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Introduction to Space Exploration - Pioneers Of Rocket Science

goddard rockets tsiolkovsky oberth

There are three men in history considered the founders of modern rocket science: Konstantin Tsiolkovsky of Russia, Hermann Oberth of Germany, and Robert Goddard of the United States. All three were working on rocket science during the early years of the twentieth century. Although they were scattered around the world, they reached similar conclusions at about the same time.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935) was inspired by his love of science and the stories of Jules Verne. The Russian schoolteacher tried his hand at science fiction, before and after becoming a scientist. Tsiolkovsky studied the theoretical questions of rocket flight—gravity effects, escape velocity, and fuel needs. He developed a simple mathematical equation relating the final velocity of a rocket to the initial velocity, the starting and ending mass of the rocket, and the velocity of the rocket exhaust gases. Tsiolkovsky's equation became a fundamental concept of rocket science and is still taught today.

In 1895 Tsiolkovsky wrote Dreams of Earth and Sky. The book described how a satellite could be launched into orbit around Earth. Later publications included Exploration of the Universe with Reaction Machines and Research into Interplanetary Space by Means of FIGURE 1.1 Tsiolkovsky's rocket designs, 1903 Deborah A. Shearer and Gregory L. Vogt, "Tsiolkovsky Rocket Designs," in Rockets: An Educator's Guide with Activities in Science, Mathematics, and Technology, EG-2003-01-108-HQ, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Office of Education, 2003, (accessed December 30, 2005)Rocket Power, both published in 1903. Figure 1.1 shows some of Tsiolkovsky's designs for liquid propelled rockets. Two decades later he wrote the Plan of Space Exploration (1926) and The Space Rocket Trains (1929).

Tsiolkovsky believed that rockets launched into space would have to include multiple stages. That is, instead of having one big cylinder loaded with fuel, the fuel must be divided up amongst smaller rocket stages linked together. As each stage uses up its fuel it could be jettisoned away so the remainder does not have to carry dead weight. Tsiolkovsky reasoned that this was the only way for the mass of a rocket to be reduced as its fuel supply was depleted.

In a 1911 letter Tsiolkovsky predicted, "Mankind will not remain on Earth forever, but in its quest for light and space will penetrate beyond the confines of the atmosphere, at first timidly, and later will conquer for itself all of solar space."

Hermann Oberth

Hermann Oberth (1894–1989) was born in Transylvania, Romania, but later became a German citizen. He also was a fan of Jules Verne. As a teenager Oberth studied mathematics and began developing sophisticated rocket theories. He studied medicine and physics at the University of Munich. During the 1920s he wrote important papers titled Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen ("The Rocket into Interplanetary Space") and Wege zur Raumschiffart ("Methods of Achieving Space Flight").

In 1923 Oberth predicted that rockets "can be built so powerfully that they could be capable of carrying a man aloft." He proposed bullet-shaped rockets for manned missions to Mars and an Earth-orbiting space station for refueling rockets. Like his Russian counterpart, Oberth advocated multi-stage rockets fuelled by liquid propellants.

Oberth's writings were hugely popular and influenced movie producer Fritz Lang to make a 1929 movie about space travel called Die Frau im Mond (The Woman in the Moon). Oberth served as a technical adviser on the film. He also inspired the German rocket club known as Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR) or Society for Spaceship Travel. The VfR put Oberth's theories into practice, building and launching rockets based on his designs.

As World War II drew near during the 1930s the Nazi government put Oberth and other VfR members to work developing rockets for warfare, rather than for space flight.

Robert Goddard

Robert Goddard (1882–1945) was an American physicist born in Worcester, Massachusetts. In a speech made in 1904 he said, "It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and reality of tomorrow"; and Goddard spent the rest of his life making rocket flight a reality. After graduating from college he taught physics at Clark University in his hometown. He also spent time on a relative's farm experimenting with explosive rocket propellants. Unlike his Russian and German counterparts, Goddard's rocket science was more experimental than theoretical. In all, he was granted seventy patents for his inventions. The first two came in 1914 for a liquid-fuel gun rocket and a multi-stage step rocket. He is believed to be the first person to prove experimentally that a rocket can provide thrust in a vacuum.

