History of Rockets
author Paul Boșcu, March 2017

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Rockets, those elegant and powerful cylinders, are what guide people and robotic spacecraft into space. They also traditionally serve as propulsion systems for spacecraft post-liftoff so the satellite, Space Shuttle, etc, can reach its destination. Rockets represent some of mankind’s most advanced technological creations. From their relatively humble beginnings in the realm of ancient firecrackers to the larger-than-life Saturn V, rockets may have changed in scale and application but they still rely on the same basic principles of physics.

The spacecraft that rockets carry into orbit around Earth or beyond have their own power requirements. And given the distances that spacecraft must travel, calling home is a lot more difficult than a long distance phone call. Communications between space and Earth require an advanced network of radio antennae and, fortunately, such a system already exists today.

Two men have become synonymous with the start of the Space Age. Both were fortunate to survive the Second World War. Separated by the Iron Curtain, they never met, but they dreamed the same dreams, were both victims and beneficiaries of politics and both achieved remarkable things. The first of these great pioneers was Wernher von Braun, who was born in Germany just before the First World War. The second was Sergei Pavlovich Korolev. Korolev dreamed of flight, voraciously reading the exploits of aviation pioneers.

The men responsible for reaching space and landing on the Moon took their first steps toward that goal during the 1930s. Parallel developments in the United States, Germany, and Russia would challenge their best scientists and engineers to be the first to solve the problems of rocket propelled flight. Though these men dreamed of using rockets to explore space, their respective governments directed their work at providing new weapons for war.

In the 20th century it finally began to seem that Mankind’s long-held vision of traveling in space could become a reality. Yet despite the peaceful ambitions of the early pioneers of rocketry and spaceflight, the technology needed for such an event was developed initially to produce weapons of war.

The modern rocket was a long time coming. The ancient Greeks invented a rocket-like device, while the ancient Chinese actually used rockets for entertainment and, later, for warfare. By the 14th century rockets were known in Asia and Europe. In the 18th century the Indians used rockets against the British. At the beginning of the 19th century rockets are used militarily in Europe for the first time. During World War 1 rockets were mounted on planes for the first time.

The first known device similar to a rocket dates back to the first century CE. It was then that Heron, a Hellenistic Greek from Alexandria, invented a steam-powered engine called the aeolipile, which was similar to a rocket engine. Heron described the principles of reaction motion in his treatise, Pneumatics. However, in spite of what the ancient Greeks and others understood in theory and created in prototype, apparently no practical use was made of the principle.

Claude Ruggieri was the royal pyrotechnician of France in the 1820’s. He began experimenting with launching live animals in rockets, returning them unharmed to the ground by parachutes. After successful experiments with mice and rats, he announced his plans to build a giant combination rocket that would carry a full-size ram aloft. Immediately after this announcement, Ruggieri received an offer from a young man who volunteered to take the place of the animal. A date for the big event was advertised. The police forbade the experiment.

Fireworks and firework rockets were developed by the Chinese and their neighbors for fun, spectacular displays, and religious rituals often associated with the time of year crops were planted or reaped. This appears to be the first widespread use of the reaction principle for propulsion. The Chinese developed festival fireworks around A.D. 600 while rocket-powered weapons followed around A.D.1000.

The Chinese used rockets for warfare during the 12th century CE. The first “propellant” (a mixture of saltpetre, sulfur, and charcoal called black powder) had been in use for about 1,000 years for other purposes. As is so often the case with the development of technology, the early uses were primarily military. The first confirmed use of war rockets was in 1232, when China used them against the Mongols.

The Mongols, used rockets against Poland in 1241 and against Baghdad in 1258. Muslim armies used rocket-powered projectiles during the Seventh Crusade. By the end of the thirteenth century, rocket weapons were known in Japan, Java, Korea, and India. Knowledge of rocketry spread quickly throughout Asia and into Europe at the same time. The Italian word rochetta was introduced. This is the earliest use of the word “rocket” in Europe.

Hyder Ali (1781) and Tipu Sultan (1792–1799) used advanced war rockets against the colonizing British in India. It was the success of the Indian war rockets that inspired Colonel William Congreve to develop a new war rocket for the British. Congreve’s rockets used black powder, had iron casings, and 4.9-m guide stick for stability. They had an average range of about 2,800 m. These rockets were used as signals and as artillery. There is a phrase in the national anthem of the United States about the “rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air” that refers to England’s use of Congreve’s rockets against America during the War of 1812.

Powered by black powder charges, rockets served as bombardment weapons, culminating in effectiveness with the Congreve rockets of the early 1800s. Performance of these early rockets was poor by modern standards because the only available propellant was black powder, which is not ideal for propulsion. European and U.S. armies quickly adopted Congreve-style rockets and worked to improve them. The stick-less Hale rocket (1840s) had a greater range and was far more accurate Military use of rockets declined until 1936 because of the superior performance of guns.

Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton, so crucial to all aspects of modern science and technology, laid the scientific foundations for rocketry and rocket-propelled space travel.

Kepler, a German mathematician, published three fundamental laws of planetary motion.

Isaac Newton, an English mathematician, established the basic laws of force, motion, and gravitation in his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). Newton’s Third Law of Motion was the first scientific definition of the reaction principle.

A rocket uses the principle of action and reaction, which Sir Isaac Newton first explained. Newton said that a force only occurs when one object pushes on another. But since the other object always pushes back on the first, forces always come in pairs. If the two objects are both free to move, they will go in opposite directions. There is really no “reaction” involved, because each object has a direct action on the other. When a rocket is launched, the burning fuel is one object and the rocket itself is the other.

The very first person to promote realistically the possibility of developing a jet engine —powered by explosives and designed to propel a flying machine—was almost certainly Nikolai Kibalchich. Kibalchich is far better known for his role in another explosives-based “achievement”—the bombing-assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, which he helped carry out and for which he was quickly executed. Considered a political extremist, his ideas were largely forgotten until the bolshevik revolution in Russia.

The first Russian war rocket was developed by Alexander Zasyadko and was used in the Russo-Turkish war of 1825. A rocket works was founded in St. Petersburg in 1820s.

During his last days, while locked in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, Kibalchich drafted a design for a rocket—a simple tube, open at one end, powered by a slow-burning explosive, and steered by alterations to the direction of the thrust. His plans were presented to the State Police Department a year later. Had they come from someone else they might have fared better. Kilbachich’s status as political radical and executed terrorist tainted them fatally, however. They were filed and forgotten.

The demise of the Russian Empire and the rise of the Soviet Union changed the situation. Kilbachich’s ideas were finally published in by Nikolai Rynin, a Russian space-enthusiast and the author of a remarkable nine-volume Russian encyclopedia about space travel. Kilbachich envisioned rockets for use on the earth.

Rockets were also used to take photographs from a height of about 100 m at the end of the 19th century. These were designed by Alfred Nobel and launched in Sweden. The German Alfred Maul designed camera-carrying rockets for military use. Rockets themselves saw limited use of any kind during World War I. During World War 1 rockets were mounted on planes for the first time.

