MadSci Network: Science History

Re: Who invented the 1st spacecraft?

Date: Mon Mar 15 14:31:28 1999
Posted By: Denise Kaisler, Grad student, Astronomy, UCLA, Division of Astronomy
Area of science: Science History
ID: 919639450.Sh

The history of spaceflight involves many people. When you say "spacecraft"
do you mean the first rocket, the first object to orbit the Earth, the
first manned satellite, or the first craft to touch down on a body other
than the Earth? As you can see, there are many stages to the process. 

While searching the web for information on this process, I came across
a terrific web page about this section of history. The page is located
at, but I've reprinted
most of it here for your convenience.

Hope this wasn't too late,



The earliest solid rocket fuel was a form of gunpowder, and the
earliest recorded mention of gunpowder comes from China late in the third
century before Christ. Bamboo tubes filled with saltpeter, sulphur and
charcoal were tossed into ceremonial fires during religious festivals in
hopes the noise of the explosion would frighten evil spirits.

Certainly by the year 1045 A.D. -- 21 years before William the
Conqueror would land on the shores of England -- the use of gunpowder and
rockets formed an integral aspect of Chinese military tactics.

The first recorded use of rockets in the Civil War came on July 3,
1862, when Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's Confederate cavalry fired rockets at
Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's Union troops at Harrison's Landing, Va. No
record exists of the Northerners' opinion of this premature "Fourth of
July" fireworks demonstration.

The only other documented use of rockets is at Charleston, S.C., in
1864. Union troops under Maj. Gen. Alexander Schimmelfennig found rockets
"especially practical in driving off Confederate picket boats, especially
at night."

As an interesting sidelight, the author Burke Davis, in his book "Our
Incredible Civil War," tells a tale of a Confederate attempt to fire a
ballistic missile at Washington, D.C., from a point outside Richmond, Va.

According to the author, Jefferson Davis witnessed the event at which a
12-foot-long, solid-fueled rocket, carrying a 10-pound gunpowder warhead in
a brass case engraved with the letters C.S.A., was ignited and seen to roar
rapidly up and out of sight. No one ever saw the rocket land. It's
interesting to speculate whether, almost 100 years before Sputnik, a
satellite marked with the initials of the Confederate States of America
might have been launched into orbit.

The principal drawback to rockets throughout this period of development
was the type of fuel. Both here and abroad, experiments were under way to
develop a more powerful, liquid-propelled rocket. Two young men stand out
in this effort -- one an American, Robert H. Goddard -- the other a German,
Wernher von Braun.

Goddard's interest in rockets began in 1898 when, as a 16-year-old, he
read the latest publication of that early science fiction writer, English
novelist H.G. Wells. The book which so excited Goddard was later made into
a 1938 radio program that nearly panicked our entire nation when it was
broadcast. Orson Well's too realistic rendition of the "War of the Worlds"
still causes many to shudder.

As the 20th Century began -- Wilbur and Orville Wright were preparing
to become the first men to fly. Goddard, however, was already designing
rockets to probe the upper atmosphere and delve into space. Half a world
away -- and unknown to Goddard -- a Russian school teacher, Konstantin
Tsiolkovsky was thinking along much the same lines. Both came to the
conclusion independently that, if a rocket was going to do the things they
dreamed of, it would have to be powered by liquid fuels. Solid fuels of the
time simply didn't have sufficient power. Tsiolkovski lacked Goddard's
practicality. While Tsiolkovski worked out many principles of astronautics
and designed suitable rockets, he never built any. By contrast, Goddard was
a technical man. He could and did build rockets. By the time he died in
1945, Goddard held 214 patents in rocketry -- patents which still produce
royalties for his estate.

Goddard began his experiments in rocketry while studying for his
doctorate at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

He first attracted attention in 1919 when he published a paper titled,
"A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes." In his paper he outlined his
ideas on rocketry and suggested, none too seriously, that a demonstration
rocket should be flown to the Moon.