Much of Goddard's research was funded by the Smithsonian Institution and the Guggenheim Foundation. The U.S. government showed little interest in rocket science except for its possible use in warfare. Late in World War I Goddard presented the military with the concept for a new rocket weapon, later called the bazooka. After the war Goddard worked part time as a weapons consultant to the armed forces.

In 1920 the Smithsonian published Goddard's famous paper, "A Method of Attaining Extreme Altitudes," in which he described how a rocket could be sent to the Moon. The idea was greeted with skepticism from scientists and derision from the media. The New York Times published a scornful editorial ridiculing Goddard for this fanciful notion. Goddard was stung by the criticism and spent the rest of his life avoiding publicity. His low-profile approach kept his work from being well known for many years. One person who did take a keen interest in him was the aviator Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh played a key role in securing funding for Goddard's rocket research from the Guggenheim Foundation (

On March 16, 1926, Goddard achieved the first known successful flight of a liquid propelled rocket. (See Figure 1.2.) Throughout the next decade he labored quietly in the desert near Roswell, New Mexico, developing increasingly more powerful rockets. In 1935 Goddard launched the first supersonic liquid fuel rocket. (Supersonic means faster than the speed of sound. Sound waves travel at about 700 miles per hour, depending on the air temperature.) A year later Goddard's achievements finally received recognition when the Smithsonian published another of his papers titled "Liquid Propellant Rocket Development."

He continued his work until 1941 when the United States entered World War II. Until his death in 1945 Goddard worked with the military to develop rocket applications for aircraft. Three decades later the New York Times finally issued an apology for its 1920 editorial about him. The date was July 17, 1969, and three American astronauts were on their way to the Moon. The newspaper admitted that Goddard had been right after all. The Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington, D.C., and the Goddard crater on the Moon are both named after him.

Wernher von Braun

World War II (1939–45) ushered in the rocket age. The Nazi government of Germany was eager to use rockets against its enemies. The great talents and minds of the VfR were directed to forget about space travel and concentrate on warfare. During the early 1940s Germany developed the most sophisticated rocket program in the world. At its helm was a brilliant young man named Wernher von Braun (1912–77).

Von Braun had been an assistant to Hermann Oberth during the 1930s and an active member of the VfR. He was put in charge of developing a rocket weapon to terrorize the British population. Von Braun's team included Oberth and hundreds of people who worked at a remote island called Pennemünde. They developed the FIGURE 1.2 Goddard's rocket design, 1926 Deborah A. Shearer and Gregory L. Vogt, "Dr. Goddard's 1926 Rocket," in Rockets: An Educator's Guide with Activities in Science, Mathematics, and Technology, EG-2003-01-108-HQ, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Office of Education, 2003, (accessed December 30, 2005)rocket-powered Vergeltungswaffens or weapons of vengeance. They were called V weapons, for short.

There were two series of V weapons. The V-1 carried a ton of explosives and traveled at a top speed of about 400 miles per hour. This was slow enough that British gunners could blow apart the V-1's as they descended through the air. Although thousands of V-1's were launched against England, roughly half of them never impacted the ground.

Far more lethal was the second V weapon called the V-2. This was truly a rocket with a top speed around 2,000 miles per hour. The V-2's traveled far too fast to be shot down and terrified the British public. Approximately 1,000 V-2 rockets rained down on England during World War II, killing 115,000 people.

On September 8, 1944, the first V-2 rocket fell on London. Von Braun reportedly turned to his colleagues and said "the rocket worked perfectly, except for landing on the wrong planet." The tide had already turned against Germany. By early 1945 the country was being invaded by the Soviets from the east and the Allies from the west. Von Braun moved his team near the Germany-Switzerland border to be in position to surrender to American forces.

A negotiated surrender was worked out in which von Braun turned over himself, people on his team, and vital plans, drawings, rocket parts, and documents. In exchange the U.S. Army agreed to transport the team to America and fund their work on an American rocket program. The Army called the agreement Operation Paperclip. They had no way of knowing that this move was going to put Americans on the Moon.

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over 8 years ago

I found this very interesting as I Did some early work on liquid rockets.I started in early 1952.