathrm{d}m
\therefore dv_r = -\frac{\mathrm{d}m}{\left(m-\mathrm{d}m\right)} v_e

The negative sign in the equation above indicates that the rocket always changes velocity in the opposite direction of the expelled gas. Hence, if the gas is expelled in the opposite direction of the motion v (i.e. v_e is negative), then the change in the rocket velocity will be positive (i.e. it will accelerate).

At any time t the quantity M = m-\mathrm{d}m is equal to the residual mass of the rocket (dry mass + propellant) and \mathrm{d}m = \mathrm{d}M denotes it change. If we assume that the expelled velocity of the gas remains constant throughout, we can easily integrate the above expression to find the incremental change in velocity as the total rocket mass (dry mass + propellant) changes from an intial mass M_o to a final mass M_f. Hence,

\Delta v = \int_{M_o}^{M_f} -v_e \frac{\mathrm{d}M}{M} = -v_e \ln M\left.\right|^{M_f}_{M_o} = v_e \left(\ln M_o - \ln M_f\right) = v_e \ln \frac{M_o}{M_f}

This equation is known as the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation (more on him later) and is applicable to any body that accelerates by expelling part of its mass at a specific velocity.

Often, we are more interested in the thrust created by the rocket and its associated acceleration a_r. Hence, by dividing the equation for dv_r by a small time increment dt

a_r = \frac{\mathrm{d}v_r}{\mathrm{d}t} = - \frac{\mathrm{d}M}{\mathrm{d}t} \frac{v_e}{M} = \frac{\dot{M}}{M} v_e

and the associated thrust F_r acting on the rocket is

F_r = Ma_r = \dot{M} v_e

where \dot{M} is the mass flow rate of gas exiting the rocket. This simple equation captures the fundamental physics of rocket propulsion. A rocket creates thrust either by expelling more of its mass at a higher rate (\dot{M}) or by increasing the velocity at which the mass is expelled. In the ideal case that’s it! (So by idealised we mean constant v_e and no external forces, e.g. aerodynamic drag in the atmosphere or gravity. In actual calculations of the required propellant mass these forces and other efficiency reducing factors have to be included.)

A plot of the rocket equation highlights one of the most pernicious conundrums of rocketry: The amount of fuel required (i.e. the mass ratio M_o/M_f) to accelerate the rocket through a velocity change \Delta v at a fixed effective escape velocity v_e increases exponentially as we increase the demand for greater \Delta v. As the cost of a rocket is closely related to its mass, this explains why it is so expensive to propel anything of meaningful size into orbit (\Delta v \approx 28,800 km/hr (18,000 mph) for low-earth orbit).

Tsiolkovsky rocket equation

The exponential increase of fuel mass required to accelerate a rocket through a specific velocity change

The early beginnings

Drawing of a Chinese rocket and launching mechanism

The wood pigeon and aeolipile do not resemble anything that we would recognise as a rocket. In fact, the exact date when rockets first appeared is still unresolved. Records show that the Chinese developed gunpowder, a mixture of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal dust, at around 100 AD. Gunpowder was used to create colourful sparks, smoke and explosive devices out of hollow bamboo sticks, closed off at one end, for religious festivals. Perhaps some of these bamboo tubes started shooting off or skittering along the ground, but the Chinese started tinkering with the gunpowder-filled bamboo sticks and attached them to arrows. Initially the arrows were launched in the traditional way using bows, creating a form of early incendiary bomb, but later the Chinese realised that the bamboo sticks could launch themselves just by the thrust produced by the escaping hot gases.

The first documented use of such a “true” rocket was during the battle of Kai-Keng between the Chinese and Mongols in 1232. During this battle the Chinese managed to hold the Mongols at bay using a primitive form a solid-fueled rocket. A hollow tube was capped at one end, filled with gunpowder and then attached to a long stick. The ignition of the gunpowder increased the pressure inside the hollow tube and forced some of the hot gas and smoke out through the open end. As governed by the law of conservation of momentum, this creates thrust to propel the rocket in the direction of the capped end of the tube, with the long stick acting as a primitive guidance system, very much reminiscent of the firework “rockets” we use today.

