Aerospace Engineering Issue III Space Volume I

Space Flight: The History and Future of Rocket Science

About the Author: Paul Gargantiel

Paul Gargantiel was an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California.

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.

This is Rocket Science: Mechanics of Space Flight

Before we probe into the future, we shall explore the science of rocketry and understand the mechanics behind getting spaceships airborne. As mentioned before, Newton’s laws play a fundamental role in aeronautical science. It exists as the foundation of spacecraft propulsion. Newton’s third law states, “To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Equivalently, “When two bodies exert mutual forces on one another, the two forces are always equal in magnitude and opposite in direction” [3]. In relation to rocketry, the action force is composed of the infinitesimal particles rapidly emitted from the spacecraft while the reaction force is the weight of the spacecraft. To further clarify, as the propellant of the spacecraft is burned, the rocket releases vast amounts of gas particles at extremely high velocities. As these particles leave in one direction, they exert a force on the spacecraft, pushing the spaceship into the opposite direction.
Also of great concern to rocket designers is spacecraft mass. Regardless of the velocity of the particles, if the spacecraft is too massive, the propulsion system will lose its effectiveness. Thus, scientists have to keep in mind Newton’s second law:
F = m*a(1)

where F refers to a force, m is the mass, and a is the acceleration. Rewriting the above equation as a = F / m, we can see that the acceleration is inversely proportional to the mass of the body. The above equation suggests that less mass, assuming the force is constant, results to greater acceleration. This is the primary reasoning for releasing empty fuel tanks and engines that are no longer useful. With less weight, the rocket gains greater velocity.

Though the knowledge of these laws of physics improves performance, chemical propulsion systems have a relatively low maximum velocity. For the most part, chemical propellants are adequate, safe, and relatively reliable. However, the most advanced chemical propulsion system constrains the possibilities of space exploration and is an economic burden. Currently, according to a group at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the cost of low Earth orbit spacecrafts ranges between $10,000 and $20,000 per kilogram of net payload, while more sophisticated spacecrafts costs between $60,000 and $120,000 per kilogram of net payload. Les Johnson, a scientist from NASA, estimates an extra $7,000 per pound simply to mobilize the craft once its in space. In hopes to reduce these high figures, NASA created The Highly Reusable Space Transportation and Affordable In-Space Transportation systems, ultimately decreasing these numbers by a factor of 50. High production costs coupled with the fundamental limitations of chemical propulsion systems call for more sophisticated methods of propulsion [4].

Future Prospects

Currently several alternative methods of propulsion are being explored, some of which are highly promising. Wire tethers, for instance, is one method many favor since it uses no fuel, is recyclable and environmentally safe, and best of all, reduces the cost of spacecraft mobilization to only several hundreds of dollars per pound as opposed to thousands of dollars. Spacecrafts implemented with this system essentially utilize a simple 5-kilometer-long aluminum wire tether as a basis for propulsion. Les Johnson compares the concept of wire tethers with an electric generator: “As the tether moves across the Earth’s magnetic field, a voltage is induced across its length. The upper end of the tether becomes positive, so electrons in the upper-atmosphere plasma, which carry negative charge, are attracted to the upper end. By using a device to emit the electrons back into space at the lower end of the tether, a current can be made to flow along the length of the wire.” This movement of electrons gives thrust or in others words, acceleration, which in turn allows the spacecraft to move. In testing this propulsion system, NASA experimented with the Space Shuttle but failed when the wire broke. Though this mode of propulsion is expected to bring benefits, much work lies in wait for NASA engineers.
Other promising leads include electric and ion propulsion systems. Aeronautical engineers suspect this method of propulsion will be widely utilized in this century, especially for deep space missions. An ion propulsion system consists of three things: “a xenon propellant source, an electrical power processor, and a cylindrically shaped thruster” (Ashley). Essentially, each electric motor, which appears very much like a can with a dish-shaped screen on one end, produces an ion beam with a thrust of 18 milliNewtons. Though this figure is very small, this force suffices the tasks it performs. Moreover, this type of propulsion can generate speeds of 25,000 m/s, which chemical-based propulsion cannot reach. In addition, unlike chemical propulsion systems, ion rockets operate for months and even years. Thus, this propulsion technique is one of the most promising for use in deep space exploration [5].
Additional methods include solar and laser thermal propulsion: essentially chemical propulsion systems that use solar or laser light to heat a hydrogen fluid. In order to heat up the fluid, sunlight must be directed towards these metallic, balloon-like inflatable mirrors. These mirrors, in turn, are meticulously pointed through a small window to the engine, where the propellant is located.
Further, there are theoretical propulsion systems that would be revolutionary to say the least, if ever realized. For instance, scientists are investigating nuclear fission and fusion that offer 107 to 108 times more energy compared to ordinary chemical propulsion systems. Better yet, matter-antimatter annihilation is viewed to be the “ultimate source with a theoretical energy density of 1010 times of conventional chemical propellants” [4]. Such mind-boggling possibilities exist since the exhaust velocities of these theoretical systems are extremely high. Chemical propulsion systems are limited to a velocity of approximately 10 km/s. Those that utilize plasma as a source of heat can move within 20 km/s to 50 km/s. Ion propulsion systems, however, surpass both types, having a potential velocity of 200 km/s or more.
Theoretical propulsion concepts like matter-antimatter annihilation drastically transcend all types of propulsion methods currently being studied. Matter-antimatter annihilation, for instance, can theoretically achieve an exhaust velocity comparable to the speed of light, 300,000 km/s [4].