Maul photographed the landscape from a height of 600 m. However, the reconnaissance in rockets was abandoned by the time of the First World War, when aircraft took over.

Rockets also played a role during wars of the 20th century. During World War I, they were mounted to airplanes in order to deliver explosives to targets. They were employed to lay smoke screens, and some allied forces used rockets to illuminate battlefields.The French military introduced rockets invented by Naval Lt. Y.P.G. La Prieur. These were small solid-fueled rockets designed to be fired from bi-planes against tethered observation balloons.

The first documented flight of a human being in a rocket-propelled vehicle took place in Germany in the late 20’s. It was the result of a collaboration among rocketry enthusiast Max Valier, rocket manufacturer Friedrich Sander, and auto manufacturer Fritz von Opel, who financed the experiment. A glider called the Ente (Duck) was specially adapted to carry Sander’s solid-fuel rockets.

After several tests, pilot Friedrich Stamer took off under the power of a single rocket motor (with the aid of a rubber rope catapult). After flying about 198 m, the rocket burned out, and Stamer fired a second one. This propelled the Ente another 500 m. The second rocket burned out, and Stamer landed after a total flight of about 1,494 m. He became the first human being to fly in a rocket-propelled vehicle. Many other enthusiasts followed Stamer’s feat with rocket plane flights of their own.

The first person to explore seriously a rocket’s potential for space travel was Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky. Though the American Robert Goddard and the German Hermann Oberth are also important in this regard, Tsiolkovskiy has the best claim to be considered the father of space travel. This is due both to the priority of his ideas over those of the other two men and to the importance thereof. Not just a visionary, Tsiolkovskiy grounded his ideas in solid science. He worked out the necessary velocity for putting an object into earth orbit. Later, he pondered the possibilities of atomic and solar-powered drives and a permanent human presence in space.

Deaf from the age of ten and largely self-tutored, Tsiolkovsky's earliest publication was an essay entitled “Exploration of the Universe with Reactive Machines,” which appeared in 1903. Over the next half-century Tsiolkovskiy produced some 500 further works, mostly short papers, in which he proposed and developed many of the concepts basic to subsequent rocket and space programs: the use of liquid fuels (including oxygen and hydrogen), rocket nozzle designs, multi stage rockets, steering rockets, space stations, air locks, space suits, regenerative cooling, using a centrifuge to create artificial gravity, and so on.

A man of extraordinary vision and imagination as well as of deep knowledge and reflection, he provided a solid scientific basis for space travel. He not only wrote exciting but plausible science fiction, he also made the first designs for multistage rockets and space stations. He designed life support systems and space suits and explained the feasibility of satellites and of solar energy. He mathematically established all the basic laws of space flight, demonstrating that liquid fuel rockets would have the thrust necessary to put a rocket into Earth orbit, or on a journey to other planets.

Tsiolkovsky considered space exploration to be an absolute requirement for humanity that would lead to the colonization of the Solar System. He wrote extensively in justification of that belief, arguing it was a moral – almost religious – imperative of humanity to move quickly into space.

Tsiolkovsky was as handicapped and marginal a person as one can imagine. He did not come from an influential family. He did not go to good schools and get good grades. He did not live in a population center where he could get from and give inspiration to others. Rather, Tsiolkovsky was the son of a poor wood gatherer who entered Russia illegally from Poland. His mother died when he was young and his father was seldom at home. He was deafened at an early age and never received any formal academic degrees of any kind from any school.

Tsiolkovsky came up with the idea that a “rocket train” could be built in stages. Each stage would fire until it ran out of fuel, pushing the entire train forward, and then dropping away until there was only one stage left, which would be traveling very fast. Before he died, Tsiolkovsky imagined that one day airlines would offer rocket trips from Moscow to Mars. He wrote that “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live forever in a cradle.”

Tsiolkovsky read every book he could get his hands on, especially books about mathematics and physics. In spite of his deafness, he was offered a job as a teacher at the age of nineteen. He remained a teacher until he retired more than forty years later. In all that time, he never lost interest in science and research— especially research related to space travel.

In 1934, Tsiolkovsky told a group of students, “I am not sure, of course, that my ‘space rocket train’ will be appreciated and accepted readily, at this time. For this is a new conception reaching far beyond the present ability of man to make such things. However, time ripens everything; therefore I am hopeful that some of you will see a space rocket train in action.” Sergei Korolev would make that hope a reality.

Following the October Revolution the Soviet authorities offered support to domestic rocket-development initiatives, primarily by establishing a laboratory in Moscow. It was run first by N. I. Tikhomirov. Government interest lay, of course, in the military uses of rockets, not space travel. But this was simply a case of applications: the ongoing development of rocket boosters inexorably brought Tsiolkovsky's dream ever closer. After the end of the Russian civil war Tikhomirov’s facility was moved to Leningrad, today’s St. Petersburg. It was named the Gas Dynamics Laboratory (GDL).

Tikhomirov’s facility was renamed the Gas Dynamics Laboratory (GDL) and relocated to the newly named city of Leningrad. By 1929 the GDL had been joined (and would soon be led) by another talented young engineer—a rocket-engine specialist named Valentin Petrovich Glushko. Both men, but especially Glushko, would go on to great success in the Soviet Space Program. For now, however, their experiments with various liquid and electrical jet engines were dedicated to weapons applications.

The main predecessor to the modern space rocket was developed by an American named Robert Goddard. He designed and launched the first liquid fueled rocket in 1926 because he was interested in space travel. Although this first rocket (named Nell) made it a mere 12 meters into the air, Goddard continued making advances in both speed and distance until his death in 1945. Goddard’s many contributions to the theory and design of rockets earned him the title of “father of modern rocketry.” He died relatively young and thoroughly unappreciated for the many important contributions he made to spaceflight. Goddard was awarded 214 patents.

Goddard independently developed ideas similar to those of Tsiolkovsky about spaceflight and propulsion and implemented them, building liquid- and solid-propellant rockets. His first rocket was launched in Auburn, Massachusetts, rose 12.5 metres , and traveled 56 metres from its launching place.

The Times did not know their physics, but the ridicule caused Goddard to shun future publicity and become secretive about his work. He told reporters that “every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it; once realized, it becomes commonplace.” He would also likely have enjoyed the “Correction” to the Times editorial of 1920, printed while Apollo 11 sped to the Moon. It read, “it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.”

The press coverage attracted the attention of famous aviator Charles Lindbergh. He arranged for the Guggenheim Foundation to fund Goddard’s research. The Goddards moved to Roswell, New Mexico. They awed their neighbors by entertaining the celebrity Lindberghs. Charles Lindbergh urged Goddard to work with engineers at the California Institute of Technology, but Goddard refused.

Goddard published A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes. It described the first sounding rocket, showing how a rocket might reach the Moon. He was interested in all aspects of rocketry and also in jet propulsion, electronics, atomic physics, and solar heating.