Wan Hu (the man in the moon?) and his rocket chair

Wan Hu (the man in the moon?) and his rocket chair

According to a Chinese legend, Wan Hu, a local official during the 16th century Ming dynasty, constructed a chair with 47 gunpowder bamboo rockets attached, and in some versions of the legend supposedly fitted kite wings as well. The rocket chair was launched by igniting all 47 bamboo rockets simultaneously, and apparently, after the commotion was over, Wan Hu was gone. Some say he made it into space, and is now the “Man in the Moon”. Most likely, Wan Hu suffered the first ever launch pad failure.

One theory is that rockets were brought to Europe via the 13th cetnury Mongol conquests. In England, Roger Bacon developed a more powerful gunpowder (75% saltpetre, 15% carbon and 10% sulfur) that increased the range of rockets, while Jean Froissart added a launch pad by launching rockets through tubes to improve aiming accuracy. By the Renaissance, the use of rockets for weaponry fell out of fashion and experimentation with fireworks increased instead. In the late 16th century, a German tinkerer, Johann Schmidlap, experimented with staged rockets, an idea that is the basis for all modern rockets. Schmidlap fitted a smaller second-stage rocket on top of a larger first-stage rocket, and once the first stage burned out, the second stage continued to propel the rocket to higher altitudes. At about the same time, Kazimierz Siemienowicz, a Polish-Lithuanian commander in the Polish Army published a manuscript that included a design for multi-stage rockets and delta-wing stabilisers that were intended to replace the long rods currently acting as stabilisers.

The scientific method meets rocketry

The scientific groundwork of rocketry was laid during the Enlightenment by none other than Sir Isaac Newton. His three laws of motion,

1) In a particular reference frame, a body will stay in a state of constant velocity (moving or at rest) unless a net force is acting on the body
2) The net force acting on a body causes an acceleration that is proportional to the body’s inertia (mass), i.e. F=ma
3) A force exerted by one body on another induces an equal an opposite reaction force on the first body

are known to every student of basic physics. In fact, these three laws were probably intuitively understood by early rocket designers, but by formalising the principles, they were consciously being used as design guidelines. The first law explains why rockets move at all. Without creating propulsive thrust the rocket will remain stationary. The second quantifies the amount of thrust produced by a rocket at a specific instant in time, i.e. for a specific mass M. (Note, Newton’s second law is only valid for constant mass systems and is therefore not equivalent to the conservation of momentum approach described above. When mass varies, an equation that explicitly accounts for the changing mass has to be used.) The third law explains that due to the expulsion of mass, in re-action a thrusting force is produced on rocket.

In the 1720s, at around the time of Newton’s death, researchers in the Netherlands, Germany and Russia started to use Newton’s laws as tools in the design of rockets. The dutch professor Willem Gravesande built rocket-propelled cars by forcing steam through a nozzle. In Germany and Russia rocket designers started to experiment with larger rockets. These rockets were powerful enough that the hot exhaust flames burnt deep holes into the ground before launching. The British colonial wars of 1792 and 1799 saw the use of Indian rocket fire against the British army. Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan, the rulers of the Kingdom of Mysore in India, developed the first iron-cased rockets in 1792 and then used it against the British in the Anglo-Mysore Wars.

Casing the propellant in iron, which extended range and thrust, was more advanced technology than anything the British had seen until then, and inspired by this technology, the British Colonel William Congreve began to design his own rocket for the British forces. Congreve developed a new propellant mixture and fitted an iron tube with a conical nose to improve aerodynamics. Congreve’s rockets had an operational range of up to 5 km and were successfully used by the British in the Napoleonic Wars and launched from ships to attack Fort McHenry in the War of 1812. Congreve created both carbine ball-filled rockets to be used against land targets, and incendiary rockets to be used against ships. However, even Congreve’s rockets could not significantly improve on the main shortcomings of rockets: accuracy.

A selection of Congreve rockets (Wikimedia Commons).