The general public ignored the scientific merit of the paper --
latching instead onto Goddard's Moon rocket proposal. At the time, such an
endeavor was absurd and most dismissed Goddard as a "crank."

The experience taught Goddard a hard lesson -- one which caused him to
shy away from future opportunities to publicize his work. Publicity was far
from Goddard's mind on the morning of March 16, 1926. On that day, barely a
year after Wernher von Braun's rocket wagon fiasco, Goddard launched a
liquid-powered rocket he had designed and built from a snow-covered field
at his Aunt Effie Goddard's farm in Auburn, Mass. The rocket flew -- 152
feet -- about the same distance as the Wright Brothers' first manned flight
-- but it did fly! It was the first flight of a liquid-fueled rocket in

When Goddard was later approached by the American Interplanetary
Society in 1930 to publicize his work, Goddard refused. The society,
rebuffed and learning that no one in the United States aside from Goddard
was working with rockets, turned its attention to rocket research under way
in Europe, where rocketry was beginning to develop a following.

In the spring of 1931, two founder-members of the American society,
husband and wife Edward and Lee Pendray, travelled on vacation to Germany
where they made contact with the German Rocket Society, which had been
formed in 1927. The visiting Americans were given a preview of the future
when a member of the German Rocket Society -- Prof. Willy Ley -- took the
pair to the Germans' rocket flying test ground in the suburbs of Berlin.

Returning home, the Pendrays filed an enthusiastic report of their
visit, prompting the American society to build its first rocket. The
attempted test flight in November 1932 ended with the American design
firmly on the ground. It's unfortunate the Pendrays didn't meet another
future rocketry hall-of-famer who also was a member of the German society.
Rumanian-born Hermann Oberth wrote, in 1923, a highly prophetic book: "The
Rocket into Interplanetary Space." The book enthralled many with dreams of
space flight, including that precocious German teenager, Wernher von Braun
who read the book in 1925. Five years later, von Braun had joined Oberth
and was assisting with rocket experiments.

By 1932, the German Army was beginning to show an interest in the
German Rocket Society's efforts, and in July of that year, a "Mirak" rocket
was launched as a demonstration for the head of the newly created German
Army rocket research group, Captain (later Major General) Walter

Mirak didn't impress Dornberger.

Von Braun did.

Three months after the demonstration flight, von Braun was engaged to
work on liquid propelled rockets for the Army. Most of the German Rocket
Society followed von Braun into national service and the society disbanded.

By December 1934, von Braun scored his first successes with an A2
rocket powered by ethanol and liquid oxygen. Two years later, as plans for
the follow-on A3 rocket were being finalized, initial planning began for
the A4 rocket -- a rocket that was to be, in Dornberger's words, a
practical weapon, not a research tool. As noted earlier, most know the A4
by another name -- the V-2.

The rocket researchers quickly outgrew their facilities at Kummersdorf
on the outskirts of Berlin and, in 1936, operations were transferred to a
remote island on Germany's Baltic coast -- Peenemuende.

Between 1937 and 1941, von Braun's group launched some 70 A3 and A5
rockets, each testing components for use in the proposed A4 rocket.

The first A4 rocket flew in March 1942. The rocket barely cleared some
low clouds before crashing into the sea a half mile from the launch site.

The second launch in August 1942 saw the A4 rise to an altitude of 7
miles before exploding.

The third try was the charm. On October 3, 1942, another A4 roared
aloft from Peenemuende, followed its programmed trajectory perfectly, and
landed on target 120 miles away. This launch can fairly be said to mark the
beginning of the space age. The A4, the first successful ballistic rocket,
is the ancestor of practically every rocket flown in the world today.

Production of the A4 began in 1943 and the first A4s, now renamed V2s,
were launched against London in September 1944.