Though somewhat less reclusive and handicapped than Tsiolkovsky, Goddard also was a timid and solitary individual. When Goddard’s dissertation on spaceflight was published, the front page of The New York Times ridiculed Goddard for “failing to know what every schoolboy knows very well,” that rockets won’t work in a vacuum with nothing to “push” against.

The U.S. Army had never asked Goddard to work with them. After World War 2 they realized they had missed a huge opportunity to develop advanced weapons.

When he finished high school, Goddard gave a speech at the commencement ceremony and said,“It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.”

Austro-Hungarian born, German scientist Hermann Oberth developed much of the modern theory for rocket and spaceflight independent of Tsiolkovsky and Goddard. Oberth’s classic book, Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (“The Rocket into Interplanetary Space”), explained the mathematical theory of rocketry and applied the theory to rocket design. Oberth’s works also led to the creation of a number of rocket clubs in Germany, as enthusiasts tried to turn Oberth’s ideas into practical devices. Oberth was an important spaceflight popularizer.

Oberth’s work not only provided inspiration for visionaries of spaceflight but played a pivotal role in advancing the practical application of rocket propulsion that led to the development of rockets in Germany during the 1930s.

Oberth discussed rockets, space suits, space walking, living in space, and many other aspects of astronautics. His books and films greatly stimulated interest in rocketry throughout Europe.

One of the most important early spaceflight societies was Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR: Society for Spaceship Travel), formed in 1927. Oberth was a founding member. Many members went on later to develop rocket technology during and after World War II. Most prominent was Wernher von Braun, about whom more will be said later. The Society’s activities attracted the attention of the German Army for whom many of them would begin to work.

The Treaty of Versailles, after the World War I, severely limited the kinds and numbers of weapons Germany could have. But as nationalism and hyper nationalism began to rise, rapidly inspired by and inspiring Hitler, rockets were seen as a way around the limitations of the treaty. Wernher von Braun and other VfR members were employed by the German army to work on rocket projects.

The first president of the German Society for Space Travel, Johannes Winkler, launched Europe’s first liquid-fueled rocket in Germany on. Although their rockets were small, the society succeeded in getting media coverage for their efforts.

In Hitler’s Germany a young Wernher von Braun showed his rocketry ideas to Colonel Karl Becker, chief of ballistics and ammunition of the Reichswehr. Becker responded: “We are greatly interested in rocketry, but there are a number of defects in the manner in which your organization is going about development. For our purposes, there is too much showmanship. You would do better to concentrate on scientific data than to fire toy rockets.” von Braun was interested in using rockets for space flight, but Becker wanted a long-range missile.

Von Braun joined the army and worked under Captain Walter Dornberger on liquid fueled rocket engines, saying later: “We needed money for our experiments, and since the army was willing to give us help, we didn’t worry overmuch about the consequences in the distant future. We were interested in one thing, the exploration of space.” Because the army was the only organization developing rockets in Germany, and also to advance his own career, von Braun joined first the Nazi Party and then the Waffen-SS.

By 1935, the team at Kummersdorf had grown to about 80 people. They needed a bigger place, and joint funding was arranged between the German army and the Luftwaffe, the new German air force. A remote coastal area, designated Peenemünde, was selected as the site.

Another important player at this stage, one who like Tsiolkovskiy envisioned rockets as merely a means to the great end of space travel, was Fridrikh Arturovich Tsander (or Zander). Along with fellow space-fanatic Yuri Kondratyuk he founded a Society for the Study of Interplanetary Travel. Tsiolkovsky was also a member. Tsander spent most of his life working without any state support. Nonetheless, in 1933 he would launch Russia’s first ever liquid-fueled rocket, several years after Robert Goddard had done much the same in the United States.

Back in 1908 Tsander had written up some of the first-ever ideas about life-support systems for future cosmonauts, including the possibility of providing oxygen and food by means of space-based greenhouses. Throughout the 1920s he worked on designs for rockets and spacecraft, even patenting at least one blueprint.

Though these men played great roles in the early history of Russian and Soviet space exploration, all are eclipsed by one other—the primary architect and eventual “Chief Designer” of the entire Soviet Space Program and of its greatest successes from the launching of the first artificial satellite to the first spacewalk. His name was Sergei Pavlovich Korolev.

A Russian competitor to GDL appeared. Based in Moscow, it was known as the “Group for the Study of Reactive Motion,” or GIRD (by its Russian acronym). Founded by Tsander, GIRD quickly attracted several talented individuals, most notably Sergey Korolev, who leapt at the chance to work on rockets. Korolev was to be the “chief architect” of the Soviet space programme. At Mikhail Tukhachevsky recommendation, GDL and GIRD were merged into a new and relatively well-funded entity within the Soviet military—the Reaction Propulsion Institute (RNII), based in Moscow. Tsander had died a few months earlier of typhus while only in his mid-forties.

Compared to GDL, GIRD was a strictly amateur affair, begun in a residential basement and lacking official support or funds. But within only a year or so the group had attracted the attention of no lesser a person than Deputy People’s Commissar for Military and Naval Affairs Mikhail N. Tukhachevsky.

Korolev found himself deputy chief of the new organization (under chief engineer Ivan Kleimenov). Immediately prior to the merger, Korolev’s GIRD team also managed to beat Glushko’s GDL by launching the USSR’s very first rocket, designed by Tsander.

It appears that Korolev would have had a sound career ahead of him designing aircraft. But then he met Tsander. Tsander had tried to secure government support for his rocketry experiments, but had met with no success. Almost in desperation he placed an advertisement in a Moscow newspaper inviting contact from anyone interested in “interplanetary communications.” Over 150 people responded. So it was that some of them formed the Group for the Investigation of Reactive Engines and Reactive Flight (GIRD). Korolev was a key member.

Korolev and another engineer—E. S. Shchennikov—jointly developed and began testing the first Soviet winged-rocket. Though Goddard in the United States was still ahead, the Soviets were at least in the rocketry game now. As it would turn out, throughout much of the 1930s Goddard, distracted by other related projects and unable to secure appropriate government support for his work, made relatively little progress, allowing the Soviets to gain ground.

In popular Soviet and Russian accounts, GIRD, although it lasted only from 1931 to 1933, has acquired semi mythical status as the “forge of cadres”—that is, as the nursery of the personnel that would dominate the Soviet Space Program thereafter. More sober opinions point out that only a few dozen people ever labored there, and that though some became giants, many others among the USSR’s eventual cohort of great rocket and space designers were not among them.

Under Tsander’s leadership, GIRD held public lectures and carried out small experiments in a wine cellar on Sadovo-Spasskaya Street in Moscow. Soon Korolev replaced the ailing Tsander as leader and, using his administrative flair, established four research groups to study different problems associated with rocketry. Money started to flow from the government.

Korolev wrote, “It is necessary also to master and release into the air other types of rockets as soon as possible in order to thoroughly study and attain adequate mastery of reactive techniques. Soviet rockets must conquer space!”