A selection of Congreve rockets

At the time, the effectiveness of rockets as a weapon was not their accuracy or explosive power, but rather the sheer number that could be fired simultaneously at the enemy. The Congreve rockets had managed some form of basic attitude control by attaching a long stick to the explosive, but the rockets had a tendency to veer sharply off course. In 1844, a British designer, William Hale developed spin stabilisation, now commonly used in gun barrels, which removed the need for the rocket stick. William Hale forced the escaping exhaust gases at the rear of the rocket to impinge on small vanes, causing the rocket to spin and stabilise (the same reason that a gyroscope remains upright when spun on a table top). The use of rockets in war soon took a back seat once again when the Prussian army developed the breech-loading cannon with exploding warheads that proved far superior than the best rockets.

The era of modern rocketry

Soon, new applications for rockets were being imagined. Jules Verne, always the visionary, put the dream of space flight into words in his science-fiction novel “De la Terre á la Lune” (From the Earth to the Moon), in which a projectile, named Columbiad, carrying three passengers is shot at the moon using a giant cannon. The Russian schoolteacher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (of rocket equation fame) proposed the idea of using rockets as a vehicle for space exploration but acknowledged that the main bottlenecks of achieving such a feat would require significant developments in the range of rockets. Tsiolkovsky understood that the speed and range of rockets was limited by the exhaust velocity of the propellant gases. In a 1903 report, “Research into Interplanetary Space by Means of Rocket Power”, he suggested the use of liquid-propellants and formalised the rocket equation derived above, relating the rocket engine exhaust velocity to the change in velocity of the rocket itself (now known as the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation in his honour, although it had already been discovered previously).

Tsiolkovsky also advocated the development of orbital space stations, solar energy and the colonisation of the Solar System. One of his quotes is particularly prescient considering Elon Musk’s plans to colonise Mars:

“The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in the cradle forever” — In a letter written by Tsiolkovsky in 1911.

The American scientist Robert H. Goddard, now known as the father of modern rocketry, was equally interested in extending the range of rockets, especially reaching higher altitudes than the gas balloons used at the time. In 1919 he published a short manuscript entitled “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes” that summarised his mathematical analysis and practical experiments in designing high altitude rockets. Goddard proposed three ways of improving current solid-fuel technology. First, combustion should be contained to a small chamber such that the fuel container would be subjected to much lower pressure. Second, Goddard advocated the use of multi-stage rockets to extend their range, and third, he suggested the use of a supersonic de Laval nozzle to improve the exhaust speed of the hot gases.

Goddard started to experiment with solid-fuel rockets, trying various different compounds and measuring the velocity of the exhaust gases. As a result of this work, Goddard was convinced of Tsiolkovsky’s early premonitions that a liquid-propellant would work better. The problem that Goddard faced was that liquid-propellant rockets were an entirely new field of research, no one had ever built one, and the system required was much more complex than for a solid-fuelled rocket. Such a rocket would need separate tanks and pumps for the fuel and oxidiser, a combustion chamber to combine and ignite the two, and a turbine to drive the pumps (much like the turbine in a jet engine drives the compressor at the front). Goddard also added a de Laval nozzle which cooled the hot exhaust gases into a hypersonic, highly directed jet, more than doubling the thrust and increasing engine efficiency from 2% to 64%! Despite these technical challenges, Goddard designed the first successful liquid-fuelled rocket, propelled by a combination of gasoline as fuel and liquid oxygen as oxidiser, and tested it on March 16, 1926. The rocket remained lit for 2.5 seconds and reached an altitude of 12.5 meters. Just like the first 40 yard flight of the Wright brothers in 1903, this feat seems unimpressive by today’s standards, but Goddard’s achievements put rocketry on an exponential growth curve that led to radical improvements over the next 40 years. Goddard himself continued to innovate; his rockets flew to higher and higher altitudes, he added a gyroscope system for flight control and introduced parachute recovery systems.

On the other side of the Atlantic, German scientists were beginning to play a major role in the development of rockets. Inspired by Hermann Oberth’s ideas on rocket travel, the mathematics of spaceflight and the practical design of rockets published in his book “Die Rakete zu den Planetenraumen” (The Rocket to Space), a number of rocket societies and research institutes were founded in Germany. The German bicycle and car manufacturer Opel (now part of GM) began developing rocket powered cars, and in 1928 Fritz von Opel drove the Opel-RAK.1 on a racetrack. In 1929 this design was extended to the Opel-Sander RAK 1-airplane, which crashed during its first flight in Frankfurt. In the Soviet Union, the Gas dynamics Laboratory in Leningrad under the directorship of Valentin Glushko built more than 100 different engine designs, experimenting with different fuel injection techniques.

