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Rocket Science & The Evolution of Spacecraft

There’s a reason why people use the cliched phrase ‘it’s not rocket science’ to refer to something that is easy to achieve — rocket science really is incredibly complex. It has taken centuries of research, development, failures and triumphs, on repeat, for aerospace to get to where it is today.

Who would have known that just before we landed on the Moon that in as little as 70 years we would have developed spacecraft capable of observing the Big Bang, placed rovers on the Red Planet, and launched numerous commercial spaceflight operators to space?

In this article, we’re going to take a look at the history of rocket science and the evolution of spacecraft, tracing from its ancient origins to the sophisticated technology and understanding that exists in the modern day. So, how did we get from whittled sticks and gunpowder to the James Webb Space Telescope?

The first rocket

Illustration of one one the first rockets being used in a battle with soldiers and horses

The history of rocketry can be split into two distinct periods — pre-scientific meddling and post-enlightenment development. Whilst the root principles underpinning these movements have largely remained the same, (thanks for the info Isaac Newton!) the operational logistics and mankind’s approach to rocketry have changed dramatically.

Rocket science’s humble beginnings date all the way back to ancient China, with the first recorded use of a rocket in 1232 during the Kai-Keng battle. The Chinese developed gunpowder-filled bamboo sticks some years prior which they used to keep the Mongols at bay successfully. This primitive form of a rocket consisted of a hollow tube capped at one end and filled with gunpowder and attached to a stick. In a similar vein to how fireworks rockets are used today, once the gunpowder was lit, the pressure inside the hollow tube forced hot gas and smoke out the un-capped end, creating enough thrust to propel the rocket forward.

Rockets in the post-Enlightenment era

Diagram and illustration of a steam turbine.

The fundamentals of modern rocket science were actually laid down by the Ancient Greeks, two and a half millennia ago.

The Greek physicist, Hero of Alexander (10-75 AD), created the Hero’s device, otherwise known as an ‘aeolipile device’, or ‘wind ball’ — a bladeless, radial steam turbine that spins with the heating of its central water container:

As steam exits the turbine, torque is produced (the rotational equivalent of linear force). How is this applicable to the kinds of spacecraft that we have today? The aeolipile device is rooted in the rocket principle of action and reaction, or Newton’s third law.

Sir Issac Newton's Laws of Motion

To get into the nitty gritty science of rocketry, it’s important to acknowledge the three laws of motion as discovered by Sir Isaac Newton:

  1. Every object in a state of uniform motion will remain in that state of motion unless an external force acts on it.

  2. Force equals mass times acceleration [ f (t) = ma(t) ].

  3. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.¹

The first law explains why rockets move — without propulsive thrust, they’ll remain completely stationary. The second law qualifies the thrust produced by a rocket at a specific instance in time, whilst the third law elucidates that due to the expulsion of mass, the rocket is propelled (hopefully in the intended direction!).

The inspiration behind Sir Isaac Newton’s discovery came from an apocryphal story you’ll probably recognise concerning an apple falling from an apple tree in his mother’s garden. Per the story, the apple fell from a branch, hitting the scientist’s head on the way down. This experience got him thinking about, and ultimately defining, the laws of gravity and motion.

The first advanced Rockets

Around the time of Newton’s death, in the 1720s, German, Russian, and Dutch Republican researchers put Newton’s laws into motion, so to speak, and began designing rockets that were certainly more advanced than Hero of Alexandria’s wind ball.

Rocket-propelled cars

The following two centuries saw the invention of rocket-propelled cars by Dutch inventor Willem’s Gravesande, as well as iron-cased rockets used by the Indian military during the British Colonial wars of 1792 and 1799. These iron-cased rockets were more advanced than the British had ever seen before.

Rockets in early warfare

Inspired by their invention, William Congreve, a British Colonel, decided to design a rocket to be used by the British forces. Despite successfully designing rockets that were used during the Napoleonic wars, Congreve’s rockets still were unable to bypass the shortcomings of rockets thus far — their accuracy.