The promise and potential of the Soviet rocketry effort was cut short abruptly when Joseph Stalin’s purges reached their climax. His plan was put into effect by the NKVD, the secret police force responsible for political repression. Inevitably, the NKVD denounced Korolev and he was thrown into the Lubyanka. Shortly afterward, following severe torture, he “confessed” and was fortunate not to be shot. Instead, he found himself in a cattle truck being taken to the Kolyma death camp in Siberia. At the intervention of some of the country's top aviators Korolev was released from Siberia by Lavrenty Beria.

Two chance events saved his life. A close friend, the famous pilot Valentina Grizodubova, joined forces with another famous Soviet aviator, Mikhail Gromov, and with Korolev’s mother to write a letter to the Central Committee of the Communist Party requesting a review of his case. It reached the office of Lavrenti Beria, chairman of the NKVD. Beriya thought he could use Korolev’s case to demonstrate his powers of leniency. So he altered the charge from a “member of an anti-Soviet counter revolutionary organization” to the less serious “saboteur of military technology,” and ordered a new trial.

Eventually Korolev was found at Kolyma before his inevitable death and put on a train back to Moscow. Of the 600 individuals who had been at the camp when he had arrived, only 200 were still alive when he left. Soon after, under Beria's watchful eye, the NKVD undertook an investigation into Korolev’s case, which concluded that he would be deprived of his freedoms for the next eight years. Fortunately for the future Russian space program, its chief designer survived long enough for a former teacher to get him moved to a low-security prison in Moscow. There, he was put to work, not on rockets but on bombers for the war with Germany.

One victim of the “Stalin purges” was Marshal Tukhachevsky who had established the RNII where Korolev worked. Tukhachevsky was shot, along with his wife, sister, two brothers, and his staff.

Development was accelerated during the late 1930s and particularly during the war years. The most notable achievements in rocket propulsion of this era were the German liquid-propellant V-2 rocket and the Me-163 rocket powered airplane. The V2 was developed by German scientist Wernher von Braun. Similar developments were under way in other countries but did not see service during the war. A myriad of rocket weapons also were produced.

Tens of millions of rocket weapons were fired during combat operations by German, British, Soviets, and U.S. forces. Of these the most famous is the Russian Katyusha rocket. The weapon was nicknamed “Stalin’s organ” by the German soldiers because of the visual resemblance of the launch array with a church organ and the distinctive sound that it made.

War had started in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. Funding for the rocket program at Peenemünde experienced its first of many interruptions that year as Hitler decided first that the new missiles would not be needed and then decided that they were vital to the war effort. The up-and-down funding delayed production of an operational rocket by about two years.

The German army created a rocket research center on the Baltic Sea island of Peenemünde. A team led by Wernher von Braun , working for the German army during the Nazi era, began development of what eventually became known as the V-2 rocket. Although built as a weapon of war, the V-2 later served as the predecessor of some of the launch vehicles used in the early space programs of the United States and, to a lesser extent, the Soviet Union.

Though it was a stunning technological breakthrough, the V-2 was not a successful weapon per se: it could not be guided with accuracy, and its complex technology was unreliable. Its main military value was as a terror weapon. Unlike bombs from airplanes that could be seen and heard well in advance so that evacuation to shelters was possible, V-2’s went unnoticed until seconds before they exploded. And the brief screaming sound they made before impact was horrifying. The V-2 was also enormously important as a harbinger of spaceflight and, more ominously, of the possibilities of intercontinental war.

The V-2 was the world’s first long-range missile. After the war, it became the prototype for the first ICBMs that played key roles during the Cold War as potential speedy deliverers of world destroying nuclear weapons. V-2 derived missiles were also developed into the first space launch vehicles – dual use on steroids. It is clear that rockets and spaceflight were minor concerns for most governments and business until it was seen they could be used as mighty weapons. Suddenly millions of dollars were poured into their development for military purposes.

During World War II the batlike Messerschmitt Me-163 rocket plane made its first powered flight. Pilot Heini Dittmar reached a speed of nearly 1,004 km per hour. It was the first aircraft to exceed 1,000 km per hour—more than 80 percent of the speed of sound.

On a second flight champion German glider pilot Hanna Reitsch achieved a speed of 1,004 km. Hanna Reitsch was the first woman to fly a jet propelled aircraft. She was also the first to fly a rocket. Reitsch test-flew the rocket-propelled Me-163 Komet. She made numerous powered takeoffs and sometimes went nearly as fast as the speed of sound.

Many scientists were aware that the V-2 might be capable of reaching outer space. Knowing that the rocket could carry about 1 ton (1 metric ton) of explosives, German rocket expert Willy Ley suggested that the explosives be substituted by a pilot. Together with a protective suit, a pilot might weigh only 136 kg. The difference would be made up by extra fuel. If something even as simple as that could be done, Ley said, the rocket might be able to reach the fringes of outer space.

Von Braun and Ley were proven right in 1942. During a test flight, a V-2 rocket reached an altitude of 117 miles (188 km). It was only the very fringe of outer space, but the V-2 proved it could be done.

Von Braun told his staff: “Let’s not forget that this is the beginning of a new era, the era of rocket-powered flight. It seems that this is another demonstration of the sad fact that so often new developments get nowhere until they are first applied as weapons.” When they heard that the V-2 had hit London those responsible drank champagne, with von Braun saying: “Let’s be honest about it. We were at war, although we weren’t Nazis, we still had a fatherland to fight for.” He later commented on the rocket’s performance: “It behaved perfectly, but on the wrong planet.”

U.S. scientists had little interest in developing large scale rocket weapons like the V-2. Instead, they were trying to develop a rocket-propelled fighter of their own. In the United States, the aircraft company Northrop developed the XP-79, a rocket-powered flying wing. After several years of tests, the resulting rocket plane, the MX-324, made its first flight just as the Americans invaded Normandy.

The designer, Jack Northrop, was an American industrialist a aviation designer. Born in New Jersey, he worked in aviation from his early 20s’.

During World War II, Germany devised two schemes to bomb the United States. Both involved rockets. The first was the so-called Amerika Bomber. This would have required a piloted, winged V-2 rocket called the A-9 boosted by a huge rocket called the A-10. An even more daring scheme was being developed by the research team of Eugen Sänger and Irene Bredt. Their idea was to construct an Earth-orbiting, single-stage rocket plane capable of taking off from Germany, delivering a bomb while over the United States, and returning to its takeoff point. Like the Amerika Bomber, the Silbervogel (Silver Bird) would skip across the upper layers of the atmosphere.

The winged rocket would fly to an altitude of 338 km— about the height at which the space shuttle orbits. While a few A-9s were built and tested in wind tunnels, none was ever flown.

The Silver Bird would have been a beautiful vehicle: sleek and bullet shaped with a flat undersurface. It would have had stubby, knife edged wings and a small tail. Researchers conducted many tests with wind-tunnel models, but the entire project never got off the ground. The efforts of Sänger and Bredt weren’t wasted, however. Much of their research helped in the early development of later space planes such as the X-15 and the space shuttle.