A cross-section of the V2 rocket (Wikimedia Commons).

A cross-section of the V-2 rocket

Under the directorship of Wernher von Braun and Walter Dornberger, the Verein for Raumschiffahrt or Society for Space Travel played a pivotal role in the development of the Vergeltungswaffe 2, also known as the V-2 rocket, the most advanced rocket of its time. The V-2 rocket burned a mixture of alcohol as fuel and liquid oxygen as oxidiser, and it achieved great amounts of thrust by considerably improving the mass flow rate of fuel to about 150 kg (380 lb) per second. The V-2 featured much of the technology we see on rockets today, such as turbo pumps and guidance systems, and due to its range of around 300 km (190 miles), the V-2 could be launched from the shores of the Baltic to bomb London during WWII. The 1000 kg (2200 lb) explosive warhead fitted in the tip of the V-2 was capable of devastating entire city blocks, but still lacked the accuracy to reliably hit specific targets. Towards the end of WWII, German scientists were already planning much larger rockets, today known as Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), that could be used to attack the United States, and were strapping rockets to aircraft either for powering them or for vertical take-off.

With the fall of the Third Reich in April 1945 a lot of this technology fell into the hands of the Allies. The Allies’ rocket program was much less sophisticated such that a race ensued to capture as much of the German technology as possible. The Americans alone captured 300 train loads of V-2 rocket parts and shipped them back to the United States. Furthermore, the most prominent of the German rocket scientists emigrated to the United States, partly due to the much better opportunities to develop rocketry there, and partly to escape the repercussions of having played a role in the Nazi war machine. The V-2 essentially evolved into the American Redstone rocket which was used during the Mercury project.

The Space Race – to the moon and beyond

After WWII both the United States and the Soviet Union began heavily funding research into ICBMs, partly because these had the potential to carry nuclear warheads over long distances, and partly due to the allure of being the first to travel to space. In 1948, the US Army combined a captured V-2 rocket with a WAC Corporal rocket to build the largest two-stage rocket to be launched in the United States. This two-stage rocket was known as the “Bumper-WAC”, and over course of six flights reached a peak altitude of 400 kilometres (250 miles), pretty much exactly to the altitude where the International Space Station (ISS) orbits today.

Semyorka Rocket R7 by Sergei Korolyov in VDNH Ostankino RAF0540

The Vostok rocket based on the R-7 ICBM

Despite these developments the Soviets were the first to put a man-made object orbit into space, i.e. an artificial satellite. Under the leadership of chief designer Sergei Korolev, the V-2 was copied and then improved upon in the R-1, R-2 and R-5 missiles. At the turn of 1950s the German designs were abandoned and replaced with the inventions of Aleksei Mikhailovich Isaev which was used as the basis for the first Soviet ICBM, the R-7. The R-7 was further developed into the Vostok rocket which launched the first satellite, Sputnik I, into orbit on October 4, 1957, a mere 12 years after the end of WWII. The launch of Sputnik I was the first major news story of the space race. Only a couple of weeks later the Soviets successfully launched Sputnik II into orbit with dog Laika onboard.

One of the problems that the Soviets did not solve was atmospheric re-entry. Any object wishing to orbit another planet requires enough speed such that the gravitational attraction towards the planet is offset by the curvature of planet’s surface. However, during re-entry, this causes the orbiting body to literally smash into the atmosphere creating incredible amounts of heat. In 1951, H.J. Allen and A.J. Eggers discovered that a high drag, blunted shape, not a low-drag tear drop, counter-intuitively minimises the re-entry effects by redirecting 99% of the energy into the surrounding atmosphere. Allen and Eggers’ findings were published in 1958 and were used in the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Soyuz manned space capsules. This design was later improved upon in the Space Shuttle, whereby a shock wave was induced on the heat shield of the Space Shuttle via an extremely high angle of attack, in order to deflect most of the heat away from the heat shield.