Spin stabilisation technology for rockets

Congreve’s rockets were known to be rather problematic in their trajectory, tending to veer off course sharply when fired. It wasn’t until 1844 that a British designer, William Hale, developed something known as ‘spin stabilisation’ or, according to its modern usage, gun barrels which surprise surprise helped the rockets to stabilise. Rockets took a back seat after Congreve’s innovation, until a man named Robert Goddard came along.

Robert Goddard - The father of modern rocketry

Robert Goddard is widely considered as the father of modern rocketry. He built upon the Russian mathematician and school teacher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s premonition that rockets could eventually be used for space travel as well as Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equation. In an article for an aviation magazine titled Exploration of Outer Space with Reaction Machines, Tsiolkovsky proposed his rocket equation establishing the relationship between rocket speed and mass and the speed at which gas has to exit a rocket’s propellant speed in order to achieve lift.

Liquid-propellant technology for rockets

Goddard took Tsiolkovsky’s idea and built the world’s first liquid-propellant rocket, using a combination of gasoline as fuel and liquid oxygen. On March 16th, 1926 the rocket was launched. Whilst unimpressive according to the standards of today, the rocket stayed lit for 2.5 seconds and reached an altitude of 12.5 metres.

Goddard standing next to his gyroscopic rocket

Integrating gyroscopes into rockets

Over the years, Goddard’s rockets achieved higher and higher altitudes and branched out to incorporate a gyroscope system to control the path of the flight as well as parachute recovery systems (a bit like the ones we employ for our stratospheric balloon launches!).

German scientists during the period also played a large role in rocket development.

The invention of the V2 Rocket

In the early 20th century numerous rocket institutes were founded in Germany, largely inspired by Die Rakete zu den Planetenraumen (The Rocket to Space), written by Hermann Oberth. The V2 was soon invented, and was known as the most advanced rocket of its time - it was the world’s first long-range ballistic missile and the first rocket to enter space.

The Space Race | Evolution of spacecraft

concept image of a satellite in the shape of an orb with four thin legs floating in space above Earth

In the decades following the invention of the V2, rocketry advanced exponentially. The Space Race, commencing in the 1950s, saw a feverish fight for countries across the globe to develop nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). This worldwide mission led to huge advancements in technology, paving the way for the network of satellites that presently cocoon our planet from high above amongst other orbital science developments.

A timeline of spacecraft design from the first rocket in 1232 to the James Webb Space Telescope in 2022

This period saw the creation of Russia’s Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, as well as the USA’s Jupiter-C in 1957.

Just over a decade later man landed on the moon with the help of NASA’s Apollo programme.

Space Shuttle

NASA’S Space Shuttle, first launched in 1981, was a defining moment for space exploration. Up until this point, trips to space were made by rockets and satellites that were impossible to reuse. The Space Shuttle, however, was the very first operational orbital spacecraft specifically designed for reuse. It was also a crewed mission.

Scientific testing on the Space Shuttle

The Space Shuttle wasn’t just a mode of transport, it was a scientific lab too. Of the Space Shuttle’s 135 missions, 22 were scientific in nature, testing such things as the nature of microgravity to the social antics of ant colonies in zero gravity.

Emergence of nanosatellites

Nanosatellites have been a recent introduction to the world of spacecraft. The final frontier has shifted from a realm only explorable through official space organisations and programmes to a part of our universe that many can now engage with.

Although it would set you back around half a million pounds, nanosatellites can now be sent into Low Earth Orbit for a huge range of purposes: for radio and communicational reasons, to improve meteorological understanding, and even to conduct biomedical research. If you're looking for access to space, get in touch and we can provide a cost-effective solution!

It's Rocket Science...

Humankind's advancements in rocketry have been nothing short of extraordinary. From the earliest rockets in ancient China to the state-of-the-art James Webb Space Telescope that is unlocking previously hidden information about the early universe, we have come a long way.

The speed of recent advancements is truly remarkable, and it's exciting to think about what lies ahead. The future of space exploration is constantly evolving, and it's hard to predict where we'll be in just a decade. For all space enthusiasts and professionals, it's an exciting time and to stay on top of the latest developments in this field.


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