The V-2 offensive came too late to affect the course of the war. By
April 1945, the German Army was in full retreat everywhere and Hitler had
committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin.

At an inn near Oberjoch, the Haus Ingeburg, von Braun and over 100 of
his rocket experts waited for the end. The entire team had been ordered
executed by Hitler to prevent their capture. Wernher von Braun's brother,
Magnus, however, managed to contact nearby American forces before Hitler's
SS henchmen could reach the rocket team. On May 2, the same day Berlin fell
to the Soviet Army, von Braun and his rocket team entered American lines
and safety.

With the fighting over, von Braun and his team were heavily
interrogated and jealously protected from Russian agents. V2s and V2
components were assembled. German rocket technicians were rounded up. In
June, General Eisenhower sanctioned the final series of V2 launches in
Europe. Watching each of the three V2s which rose from a launch site at
Cuxhaven was a Russian Army colonel, Sergei Korolev. Ten years later,
Korolev would be hailed as the Soviet Union's chief designer of spacecraft
and the individual responsible for building the Vostok, Voshkod and Soyuz
spacecraft which, since 1961, have carried all Soviet cosmonauts into

Few members of von Braun's team participated in the Cuxhaven launches.
Most had already begun setting up shop at Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas.
Piled up in the desert near Las Cruces, New Mexico, were enough parts to
build 100 V2s. Von Braun and his team soon moved to nearby White Sands
Proving Ground where work began assembling and launching V2s. By February
1946, von Braun's entire Peenemuende team had been reunited at White Sands
and, on April 16, the first V2 was launched in the United States. The U.S.
space program was under way!

Up to 1952, 64 V2s were launched at White Sands. Instruments, not
explosives, packed the missiles' nosecones. A V2 variant saw the missile
become the first stage of a two stage rocket named Bumper. The top half was
a WAC Corporal rocket. The need for more room to fire the rockets quickly
became evident and, in 1949, the Joint Long Range Proving Ground was
established at remote, deserted Cape Canaveral, Fla. On July 24, 1950, a
two-stage Bumper rocket became the first of hundreds to be launched from
"the Cape."

The transfer of launch operations to the Cape coincided with the
transfer of the Army's missile program from White Sands to a post just
outside a north Alabama cotton town called Huntsville. Von Braun and his
team arrived in April 1950 -- it was to remain his home for the next 20
years -- 20 years in which the city's population increased ten fold.

The Von Braun team worked to develop what was essentially a super-V2
rocket, named for the U.S. Army arsenal where it was being designed -- the

In 1956, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency was established at Redstone
Arsenal under von Braun's leadership to develop the Jupiter intermediate
range ballistic missile. A version of the Redstone rocket, known as the
Jupiter C, on January 31, 1958, was used to launch America's first
satellite, Explorer I. Three years later, Mercury Redstones launched Alan
Sheppard and Gus Grissom on suborbital space flights, paving the way for
John Glenn's first orbital flight.
In 1958, NASA was established, and, two years later, von Braun, his
team, and the entire Army Ballistic Missile Agency were transferred to NASA
become the nucleus of the agency's space program.

The Army Missile Command, which owns Redstone Arsenal, continued its
vital national defense mission after the transfer of ABMA to NASA, chalking
up a remarkable number of successful programs to augment America's
landpower. MICOM's successes include the Pershing II, the NIKE weapons
systems, the HAWK system, Improved HAWK, Corporal, Sergeant, Lance and
Chaparral, to name a few.

Pursuing a separate course -- that of developing rockets for space
exploration -- the Marshall Space Flight Center's past quarter century has
been a time of superlatives.

In 1961, almost as Alan Sheppard was drying off from his landing in
the Atlantic following his riding a Marshall-designed Redstone rocket on a
sub-orbital flight which made him the first American in space, President
Kennedy committed this nation to being first on the Moon. NASA's Marshall
Center was charged with developing the family of giant rockets which would
take us there.