The United States’ first satellite, Explorer I, would not follow until January 31, 1958. Explorer I weighed about 30 times less than the Sputnik II satellite, but the Geiger radiation counters on the satellite were used to make the first scientific discovery in outer space, the Van Allen Radiation Belts. Explorer I had originally been developed as part of the US Army, and in October 1958 the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, now NASA) was officially formed to oversee the space program. Simultaneously, the Soviets developed the Vostok, Soyuz and Proton family of rockets from the original R-7 ICBM to be used for the human spaceflight programme. In fact, the Soyuz rocket is still being used today, is the most frequently used and reliable rocket system in history, and after the Space Shuttle’s retirement in 2011 became the only viable means of transport to the ISS. Similarly, the Proton rocket, also developed in the 1960s, is still being used to haul heavier cargo into low-Earth orbit.

The Soyuz rocket in transport to the launch site

The Soyuz rocket in transport to the launch site

Shortly after these initial satellite launches, NASA developed the experimental X-15 air-launched rocket-propelled aircraft, which, in 199 flights between 1959 and 1968, broke numerous flying records, including new records for speed (7,274 kmh or 4,520 mph) and altitude records (108 kmh or 67 miles). The X-15 also provided NASA with data regarding the optimal re-entry angles from space into the atmosphere.

The next milestone in the space race once again belonged to the Soviets. On April 12, 1961, the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space, and as a result became an international celebrity. Over a period of just under two hours, Gagarin orbited the Earth inside a Vostok 1 space capsule at around 300 km (190 miles) altitude, and after re-entry into the atmosphere ejected at an altitude of 6 km (20,000 feet) and parachuted to the ground. At this point Gagarin became the most famous Soviet on the planet, travelling around the world as a beacon of Soviet success and superiority over the West.

Shortly after Gagarin’s successful flight, the American astronaut Alan Shepherd reached a suborbital altitude of 187 km (116 miles) in the Freedom 7 Mercury capsule. The Redstone ICBM that was used to launch Shephard from Cape Caneveral did not quite have the power to send the Mercury capsule into orbit, and had suffered a series of emberrassing failures prior to the launch, increasing the pressure on the US rocket engineers. However, days after Shephard’s flight, President John F. Kennedy delivered the now famous words before a joint session in Congress

“This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

Despite the bold nature of this challenge, NASA’s Mercury project was already well underway in developing the technology to put the first human on the moon. In February 1962, the more powerful Atlas missile propelled John Glenn into orbit, and thereby restored some form of parity between the USA and the Soviet Union. The last of the Mercury flights were scheduled for 1963 with Gordon Cooper orbiting the Earth for nearly 1.5 days. The family of Atlas rockets remains one of the most successful to this day. Apart from launching a number of astronauts into space during the Mercury project, the Atlas has been used for bringing commercial, scientific and military satellites into orbit.

Following the Mercury missions, the Gemini project made significant strides towards a successful Moon flight. The Gemini capsule was propelled by an even more power ICBM, the Titan, and allowed astronauts to remain in space for up to two weeks, during which astronauts had the first experience with space-walking, and rendezvous and docking procedures with the Gemini spacecraft. An incredible ten Gemini missions were flown throughout 1965-66. The high success rate of the missions was testament to the improving reliability of NASA’s rockets and spacecraft, and allowed NASA engineers to collect invaluable data for the coming Apollo Moon missions. The Titan missile itself, remains as one of the most successful and long-lived rockets (1959-2005), carrying the Viking spacecraft to Mars, the Voyager probe to the outer solar system, and multiple heavy satellites into orbit. At about the same time, around the early 1960s, an entire family of versatile rockets, the Delta family, was being developed. The Delta family became the workhorse of the US space programme achieving more than 300 launches with a reliability greater than 95% percent! The versatility of the Delta family was based on the ability to tailor the lifting capability, using different interchangeable stages and external boosters that could be added for heavier lifting.

At this point, the tide had mostly turned. The United States had been off to a slow start but had used the data from their early failures to improve the design and reliability of their rockets. The Soviets, while being more successful initially, could not achieve the same rate of launch success and this significantly hampered their efforts during the upcoming race to the moon.