Endless Possibilities

Reviewing the past and contemplating the current rate of technological advance, we can conjecture that the boundaries of our potential are endless. Who would have thought that one day there would be space flights that would be open to the general public? There are a few companies that have invested in this commodity, offering to the public an opportunity to take a vacation outside Earth. One ambitious travel agency, Zegrahm Space Voyages, is presently taking reservations for the first tourist trips into space. For a cost of $98,000, one can spend some time in space and view the Earth from an entirely different perspective. It is only a matter of time [6].
The future holds even greater possibilities. In a recent panel discussion on the future of astronomical developments, nine leading astronomers made interesting and profound predictions for the future [7]. One item discussed was the idea of extraterrestrial worlds, in which several of the scientists optimistically predicted finding a planet that would be habitable by humans. They suspect that within the next 25 years, we will be able to locate a planet similar to Earth with liquid water on it. In addition, responding to the question regarding galaxy formation and evolution, one of the scientists predicted that we will eventually learn of the era when galaxies were formed, as well as the process that leads to merging galaxies. Moreover, according to Robert Naeye, an astronomy writer, we will soon answer the questions about the origins of the universe within the 21st century.


    • [1] M. Wright. “A Brief History of Rocketry.” Marshall Space Flight Center History Office. NASA. Internet: http://history.msfc.​, [1 Jul 2001].
    • [2] Cliff Lethbridge. “History of Rocketry Part 1 – Ancient Times up to World War II.” Spaceline. Internet: http://www.spaceline​.org/history/1.html,​ [1 Jul 2001].
    • [3] Robert Resnick, David Halliday, and Kenneth S. Krane. Physics. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1992.
    • [4] Robert H. Frisbee. “Advanced Space Propulsion for the 21st Century.” Journal of Propulsion and Power, vol 19=(6), pp.1129-1154, 2003 [1 Jul 2001].
    • [5] Steven Ashley. “Electric Rockets Get a Boost.” Mechanical Engineering-CIME, vol 117(12), pp. 61. [1 Jul 2001].
    • [6] Patrick J. Kiger. “Space the Final Getaway.” Mercator’s World, vol. 4(3), pp. 40, 1999 [1 Jul 2001].
    • [7] Richard Talcott. “Fast Forward: A Look at the Next 25 Years”. Astronomy. Kalmbach 26(8), pp. 52, 1998 52(8). [1 Jul 2001].
    • [8] Les Johnson. “Lowering the Cost of Space Flight.” The Futurist. World Future Society, vol. 34(3), pp. 12, 2000 [1 Jul 2001].
    • [9] Robert Naeye. “Forging the future.” Astronomy. Kalmbach vol. 27(12), pp. 43, 1999 [ 1 Jul 2001].
    • [10] David P. Stern. “The Evolution of the Rocket.” From Stargazers to Starships. Internet: http://www.iki.rssi.​ru/mirrors/stern/sta​rgaze/Srockhis.htm [1 Jul 2001].

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