The Saturn rockets developed at Marshall to support the Apollo program
and to honor President Kennedy's pledge were, at the time, the most
powerful space launch vehicles yet to have been invented.

Engineers, scientists, contractors, and other support personnel built
well. On July 20, 1969, a transmission from the Moon's Sea of Tranquility
reported "the Eagle has landed."

Marshall's Saturn rockets first took us around the Moon, then to its
cratered surface. Marshall-developed lunar excursion vehicles -- the
ungainly Moon Buggies -- carried astronauts on far-ranging excursions in
pursuit of samples of lunar soil and rock.

Closer to home, the team at Marshall developed America's first space
station -- Skylab. Built to replace the upper stage of a Saturn V moon
rocket, the Skylab module was successfully placed in orbit early on May 14,

Placing Skylab in orbit marked a major transition in the story of
rocketry. Up until Skylab, the rocket had been the star -- the featured
attraction. The focus had been on the up and down -- launch and recovery.
Skylab, in essence stole the show. For the first time, space became a place
in which to live and work. Flying aboard a rocket was about the Earthside
equivalent of driving the family car to work. Just as having to drive to
work is only incidental to work itself -- flying aboard a rocket became
secondary to the work done once Skylab had been reached. The rocket, simply
stated, became a means to an end -- the end in this case being the
opportunity to learn to live and work in space.

A rash of malfunctions plagued Skylab's early days -- problems which
tested the resourcefulness of the entire NASA team. The problems were
overcome, however, and Skylab went on to become one of Marshall's proudest

A Marshall-developed Saturn I-B also carried aloft America's half of the
first -- and only -- joint U.S.-Soviet space endeavor, the Apollo-Soyuz

After Apollo, the team at Marshall tackled designing a revolutionary
national space transportation system, which came to be known simply as "The
Space Shuttle."

It is anything but simple!

The space shuttle main engines are among the most powerful, most
sophisticated devices ever invented. They represent a quantum leap in
technology advancement over the engines which powered the Saturn V. Each of
the three main engines in tail of the shuttle can provide almost a
half-million pounds of thrust, a thrust equal to that produced by all eight
of the Saturn I's first stage engines. Unlike most previous rocket engines,
which were designed to be used only once -- and then for only a few minutes
-- the space shuttle's main engines are designed to be used again and
again, for up to 7.5 hours. The thrust to weight ratio for these engines is
the best in the world -- each engine weighs less than 7,000 pounds but puts
out the power equivalent of seven Hoover Dams!

Twenty-four successful flights of the space shuttle lulled America into
a sense of complacency. Shuttle launches became routine -- a ho-hum event
which had to scramble for an inch or two on page 2.

Then came the Challenger disaster....

The time since the loss of Challenger has been the busiest in the
history of Marshall Space Flight Center. Teams of experts have been
organized to find and fix the problems which led to the accident.
Investigation quickly focused on a defective joint in the space shuttle's
solid rocket motors. Rocket propulsion experts devised a number of
modifications to the solid rocket motor design to remedy the fault.

A vigorous test program is now under way to show the problems have been

The disaster-enforced hiatus in shuttle operations has given Marshall
-- and other NASA installations -- an opportunity to address other
shuttle-related concerns. Major steps have been made at enhancing the
reliability and safety of the turbine blades and turbo pumps in the
shuttle's main engines. An escape system has been examined for the shuttle
crew. Improvements have been made to the orbiter's landing gear and brakes.

When America returns to manned spaceflight, it will do so in a space
vehicle which is vastly safer and more capable.

NASA also is examining using expendable launch vehicles on missions
which do not require the shuttle's unique capabilities, and is looking into
development of a new generation of heavy lift launch vehicles.

These will become the next chapter in the story of rocketry -- a story
whose first chapters were written more than 2,400 years ago.

No one can say where our path will lead or when -- hopefully never --
the last chapter in this history will be written.

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