The Delta 4 rocket family (Photo Credit: United Launch Alliance)

The Delta 4 rocket family (Photo Credit: United Launch Alliance)

To get to the moon, a much more powerful rocket than the Titan or Delta rockets would be needed. This now infamous rocket, the 110.6 m (330 feet) tall Saturn V (check out this sick drawing), consisted of three separate main rocket stages; the Apollo capsule with a small fourth propulsion stage for the return trip; and a two-staged lunar lander, with one stage for descending onto the Moon’s surface and the other for lifting back off the Moon. The Saturn V was largely the brainchild and crowning achievement of Wernher von Braun, the original lead developer of the V-2 rocket in WWII Germany, with a capability of launching 140,000 kg (310,000 lb) into low-Earth orbit and 48,600 kg (107,100 lb) to the Moon. This launch capability dwarfed all previous rockets and to this day remains the tallest, heaviest and most powerful rocket ever built to operational flying status (last on the chart at the start of the piece). NASA’s efforts reached their glorious climax with the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969 when astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the Moon, a mere 11.5 years after the first successful launch of the Explorer I satellite. The Apollo 11 mission became the first of six successful Moon landings throughout the years 1969-1972. A smaller version of the moon rocket, the Saturn IB, was also developed and used for some of the early Apollo test missions and later to transport three crews to the US space station Skylab.

The Space Shuttle


The Space Shuttle Discovery

NASA’s final major innovation was the Space Shuttle. The idea behind the Space Shuttle was to design a reusable rocket system for carrying crew and payload into low-Earth orbit. The rationale behind this idea is that manufacturing the rocket hardware is a major contributor to the overall launch costs, and that allowing different stages to be destroyed after launch is not cost effective. Imagine having to throw away your Boeing 747 or Airbus A380 every time you fly from London to New York. In this case ticket prices would not be where they are now. The Shuttle consisted of a winged airplane-looking spacecraft that was boosted into orbit by liquid-propellant engines on the Shuttle itself, fuelled from a massive orange external tank, and two solid rocket booster attached to either side. After launch, the solid-rocket boosters and external fuel tank were jettisoned, and the boosters recovered for future use. At the end of a Shuttle mission, the orbiter re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, and then followed a tortuous zig-zag course, gliding unpowered to land on a runway like any other aircraft. Ideally NASA promised that the Shuttle was going to reduce launch costs by 90%. However, crash landings of the solid rocket boosters in water often damaged them beyond repair, and the effort required to service the orbiter heat shield, inspecting each of the 24,300 unique tiles separately, ultimately led to the cost of putting a kilogram of payload in orbit to be greater than for the Saturn V rocket that preceded it. The five Shuttles, the Endeavour, Discovery, Challenger, Columbia and Atlantis, completed 135 missions between 1981 and 2011 with the tragic loss of the Challenger in 1983 and the Columbia in 2003. While the Shuttle facilitated the construction of the International Space Station and the installation of the Hubble space telescope in orbit, the ultimate goal of economically sustainable space travel was never achieved.

However, this goal is now on the agenda of commercial space companies such as SpaceX, Reaction Engines, Blue Origin, Rocket Lab and the Sierra Nevada Corporation.

New approaches

After the demise of the Space Shuttle programme in 2011, the US’ capability of launching humans into space was heavily restricted. NASA is currently working on a new Space Launch System (SLS), the aim of which is to extend NASA’s range beyond low-Earth orbit and further out into the Solar system. Although the SLS is being designed and assembled by NASA, other partners such as Boeing, United Launch Alliance, Orbital ATK and Aerojet Rocketdyne are co-developing individual components. The SLS specification as it stands would make it the most powerful rocket in history and the SLS is therefore being developed in two stages (reminiscent of the Saturn IB and Saturn V rocket). First, a rocket with a payload capability of 70 metric tons (175,000 lb) is being developed from components of previous rockets. The goal of this heritage SLS is to conduct two lunar flybys with the Orion spacecraft, one unmanned and the other with a crew. Second, a more advanced version of the SLS with a payload capability of 130 metric tons (290,000 lb) to low-earth orbit, about the same payload capacity and 20% more thrust than the Saturn V rocket, is deemed to carry scientific equipment, cargo and the manned Orion capsule into deep space. The first flight for an unmanned Orion capsule on a trip around the moon is planned for 2018, while manned missions are expected by 2021-2023. By 2026 NASA plans to send a manned Orion capsule to an asteroid previously placed into lunar orbit by a robotic “capture-and-place” mission.