By the end of World War II, the most advanced rocket technology on Earth was neither American nor Soviet, but the German V-2 program based in Peenemünde on the Baltic coast. As Nazi Germany collapsed, the incoming Soviet and U.S. militaries raced to capture what they could: rockets, plans, and personnel. The Americans fared better, netting most of the hardware and—the greatest prize—the German mastermind behind it all, and the eventual architect of the U.S. space program, Wernher von Braun. The Americans and Russians began to improve upon the V2. The Americans created the Redstone rocket and the Soviets the R series.

In the rush, much was left behind for the Soviets, including as many as 7,000 Germans—rocket experts, related workers, and family members—who were brought back to the USSR. Among the Russians sent to evaluate and appropriate German technology was Sergei Korolev himself, newly promoted to colonel in the Red Army. Beginning in the fall of 1945, he spent more than a year in Germany.

Just days after Hitler’s suicide in Berlin, an infantry unit led by Major Anatole Vavilov from the Second Belorussian Front took control of Peenemünde. The place was deserted and almost empty. Stalin was furious, and was reported to have said: “This is absolutely intolerable. We defeated the Nazi armies, we occupied Berlin and Peenemünde: but the Americans got the rocket engineers. What could be more revolting and more inexcusable? How and why was this allowed to happen?”

Von Braun left the Harz complex just hours ahead of the Russians. “We feared the Russians, despised the French and didn’t think the British could afford us.” He planned to surrender to the Americans. Stalin may have played a role in diverting troops toward Peenemünde rather than Berlin in the final months of the war.

In June 1945 a group of Soviet engineers arrived at Peenemünde. Among them was a 33-year-old expert on guidance systems called Boris Chertok. He soon realized how far behind they had been in terms of technology. One official knew the reason: “In Germany we realized that there were no arrests. As a result of repressions in the army and the scientific community our development had stopped at powder rockets.” The point was amplified when Soviet soldiers dug out from the rubble at Peenemünde a German edition of a book by Tsiolkovsky. On almost every page there were notes and comments made by von Braun.

Braun and his team had been transported to the United States after the war, together with a number of captured V-2 rockets. These rockets were launched under army auspices to gain operational and technological experience, enabling the U.S. space program to develop very rapidly from the advanced knowledge and experience Braun brought with him from Germany. Von Braun was also an extremely effective – indeed, charismatic – popularizer of space travel in the United States, his tall, noble bearing fascinating and attracting more Americans than were repulsed by his Nazi associations.

One of the most-significant early military applications of rocketry was the Redstone rocket, whose first launch occurred at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. German scientist Wernher von Braun and his team created this liquid-fueled missile. The Redstone measured approximately 21 meters long and had a speed of about 6,100 kilometers per hour. Intended as a defense mechanism during the Cold War years, the U.S. Army started using the Redstone rocket in 1958. A V2 derivative, Redstone, was used to launch the first U.S. astronaut, Alan Shepard, on his suborbital flight.

The first successful Soviet launch occurred at Kapustin Iar in Astrakhan oblast’. A year later Korolev successfully tested a modified V-2 called the R-1. It had a similar range to the German original, but could not carry quite so heavy a payload. By the end of 1949, Korolev moved beyond mere copies and developed the R-2—the first truly Soviet long-range missile and a significant improvement on the German device. The first successful test flew 600 km, twice the R-1’s range. By this time Korolev had been officially appointed head of his own bureau titled OKB-1, dedicated to further development of R-series rockets.

After the war propulsion development was still largely determined by military applications. Liquid-propellant engines were refined for use in supersonic research aircraft, ICBMs, and high-altitude research rockets. Similarly, developments in solid propellant motors were in the areas of military tactical rocket applications and high-altitude research. Bombardment rockets, aircraft interceptors, antitank weapons, and air-launched rockets for air and surface targets were among the primary tactical applications.

Though the British were the first to reconstruct a V-2 and fire it during Operation Backfire in October 1945, they were too consumed with postwar reconstruction to develop it further.

Technological advances in propulsion included the perfection of methods for casting solid-propellant charges, development of more energetic solid propellants, introduction of new structural and insulation materials in both liquid and solid systems, manufacturing methods for larger motors and engines, and improvements in peripheral hardware (including pumps, valves, engine-cooling systems, and direction controls).

By 1955 most missions called for some form of guidance, and larger rockets generally employed two stages. While the potential for spaceflight was present and contemplated at the time, financial resources were directed primarily toward military applications.

With the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, rocket research in the United States and the Soviet Union focused on the development of missiles for military use, including intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Weapons experts in the United States concentrated on making their atomic bombs smaller, so that less powerful rockets could launch them. The researchers in the former Soviet Union worked on more powerful rockets that could carry their heavier bombs.

Korolev took his argument for a space program to Stalin himself. He was escorted into the Kremlin to meet the Soviet leader in person for the first time. He later wrote of his frustration: “I had been given the assignment to report to Stalin about the development of the new rocket. He listened silently at first, hardly taking his pipe out of his mouth. Sometimes he interrupted me, asking terse questions. I can’t recount all the details. I could not tell whether he approved of what I was saying or not. He said “no” enough times that these “no’s” became the law. But where rockets were being studied dreams of flight into space were not far behind.

The rockets used to transport a spacecraft beyond Earth’s atmosphere, either into orbit around Earth or to some other destination in outer space, are called launch vehicles. Practical launch vehicles have been used to send manned spacecraft, unmanned space probes, and satellites into space since the 1950s. They include the Soyuz and Proton launchers of Russia, the Ariane series of Europe, and the space shuttle and Atlas, Delta, and Titan families of vehicles of the United States.

In order to reach Earth orbit, a launch vehicle must accelerate its spacecraft payload to a minimum velocity of 25 times the speed of sound. To overcome Earth’s gravity for travel to a destination such as the Moon or Mars, the spacecraft must be accelerated to a velocity of approximately 40,000 km per hour.

Historically, many launch vehicles have been derived from ballistic missiles, and the link between new countries developing space launch capability and obtaining long range military missiles is a continuing security concern.

Most launch vehicles have been developed through government funding, although some of those launch vehicles have been turned over to the private sector as a means of providing commercial space transportation services.

Most space launch vehicles trace their heritage to ballistic missiles developed for military use during the 1950s and early ’60s.

Korolev dreamed of space, not of the intercontinental ballistic missiles his bosses demanded. As early as 1953, he had begun to make suggestions in this direction to the authorities. At the time neither he nor anyone else possessed a rocket nearly powerful enough to achieve escape velocity. Nor was there political support for such an adventure: the Soviet leadership was interested in rockets solely as weapons. The first of these obstacles began to recede in the mid–1950s with development of the R-7. The primary innovations involved joining together multiple rocket clusters in two stages. Korolev proposed to the government to use it to send up an artificial satellite.

