About this Article
Written by: Paul Gargantiel
Written on: July 1st, 2001
Tags: aerospace engineering, space
Thumbnail by: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center
About the Author
Paul Gargantiel was an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California.
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Volume I Issue III > Space Flight: The History and Future of Rocket Science
Space exploration is a hot topic that has fans in aerospace engineering and the general population alike. This article provides a brief account of the evolution of space flight, from the early days of rocketry until the mid 20th century. In addition, it offers an explanation of the mechanics of space flight and explores different methods of propulsion systems that have been implemented and those that have only been conceptualized. Lastly, we will peek into the future and explore the seemingly infinite possibilities in relation to space flight and space exploration.

From Humble Beginnings

Our expanding universe is filled with as many mysteries as we humans can imagine. These unexplored frontiers have beckoned the curious scientist for centuries, and mankind's library of knowledge has increased because of it. But our knowledge is far from complete. Advances in space flight have spurred numerous discoveries; it can be expected that greatest ones will hinge on man's ability to master rocketry's techniques.
Before we take a peek into what the future holds, we must first look into the history of rocketry. According to Marshall Space Flight Center Historian Mike Wright, the idea is credited to the Chinese, who first utilized rockets for military purposes. In their Mongolian Wars, the Chinese used "arrows of fire:" rocket-like objects powered by a solid fuel called "black powder." Others argue that rocket science dates further back to the fourth century with Aulus Gellius. According to historians, he envisioned a robotic pigeon capable of flight through the use of rapid expulsion of steam. Such primitive ideas of rockets later developed into more complex concepts when Sir Isaac Newton published his "Principia Mathematica" in 1687. Newton's studies revolutionized and furthered not only the art of rocketry, but in a global sense, the world of science. Newton's laws of classical mechanics provided the firm foundation that was essential to the realization of highly sophisticated rockets [1].
At that time, solid fuels were the chief propellant of all rockets. In the mid 17th century, a Polish General named Kazimierz Siemienowicz propelled the field of military rocketry with various intellectual and conceptual contributions [2]. France and Britain applied this research from the 1700s and 1900s in manufacturing massive numbers of rockets, primarily for military use. But many rocket scientists, though proud of their achievements, yearned for better rockets. Prior to the 20th century, maximum range was limited; their widespread use demanded advancements in technology.
A Russian schoolteacher, Konstantin Tsiolkovskii, offered great contributions with his publication of "Exploration of Cosmic Space by Rocket Devices" in the early 1900s, spurring an increased popularity in the field of space exploration. In it, he suggested alternative methods for rocket propulsion that rely on liquid based fuels, as opposed to their forerunners [1]. Germany soon led the world in this field of research. Hermann Oberth thoroughly experimented with an alcohol-hydrogen mixture propellant [2] and, with others, was able to engineer a liquid-fuel based rocket with a 600-Newton motor [1]. Another scientist, Wernher Von Braun, contributed in the production of the V-2 rocket, a destructive weapon used by Germans against the English (Stern). Between the 1920s and 1930s, a considerable number of scientists delved into space exploration.
In the following two decades, the Russian government released the world's first satellite, Sputnik, followed by the United States' Jupiter-C in 1957 [1]. After this, space missions were carried out at an increasing rate. Such missions reached a climax with the first manned space flight occurring in 1961. This advancement was then transcended with the Apollo program, which in 1969 culminated with the lunar landing [1]. We can expect similar far-reaching advancements as time passes, which can be even more impressive and exciting than NASA shuttle missions (Figure 1).
NASA Marshall Space Flight Center
Figure 1: STS-26, NASA's 26th shuttle mission, launches from Kennedy Space Center, September 29, 1988.