NASA’s upgrade plan for the SLS

However, with the commercialisation of space travel new incumbents are now working on even more daunting goals. The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has proven to be a very reliable launch system (with a current success rate of 20 out of 22 launches). Furthemore, SpaceX was the first private company to successfully launch and recover an orbital spacecraft, the Dragon capsule, which regularly supplies the ISS with supplies and new scientific equipment. Currently, the US relies on the Russian Soyuz rocket to bring astronauts to the ISS but in the near future manned missions are planned with the Dragon capsule. The Falcon 9 rocket is a two-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle comprised of nice SpaceX Merlin rocket engines fuelled by liquid oxygen and kerosene with a payload capacity of 13 metric tons (29,000 lb) into low-Earth orbit. There have been three versions of the Falcon 9, v1.0 (retired), v1.1 (retired) and most recently the partially reusable full thrust version, which on December 22, 2015 used propulsive recovery to land the first stage safely in Cape Canaveral. To date, efforts are being made to extend the landing capabilities from land to sea barges. Furthermore, the Falcon Heavy with 27 Merlin engines (a central Falcon 9 rocket with two Falcon 9 first stages strapped to the sides) is expected to extend SpaceX’s lifting capacity to 53 metric tons into low-Earth orbit, making it the second most powerful rocket in use after NASA’s SLS. First flights of the Falcon Heavy are expected for late this year (2016). Of course, the ultimate goal of SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk, is to make humans a multi planetary species, and to achieve this he is planning to send a colony of a million humans to Mars via the Mars Colonial Transporter, a space launch system of reusable rocket engines, launch vehicles and space capsules. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket already has the lowest launch costs at $60 million per launch, but reliable re-usability should bring these costs down over the next decade such that a flight ticket to Mars could become enticing for at least a million of the richest people on Earth (or perhaps we could sell spots on “Mars – A Reality TV show“).

When will this become reality?

When will this become reality?

Blue Origin, the rocket company of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is taking a similar approach of vertical takeoff and landing to re-usability and lower launch costs. The company is on an incremental trajectory to extend its capabilities from suborbital to orbital flight, led by its motto “Gradatim Ferocity” (latin for step by step, ferociously). Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket underwent its first test flight in April 2015. In November 2015 the rocket landed successfully after a suborbital flight to 100 km (330,000 ft) altitude and this was extended to 101 km (333,000 ft) in January 2016. Blue hopes to extend its capabilities to human spaceflight by 2018.

Reaction Engines is a British aerospace company conducting research into space propulsion systems focused on the Skylon reusable single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane. The Skylon would be powered by the SABRE engine, a rocket-based combined cycle, i.e. a combination of an air-breathing jet engine and a rocket engine, whereby both engines share the same flow path, reusable for about 200 flights. Reaction Engines believes that with this system the cost of carrying one kg (2.2 lb) of payload into low-earth orbit can be reduced from the $1,500 today (early 2016) to around $900. The hydrogen-fuelled Skylon is designed to take-off from a purpose built runway and accelerate to Mach 5 at 28.5 km (85,500 feet) altitude using the atmosphere’s oxygen as oxidiser. This air-breathing part of the SABRE engine works on the same principles as a jet engine. A turbo-compressor is used to raise the pressure ratio of the incoming atmospheric air, which is pre-staged by a pre-cooler to cool the hot air impinging on the engine at hypersonic speeds. The compressed air is fed into a rocket combustion chamber where it is ignited with liquid hydrogen. As in a standard jet engine, a high pressure ratio is crucial to pack as much of the oxidiser into the combustion chamber and increase the thrust of the engine. As the natural source of oxygen runs out at high altitude, the engines switch to the internally stored liquid oxygen supplies, transforming the engine into a closed-cycle rocket and propelling the Skylon spacecraft into orbit. The theoretical advantages of the SABRE engine is its high fuel efficiency and low mass, which facilitate the single-stage-to-orbit approach. Reminiscent of the Shuttle, after deploying the its payload of up to 15 tons (38,000 lb), the Skylon spacecraft would then re-enter the atmosphere protected by a heat shield and land on a runway. The first ground tests of the SABRE engine are planned for 2019 and first unmanned test flights are expected for 2025.