The R7 was a 220-ton, thirty-four meter high behemoth powered by five thrusters of four rockets each (four of which were designed to fall away soon after liftoff ) and providing some nine times the thrust of early R-series rockets. There were also important new developments in guidance systems, including small radio-controlled steering rockets.

Under the aegis of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) numerous scientific projects had been proposed by states around the world. Among these, the United States, as early as 1955, had publicly mooted the idea of launching an artificial satellite into orbit— officially for scientific purposes, but clearly also intended as a spy satellite. Khrushchev, decided almost at the last moment that the USSR must beat its rival. Domestic Soviet politics were a second determining factor. Khrushchev, a relative moderate in Soviet politics, defeated a coup attempt by the Stalinist old guard. A successful space launch seemed ideal to cement his new ascendancy.

Suddenly, after years of foot dragging, the goal of placing an artificial satellite—a Sputnik — in orbit became a frantic rush. Korolev found himself being pushed hard to get something—anything—into orbit in the absolute shortest possible time. This turned out to be about four weeks! Unfortunately for Korolev and his team, Khrushchev’s interest was in a splashy propaganda coup, not useful science.

With time and resources scarce, and failure unacceptable, Korolev was forced to scale back earlier plans for a sophisticated orbiting science-lab in favor of the “simplest possible device”—a small, polished sphere. Apart from basic heat sensing apparatus, it was equipped only with a transmitter and batteries— so that the world, especially America, could pick up the craft’s beeping signal and satisfy itself of the Soviet achievement.

Because Soviet nuclear warheads were based on a heavy design, the R-7 had significantly greater weight-lifting capability than did initial U.S. ICBMs. When used as a space launch vehicle, this gave the Soviet Union a significant early advantage in the weight that could be placed in orbit or sent to the Moon or nearby planets.

From the end of World War II, Korolev oversaw development of the USSR’s long-range missile program. He was the driving force behind the USSR space program, quietly appropriating military technologies for spaceflight, and finally gaining official support for developing space technologies. His efforts were enormous, carried out almost in secret, not only from the outside world but also within Russia, until his rockets were finally and successfully launched. It is indeed uncertain how the competition for space dominance would have turned out had he not died suddenly, during routine surgery, after which the Soviet program floundered.

The actual launch took place at the Baikonur facility. By all accounts, it was both spectacular and textbook perfect. Some among those watching at first became alarmed to see the rocket tilt shortly after take-off, expecting it instead to head straight up. This, however, was merely a necessary trajectory adjustment in order to achieve orbit—a sign of success, not of failure. Within minutes the little satellite was sweeping around the globe, beeping loud and clear for all to hear. It was a pivotal moment for Russian rocketry, and indeed for the whole world.

For many Russians the launch of Sputnik constitutes the critical pivot point that Americans and other Westerners might more readily ascribe to Neil Armstrong’s “one small step ... one giant leap” onto the surface of the moon—that is, it marks the beginning of the Space Age and humanity’s first arrival beyond Earth. A sense of the Russian perspective can be gleaned from comments made shortly after the event by A. N. Nesmeyanov, then president of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR: “The orbital flight of the radio-controlled metallic sphere has outdone everything else—the discoveries of Columbus and Magellan, mankind’s first use of steam and electricity to drive machinery, the conquest of the skies by the first aircraft, and [even] the epochal liberation of the power of the atom.... All these were mere steps on the earthly ladder of progress—victories in mankind’s unending battle to tame terrestrial nature.”

More than 50 times larger than America’s proposed satellite, Vanguard, Sputnik-1 was a stupendous technological and propaganda victory for the Soviet Union. Startled world reaction to Sputnik was spontaneous and concerned. The Russians were suddenly leaping ahead.

Between 1955 and 1965, the vision of the early pioneers was realized with the achievement of Earth-orbiting satellites and manned spaceflight. The early missions were accomplished with liquid-propulsion systems adapted from military rockets.

An R-7 variant, the Vostok, launched the first Soviet cosmonauts in a series of six launches over a two-year period of 1961–1963. The first of these launches sent into orbit Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space. A multipurpose variant, the Soyuz, was first used in 1966 and, with many subsequent variants and improvements, is still in service.

The Soyuz family of launch vehicles has carried out more space launches than the rest of the world’s launch vehicles combined.

In the early 1960s, Soviet designers began work on the N-1, which was originally designed to undertake journeys that would require true heavy lift capability—that is, the ability to lift more than 80,000 kg to low Earth orbit. When the Soviet Union decided to race the United States to a first lunar landing, that became the sole mission for the N-1. There were four N-1 launch attempts. All failed, and on the second test launch the vehicle exploded on the launchpad, destroying it and causing a two-year delay in the program. In 1974 the N-1 program was canceled.

The N-1 was a five-stage vehicle. The N-1 vehicle and the L3 lunar landing spacecraft mounted atop it stood 105 metres tall and weighed 2,735,000 kg fully fueled. To provide the thrust needed to lift the vehicle off of its launchpad, 30 small rocket engines, firing in unison, were required.

Another line of development within the U.S. industry led, in the early 1950s, to the Navaho cruise missile. A cruise missile flies like an unpiloted aircraft to its target, rather than following the ballistic trajectory of an IRBM. This program was short-lived, but the rocket engine developed for Navaho, which itself was derived from the V-2 engine, was in turn adapted for use in a number of first-generation ballistic missiles, including Thor, another IRBM, and Atlas and Titan, the first two U.S. ICBMs. A version of Atlas was used to launch John Glenn on the first U.S. orbital flight. The R7 was the first Russian ICBM.

Another significant launch vehicle was derived from the Thor missile, which was initially developed by the U.S. Air Force as an intermediate-range ballistic missile. Thor was subsequently modified to serve as the first stage of launch vehicles for several spacecraft. For space launching, three additional small auxiliary motors were strapped to a Thor rocket used as a first stage, resulting in the Thrust-Augmented Thor ( TAT )—nearly twice as powerful as the Thor rocket.

Adding an Agena rocket as a second stage resulted in the two-stage Thor- Agena rocket, used to launch the U.S. Air Force’s Discoverer space satellites.

The first American satellite sent around the Earth, Explorer 1 was launched in 1958. Designed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, Explorer 1 was launched by the Jupiter-C rocket vehicle, a modified version of the earlier Redstone rocket and an assembly that consisted of ballistic missile technology.

The Jupiter-C rocket was assembled in four stages, with the largest and heaviest (Stage 1) having a thrust of 83,000 pounds and a burn time of 155 seconds. Burn time refers to how long the rocket burns its propellant.

Braun’s team developed the Jupiter IRBM, which was in many ways a derivative of the V-2 rocket. A version of the Jupiter was the launch vehicle for the first U.S. artificial satellite, Explorer 1. Von Braun and his associates, including scientists from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, constructed and launched Explorer 1. The satellite was launched from Cape Canaveral using a modified Jupiter C missile.

