Rockets are something every child enjoys learning about and knows what it is. Rockets are also made as toys for kids to learn and play with, while they are also used to send spacecraft beyond the Solar System. But it was not always so well understood, and the journey of rocket science development has been one interesting tale
We all hate accidents, and plans that go downstream. But once in a while, accidents lead to deeper insights. Accidents have given rise to many inventions like superglue, ice-cream, infrared and rockets!
Rockets use a law called action-reaction principle to fly. This principle states that an action has an equal and opposite reaction. Gases coming out of the nozzle with pressure, in turn, push the rocket in the opposite direction. The first known object to use this principle was a wooden bird toy made by Archytas, a citizen of Tarentum. The bird had steam coming out of an end that made it circle through the suspended string. Later Hero of Alexandria also designed a sphere which rotated because of steam coming out of two vents located at opposite sides. But the first object to actually represent a rocket was made by the Chinese in 1232. As per records, the Chinese used bamboo capsules filled with gunpowder (a mixture of Sulphur, saltpeter and charcoal ash) as firecrackers. They tossed them into the fire and the bamboo bursts, but once in a while, the firecracker would be defective and instead of bursting the bamboo would open from just one end and the gunpowder’s explosion caused it to move in the opposite direction. This gave the Chinese the idea to make rockets. This they did by filing bamboo sticks with gunpowder, keeping one end sealed and the other opened. This cylinder was supported by a wooden stick and had an arrowhead at the top of the cylinder. On lighting the gunpowder, the ‘rocket’ used to fly and burst on the target. These kinds of rockets were used by them against the Mongols, who adopted the idea and spread the knowledge of rockets in Europe.
During India’s struggle for independence in the 1880s, metallic rockets were successfully used by the Indian princes against the British army. The outstanding performance of these inspired the weapon experts in the British army to improve on the design and make rockets a part of British artillery. Slowly, due to better weapons, rockets became obsolete and again went to the background of development.
The return of interest in rocketry came with the idea of liquid-fueled rockets, and the race to design and launch them
The revival of Rockets: A New Age
A Russian school teacher named Konstantin Tsiolkovsky wrote a publication urging humans to use rockets for space exploration. He also suggested using liquid fuels instead of solid fuels for better performance.
Then came into the scenario a budding engineer by the name of Robert H. Gerrard who began experimenting with rockets. Initially, he used different solid fuels in his rockets and measured the thrust and efficiency of the different fuels. He eventually understood that liquid fuels were a better choice compared to solid fuels and started working on his own liquid fuel rocket. He knew that no one was able to design a liquid-fueled rocket before as it required a lot of complex engineering and technical knowledge like storage for fuel and oxidizer, motors, and transmission system.
Despite the odds, he was able to successfully launch his first liquid-fueled rocket, also the world’s first, on 16th March 1926 from his Aunt Essie’s farm. The 10-meter tall rocket achieved a speed of 60 miles per hour and cruised for 2.6 seconds. In this time it covered a distance of 56 meters and a height of 12 meters. Dwarfed by our current achievements in rocketry, this seemingly small height covered should not be underrated. This ‘small’ leap paved the path for the manned missions to the Moon.
According to NASA, Goddard wrote the following in his journal the next day,” “It looked almost magical as it rose, without any appreciably greater noise or flame, as if it said, ‘I’ve been here long enough; I think I’ll be going somewhere else, if you don’t mind,’
This proved the concept of using liquid fuels instead of solid fuels for better results in the rocket science community. More and more organizations and individuals began investing time and money into the development of improved liquid-fueled rockets.
The first high range rocket was designed by Russia, the V-2 missile which was used against London during World War 2. It used liquid fuel. On 4th October 1957 first artificial satellite, Sputnik-1, was launched on a liquid-fueled rocket. Saturn 5, the 112 meters tall rocket, used liquid fuel in one of its three stages and lifted off humans to the Moon during the Apollo missions in 1960s-70s. Even today ESA’s Ariane 5 and Space X’s Falcon 9 rockets use liquid fuel.
For his contributions and many patents, one of which is the design of 2- and 3-staged solid rockets, NASA named one of its Space Flight Centers after Goddard. Also, for his own individual contributions, Konstantin Tsialkovsky is also called the ‘Father of modern astronautics.”
Why Liquid Trumps Solid Fuel?
Liquid fuel has many advantages over solid fuel. Solid fuel, once ignited, cannot be controlled, and offers sudden thrust. Liquid fuel can be controlled and hence the thrust produced by it can be controlled by controlling the flow of the fuel into the ignition chamber. Liquid fuel also offers more thrust than a solid rocket of the same mass. Liquid fuel engines have more safety precautions and override compared to solid counterparts. The dangers of solid rocket boosters were exposed when the O-rings of the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) caused the Columbia space shuttle disaster.
Liquid fuels do have certain difficulties in terms of handling, storage, environmental conditions required, and the toxicity of the fuel. But these are clouded by its efficiency compared with solid rocket fuels.
16th March 1926 marked an important benchmark in the understanding of rocketry, and the events of that day are the reason why our generation can dream of touring in space.
-Shantanu Ashima Gaur