SABRE rocket engine

SABRE rocket engine

Sierra Nevada Corporation is working alongside NASA to develop the Dream Chaser spacecraft for transporting cargo and up to seven people to low-earth orbit. The Dream Chaser is designed to launch on top of the Atlas V rocket (in place of the nose cone) and land conventionally by gliding onto a runway. The Dream Chaser looks a lot like a smaller version of the Space Shuttle, so intuitively one would expect the same cost inefficiencies as for the Shuttle. However, the engineers at Sierra Nevada say that two changes have been made to the Dream Chaser that should reduce the maintenance costs. First, the thrusters used for attitude control are ethanol-based, and therefore not toxic and a lot less volatile than the hydrazine-based thursters used by the Shuttle. This should allow maintenance of the Dream Chaser to ensue immediately after landing and reduce the time between flights. Second, the thermal protection system is based on an ablative tile that can survive multiple flights and can be replaced in larger groups rather than tile-by-tile. The Dream Chaser is planned to undergo orbital test flights in November 2016.

Dream Chaser pre-drop tests.6

The Dream Chaser

Finally, the New Zealand-based firm Rocket Lab is developing the all-carbon composite liquid-fuelled Electron rocket with a payload capability to low-Earth orbit of 110 kg (240 lb). Thus, Rocket Lab is focusing on high-frequency rocket launches to transport low-mass payload, e.g. nano satellites, into orbit. The goal of Rocket Lab is to make access to space frequent and affordable such that the rapidly evolving small-scale satellites that provide us with scientific measurements and high-speed internet can be launched reliably and quickly. The Rocket Lab system is designed to cost $5 million per launch at 100 launches a year and use less fuel than a flight on a Boeing 737 from San Francisco to Los Angeles. A special challenge that Rocket Lab is facing is the development of the all-carbon composite liquid oxygen tanks to provide the mass efficiency required for this high fuel efficiency. To date the containment of cryogenic (super cold) liquid fuels, such as liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, is still the domain of metallic alloys. Concerns still exist about potential leaks due to micro cracks developing in the resin of the composite at cryogenic temperatures. In composites, there is a mismatch between the thermal expansion coefficients of the reinforcing fibre and the resin, which induces thermal stresses as the composite is cooled to cryogenic temperatures from its high temperature/high pressure curing process. The temperature and pressure cycles during the liquid oxygen/hydrogen fill-and-drain procedures then induces extra fatigue loading that can lead to cracks permeating through the structure through which hydrogen or oxygen molecules can easily pass. This leaking process poses a real problem for explosion.

Where do we go from here?

As we have seen, over the last 2000 years rockets have evolved from simple toys and military weapons to complex machines capable of transporting humans into space. To date, rockets are the only viable gateway to places beyond Earth. Furthermore, we have seen that the development of rockets has not always followed a uni-directional path towards improvement. Our capability to send heavier and heavier payloads into space peaked with the development of the Saturn V rocket. This great technological leap was fuelled, to a large extent, by the competitive spirit of the Soviet Union and the United States. Unprecedented funds were available to rocket scientists on both sides during the 1950-1970s. Furthermore, dreamers and visionaries such as Jules Verne, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Gene Roddenberry sparked the imagination of the public and garnered support for the space programs. After the 2003 Columbia disaster, public support for spending taxpayer money on often over-budget programs understandably waned. However, the successes of incumbent companies, their fierce competition and visionary goals of colonising Mars are once again inspiring a younger generation. This is, once again, an exciting time for rocketry.



Tom Benson (2014). Brief History of Rockets. NASA URL:
NASA. A Pictorial History of Rockets. URL:

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