Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Brief History of Rocketry and Spaceflight

Robert Goddard and his rocket

My 26th book will be Project: Impossible, an exploration of how people achieved goals any reasonable person would have thought impossible. This week, a brief history of rocketry and spaceflight.

Mercury astronaut John Glenn, asked how he felt during his three-orbit flight, is reputed to have replied, “As I hurtled through space, one thought kept crossing my mind: Every part of this capsule was supplied by the lowest bidder.”

The history of rocketry and spaceflight is also a history of risk-taking and risk management. New technology is inherently unstable, a product of its newness, and when you are using that technology to propel people into previously unexplored conditions, disaster is never more than a small step away.

To China…and Beyond!

The history of rocketry traces back to ancient China. Gunpowder, a Chinese invention of the 9th century CE, was a byproduct of the alchemical search for the elixir of life, and as is the case with so many discoveries, its accidental secondary uses turned out to be far more important than the original inventor’s intent.

Rockets were first used in fireworks displays, and only entered the battlefield in 1232 CE against the Mongol invasion. The Chinese even invented multi-stage rocketry by the mid 14th century, by which time the technology had spread to India, the Middle East and eventually to Europe. The "rockets’ red glare" appear in American history during the War of 1812 and in the US national anthem "The Star-Spangled Banner."

According to legend, during the Ming Dynasty, a minor court official named 萬虎 (Wan Hu) attempted to become an astronaut by flying a chair with 47 rockets attached. He was never seen again.

In 1633, again according to legend, Lagâri Hasan Çelebi of the Ottoman Empire made a successful rocket flight to a height of 300 meters. His words before takeoff were, “O my sultan! Be blessed, I am going to talk to Jesus!” Upon landing, he told the sultan, “Jesus sends his regards to you.”

Somewhat better sourced are the achievements of car designer Fritz von Opel, who in the 1920s built a series of rocket-powered cars and a rocket-powered glider. One of his cars reached a speed of 254 km/h (157 mph). The rocket-powered glider was less successful: it exploded on its second test flight.

Modern rocketry owes its start to high school mathematics teacher Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky, who worked in the final years of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th. Inspired by Jules Verne, Tsiolkovsky developed a philosophy of space travel as a means for perfecting the human race, and in the process worked out most of the formulas at the heart of modern rocketry, including the famous Tsiolkovsky rocket equation.

Beginning in 1912, the American Robert Goddard established that a rocket would work in a vacuum and proposed sending a solid-fuel rocket to the moon, an idea ridiculed by the New York Times in an editorial. Goddard launched the first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926.

A young member of the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (German Rocket Society) named Werner von Braun developed long-range military rockets for the Wehrmacht, including the V-1 and the V-2. The Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet, was the war’s only operational rocket-powered fighter plane, though it was of little practical significance.

Following World War II, von Braun, along with 500 of his top scientists, surrendered to the Americans and established a new facility in Huntsville, Alabama, to build even more advanced rockets. Other German rocket scientists went to the Soviet Union — not all by choice.

Both in the United States and in the Soviet Union, the primary focus of rocketry continued to be military applications, particularly missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

But the rocket designers themselves had other ambitions.

“Before This Decade Is Out”

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Cпутник-1 (Sputnik 1), the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, and in the process initiated the Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States. In the US, Sputnik was seen as a national humiliation. President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered an acceleration of Project Vanguard, the US satellite launch program, but the first attempt ended in disaster when the rocket exploded on the launchpad on national television.

By the time the US managed to get a satellite in orbit, the Soviets already had two.

In 1961, the Soviets won another distinction when cosmonaut Ю́рий Гага́рин (Yuri Gagarin) became the first human in space. Three weeks later, American astronaut Alan Shepard completed a suborbital flight in the first Mercury mission.

In between Gagarin and Shepard, President John F. Kennedy asked his vice-president, Lyndon Johnson, to explore opportunities for the US to catch up in space, and Johnson recommended a piloted moon landing. Kennedy concurred, giving his blessing to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Apollo program and establishing its goal in a speech before a joint session of Congress: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union continued to set records, including the first dual-piloted flight and the first woman (and first civilian) in space. At the time, the Soviet program was shrouded in secrecy, so much so that the name of the head of their space program was classified — a mysterious figure known only as the “Chief Designer.” His real name, Серге́й Королёв (Sergei Korolev), would only be revealed publicly well after his death. Photographs of the Soviet launch complex, Байқоңыр ғарыш айлағы (Baikonur Cosmodrome), now located in Kazakhstan, were highly classified, but no more. (Here's a picture.)

Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan

The US Mercury program gave way to Gemini, a series of two-person missions. It was during Gemini that the US first crept ahead of the Soviet Union, setting records for length of flight, docking of spacecraft in orbit, and human extra-vehicular activity — better known as spacewalks.

Danger in Space!

By the middle of the 1960s, both nations were in a neck-and-neck race. The Soviet Union, under the leadership of the Chief Designer, planned a series of manned lunar flyby missions followed by a manned lunar landing planned for September 1968. In the United States, Gemini gave way to Apollo.

Both the Soviet and American programs experienced their share of disasters. In the Soviet Nedelin catastrophe, an exploding rocket at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan killed between 78 and 150 top Soviet personnel. Cosmonaut Валентин Бондаренко (Valentin Bondarenko) died in a training accident; the government erased his existence from their records to avoid embarrassment.

On the US side, almost everyone thinks that only three astronauts died in racing to the moon: Mercury and Gemini astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Gemini astronaut Edward White, and Roger Chaffee, who died in a cabin fire during a rehearsal of the launch sequence of Apollo 1. There were more: Theodore Freemann, Elliot See, Charles Bassett, and Clifton “C.C.” Williams all died in training accidents involving T-38 jet fighter trainers. Robert Lawrence, who would have been the first African-American astronaut, died in an F-104 Starfighter crash. Although their names were not erased from the history books, they have sadly been almost completely forgotten.

There were numerous near disasters. The Vostok 1 service module didn’t detach from the reentry module in time, sending the spacecraft into a spin. Grissom’s Mercury capsule hatch malfunctioned at splashdown, nearly drowning him. Voshkod 2, Gemini 8, Soyuz 5, and Apollo 12 all had failures or near disasters during their mission.

Even Apollo 11, in which US astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, had a failure of the navigation and guidance computer during the lunar descent. Armstrong landed the lunar module (LM) manually. Aldrin accidently broke the circuit breaker for the main liftoff engine, which might have stranded the astronauts on the lunar surface, but the astronauts were able to flip the switch using a felt-tip pen. On the return flight, the Guam tracking station failed, jeopardizing communication during the final stages of the return flight.


Although the United States officially “won” the space race with Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969, there would be five more missions to the Moon, during four of which astronauts walked on the lunar surface. The exception was Apollo 13, the seventh manned mission in the program.

About Apollo 13, more next week…

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