Later years saw rockets, specifically the Saturn series of rockets, used for human space exploration. Primarily developed in the 1960s by scientists who had emigrated from Germany to the U.S., the Saturn rockets were first proposed for launching military satellites. They went on to become the main launch vehicles for Project Apollo, NASA’s foray into lunar exploration. The largest rocket built during this time was the Saturn V.

After John F. Kennedy’s announcement that sending Americans to the Moon would be a national goal, Braun and others in and outside of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) set about developing a launch vehicle that would enable a lunar mission based on rendezvous either in Earth or Moon orbit. The Braun team already had a less powerful rocket called Saturn I in development. Their advanced design, intended for lunar missions, was configured to use five F-1 engines, and on that basis was named Saturn V.

Nicknamed the Moon Rocket, the Saturn V was a liquid-fueled rocket used by both Project Apollo and Skylab, the first U.S. space station. It remains the world’s most powerful rocket ever by payload (the cargo that the rocket carries into space). The Saturn V was built in three stages, separate portions of a rocket that burn to completion and are then discarded. Standing an impressive 110 meters tall, the Saturn V helped make human spaceflight possible.

The Saturn family of launch vehicles, which also included the Saturn IB, was the first American launch vehicle family developed specifically for space use. The less powerful Saturn IB was used to launch Apollo spacecraft on Earth orbiting missions and during the U.S.-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975. After Apollo-Soyuz, the Saturn family was retired from service as the United States decided to use the space shuttle as the sole launch vehicle for future government payloads.

Since the Apollo missions, liquid systems have been employed by most countries for spaceflight applications, though solid boosters have been combined with liquid engines in various first stages of U.S. launch vehicles—those of the Titan 34D, Atlas, Delta, Pegasus and Space Shuttle. The Soviet launch vehicle Energia was used only for two missions. Solid-rocket motors have been used for several systems for transfer from low Earth orbit to geosynchronous orbit. In such systems, the lower performance of solid-propellant motors is accepted in exchange for the operational simplicity that it provides.

Missions have drawn on an ever-expanding technology base, using improved propellants, structural materials, and designs. Present-day missions may involve a combination of several kinds of engines and motors, each chosen according to its function.

The Delta II is used to launch small to medium payloads. Its lifting power can be adjusted by varying the number of solid rocket motors attached as “strap-ons” to its first stage. The Delta IV and Atlas V vehicles have little in common with the original ballistic missiles or early space launchers of the same names. The Delta IV uses the first new rocket engine developed in the United States since the 1970s space shuttle main engine. That engine, the RS-68, burns cryogenic propellant (liquefied gas kept at very low temperatures).

The Atlas V uses in its first stage a Russian-produced rocket engine, the RD-180, the design of which is based on the RD-170 developed for the Soviet Energia and Zenit launch vehicles.

Soviet approval was given for development of the Energia heavy-lift launch vehicle (named for the design bureau that developed it) and its primary mission, the space shuttle Buran. Energia could lift 100,000 kg to low Earth orbit, slightly more than the Saturn V. The Energia was 60 metres high.

Most U.S. launch vehicles in use since the late 1950s have been based on the Thor IRBM or the Atlas and Titan ICBMs. The last launch of a vehicle based on the Titan ICBM was in 2005. The two other families of launch vehicles, Delta and Atlas, have undergone a series of modifications and improvements since they were developed in the 1950s.

A number of smaller launch vehicles have been developed to launch lighter spacecraft at a lower overall cost. These include the solid-fueled Pegasus launch vehicle, which had its first flight in 1990 and is launched from under the fuselage of a carrier aircraft. A version of Pegasus known as Taurus lifts off from the ground, using a converted ICBM as a first stage and Pegasus as a second stage. A new small launch vehicle called Falcon was first tested in 2006.

Energia’s first launch was in 1987 and had Polyus, an experimental military space platform, as its payload. Its second and final launch carried Buran to orbit on its only mission, without a crew aboard. Energia was deemed too expensive for the Soviet Union to continue to operate, and no other uses for the vehicle emerged.

Rockets were traditionally disposable items designed to be discarded after a single use. However, the Space Shuttle Columbia, first launched in 1981, was designed with some reusable parts. The U.S. space shuttle is unique in that it combines the functions of launch vehicle and spacecraft. The first partially reusable launch vehicle, it is one of the most complex machines ever developed, with more than 2.5 million parts.

The Space Shuttle orbiter itself is, of course, reusable as well. Those in the NASA fleet had a lifetime of many dozens of launches. For example, the space shuttle Discovery traveled into orbit from 1984 to 2011, well beyond its expected lifetime.

A space shuttlețs smaller solid rocket boosters are designed to fall into the ocean after their fuel is exhausted. These boosters are retrieved, cleaned, refilled, and used again on future missions. Each booster can be used for several missions before it has to be retired. Employing reusable boosters theoretically allows a spacecraft to be launched more often and at a lower cost than using rockets that must be replaced completely after each launch.

With the promise of partial reusability and routine operation, the shuttle was promoted when it was approved for development in 1972 as a means of providing regular access to space at a much lower cost than was possible with the use of expendable launch vehicles. The intent was to use the space shuttle as the only launch vehicle for all U.S. government spacecraft and to attract commercial spacecraft launch business in competition with other countries’ launchers. The promise of low cost and routine operations has not been realized.

Russia has the most diverse set of launch vehicles of any spacefaring country. Most were developed while under the rule of the Soviet Union, which included both Russia and Ukraine, and both countries continue to produce launch vehicles. Like the United States, the Soviet Union used various ballistic missiles as the basis for several of its space launch vehicles. The most famous of these ballistic missiles was the aforementioned R-7, developed in under the direction of Sergei Korolev. Other Soviet launchers based on ICBM first stages include the Zenit, Proton and Tsyklon (which is built in the Ukraine).

Proton was originally designated as an intercontinental ballistic missile for the most powerful Soviet thermonuclear weapons by the design bureau headed by Vladimir Chelomey. Its purpose was changed during development, and since its first launch—of the Proton-1 satellite —it has been used only as a space launch vehicle. It is also used to launch elements of the Salyut and Mir space stations and of the International Space Station. The launcher has undergone continuous improvements since it entered service. Launchpads for the Proton are located at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The Zenit launch vehicle was developed in Ukraine. It was not derived from an existing ICBM. The Zenit uses an RD-170 first-stage engine, considered to be one of the most efficient and reliable rocket engines ever made. It was used by the Soviet Union. Now it is used by Russia to launch both military payloads to low Earth orbit and communication satellites to geostationary orbit.

Several European countries, with France playing a leading role, decided that it was essential for Europe to have its own access to space, independent of the United States and the Soviet Union. To develop a new launcher, these countries formed a new space organization, the ESA, which in turn delegated lead responsibility of what was named the Ariane launch vehicle to the French space agency. The French space agency, Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), has managed Ariane development and upgrades with the support of the ESA. Improved versions of Ariane were developed during the 1980s. Vega is another european launch vehicle.

Ariane is named after Ariadne (Ariane in French), the mythical Cretan princess who helped Theseus escape from the Labyrinth. Ariane 1 was 50 metres tall and had a thrust at liftoff of 2,400 kilonewtons, which allowed it to launch an 1,850-kg satellite into geostationary orbit.

The first Ariane 3 vehicle was launched in August 1984, but the first Ariane 2—which had the same launch vehicle design as the Ariane 3 but without the two solid-fuel strap-on boosters—debuted in May 1986. The first Ariane 4 vehicle was launched in 1988. Ariane 4 was even more powerful than Ariane 3. By the end of its 15-year-long career, Ariane 4 had achieved over 97 percent reliability.

In order to complement Ariane 5, the ESA decided in 2000 to develop a small launch vehicle called Vega. The first launch for this vehicle was set for late 2009.

The ESA decided to build a launch facility for the Russian Soyuz launcher at the European launch site in French Guiana. This would give Europe a medium-lift launch vehicle capability and could also provide Europe with the capability to launch humans into space, since that is one of the roles that the Soyuz launcher plays for Russia.

The ESA decided to develop the more powerful Ariane 5 launcher with a totally new design. A strong impetus for developing the more powerful Ariane 5 was the ESA’s ambition to launch a manned space glider named Hermes. However, the Hermes project was canceled in 1992. Since then, Ariane 5 has launched only unmanned satellites.

Like the United States and the Soviet Union, China’s first launch vehicles were also based on ballistic missiles. The Chang Zheng 1 (CZ-1, or Long March 1) vehicle, which put China’s first satellite into orbit in 1970, was based on the Dong Feng 3 IRBM. A CZ-2F vehicle was used to launch the first Chinese astronaut into space in 2003. There are also CZ-3 and CZ-4 launchers.

The Chang Zheng 2 family of launch vehicles, which has been used for roughly half of Chinese launches, was based on the Dong Feng 5 ICBM. There are several models of the CZ-2 vehicle, with different first stages and solid strap-ons.

The CZ-3 is optimized for launches to geostationary orbits, and the CZ-4 uses hypergolic propellants rather than the conventional kerosene–liquid oxygen combination used in previous Chang Zheng variants.

Until 2003, Japan had three separate space agencies, two of which developed their own line of launch vehicles. Japan did not have a previous ballistic missile program. Japan’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science based its launch vehicles on the use of solid propellants. Its Lambda L-4S vehicle sent the first Japanese satellite, Osumi, into orbit. Each subsequent launcher in the Mu series gave the institute greater lifting power for its scientific satellites. Initially Japan used launch vehicles based on American design. The first Japanese launch vehicle was the H-II.

During the 1970s, the National Space Development Agency developed the N-I and N-II launchers based on licensed U.S. Delta technology. As an interim step to its own launch vehicle, in the 1980s, the agency next developed the H-I, which had a Delta-derived fi rst stage but a Japanese designed cryogenically fueled upper stage.

Japan decided to develop an all-Japanese launch vehicle, the H-II, using a very advanced first-stage rocket engine. The H-II was first launched in 1994. It proved a very expensive vehicle because of its total dependence on Japanese-manufactured components. Thus, Japan decided to develop an H-IIA vehicle that would use some foreign components and simplified manufacturing techniques to reduce the vehicle’s costs. The first H-IIA launch took place in August 2001.

India launched its first satellite using the four-stage solid-fueled Satellite Launch Vehicle 3 (SLV-3), which was developed from the U.S. Scout launch vehicle. India did not have a prior ballistic missile program, but parts of the SLV-3 were later incorporated into India’s first IRBM, Agni. The four-stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) was then developed.

The PSVL used a mixture of solid and liquid-fueled stages. During the 1990s, India developed the liquid-fueled Geostationary Space Launch Vehicle (GSLV), which used cryogenic fuel in its upper stage. Both the PSLV and GSLV remain in service.

Israel’s Shavit launch vehicle is a small three-stage solid-fueled vehicle. It was based on the Jericho 2 ballistic missile.

Because of its geographic location and hostile relations with surrounding countries, Israel must launch its vehicles to the west, over the Mediterranean Sea, in order to avoid flying over those countries. This necessity imposes a penalty of 30 percent on the Shavit’s lifting capability, since the Shavit is unable to take advantage of the velocity imparted by Earth’s rotation.

Iran’s launch vehicle is the Safīr (Farsi for “messenger”). A Safīr rocket launched Omīd, the first satellite put into orbit by Iran.

Safir has two liquid-fueled stages and is based on the North Korean Taepodong-1 missile. It was 22 metres long and 1.4 metres across. It's estimated payload was less than 100 kg.

After a spacecraft has ridden into space on a rocket, it then needs a propulsion system to take it where it needs to go, whether that’s into Earth orbit or onward to a distant planet. Instead of bringing along a rocket with a huge tank of propellant, future missions may use more-sophisticated propulsion systems. Ion propulsion or solar sails are but two technologies that have been proposed by various scientists. At present both of these designs have had prototypes.

One promising possibility for the future of rocket propulsion is ion propulsion. Rather than rocket propellant, this new technology uses a gas called xenon. The xenon gas is given an electrical charge that causes it to ionize, a process in which electrons are removed from an atom and become charged. The ions are then accelerated through a series of grids and ejected from the end of the spacecraft, pushing it in the opposite direction just like a conventional rocket. Spacecraft such as PanAmSat 5 in 1995 and NASA’s Deep Space 1 mission in 1999 have successfully tested the ion propulsion system.

One disadvantage of the ion propulsion system is that it generally has a very low thrust, meaning it can build up great speeds but only over a relatively long time. This characteristic is problematic when trying to enter orbit around a planet because the rocket has to stop accelerating halfway there in order to begin the gradual process of slowing down enough to enter orbit instead of relying on the long burn of a conventional rocket. Another disadvantage is that ion propulsion systems also require an external energy source, such as solar panels.

Another futuristic propulsion option is a solar sail in which a large array of thin, gossamer membranes is kept taut by a series of frames. These sails capture radiation pressure from photons given off by the Sun and use this tiny force over long periods of time to build up motion away from the Sun. A spacecraft guided through space via solar sails can theoretically adjust the sail orientations with respect to the solar wind in order to change direction. Like ion propulsion, however, solar sails require a long time to accelerate or decelerate. They also require a very large area to carry a relatively small spacecraft mass.

A spacecraft with a solar sail, Cosmos 1, was launched in 2005 to test the technology. It was built by two private space exploration advocacy groups, Cosmos Studios and the Planetary Society. Unfortunately, the Russian Volna rocket that was to have carried Cosmos 1 into orbit failed on launch. The spacecraft never reached its intended orbit and was lost. The Planetary Society launched a smaller technology demonstrator called LightSail 1 in 2015. LightSail 2 is scheduled to launch in September 2017. If the mission is successful two more solar sails are scheduled to be build.