Air Force Bases

Early Rocketry

Although the exact origin of the rocket is unclear, the Chinese are credited with inventing rockets and were known to use them in combat, primarily as incendiary weapons, in the 13th century. The missiles were relatively crude, consisting of little more than a hollow bamboo tube stuffed with black powder and affixed to a long bamboo pole for stabilization. But these weapons had all the distinguishing characteristics of modern rockets: the black powder supplied both fuel and an oxidizer to support combustion independent of an external air supply, and they were not actively guided in flight. One simply pointed the rocket at the enemy, lit the fuse, and then watched it go.

The Mongols and Arabs soon transferred rocket technology to Europe, and by 1379 the Italians were calling them rocchetta, from which the term "rocket" is derived. Between the 15th and 18th centuries the French, Dutch, and Germans all developed rockets, and some were used in combat. The Europeans used rockets as direct-fire weapons. Rockets were an appealing alternative to artillery; they were easier to transport, required less training to use, and could deliver explosive shells, grapeshot, or fire-bombs.

The British started experimenting with rockets at the beginning of the 19th century. In 1807, Colonel William Congreve of the Royal Laboratory of Woolwich Arsenal began developing a series of barrage rockets weighing between 18 and 300 pounds. The most popular of Congreve's rockets was the 32-pounder, which had a cast-iron warhead, was affixed to a l5-foot wooden shaft, and had a range of 3,000 yards.

Rocket design remained relatively static during the remainder of the 19th century. The British used Congreve rockets with moderate success against American forces during the War of 1812. The rockets were ineffective in the famous bombardment of Baltimore's Fort McHenry, but the memory of the "rockets' red glare" is preserved in the U.S. national anthem. American forces, armed with spin-stabilized rockets, fought in the Mexican War, but the military's interest in the technology waned after midcentury. Rockets were little used during the American Civil War as the increased range and accuracy of rifled artillery reduced the rockets' utility as direct fire weapons, and parallel improvements in communications reduced their usefulness as signaling devices.

The decline of military rocketry continued in the early 20th century with the wide-spread use of radio and rifled breech-loading artillery. However, during World War I, inventors in the United States and Great Britain took the first halting steps toward the development of guided missiles when they outfitted small aircraft with automatic guidance systems to create "flying bombs" or "aerial torpedoes." Although these fragile craft proved to be of little practical value, they established the idea that the difference between a rocket and missile was a matter of guidance. Rockets are not guided in flight; missiles are.

During the early 20th century a small group of civilian scientists and inventors began exploring the feasibility of using rockets for space travel. One of the most notable was an American, Dr. Robert Goddard. In 1909 Goddard, a physicist at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, began detailed studies of the physical properties of liquid- and solid-fuel rocket motors. By 1914 his work had progressed to a point where the U.S. government awarded him patents for seminal innovations in the areas of combustion chambers, propellant feed systems, and multistage rockets.

In 1926 Goddard launched the worlds first successful liquid-fuel rocket from a farm pasture near Auburn, Massachusetts, and in 1930 he established a research facility near Roswell, New Mexico. During the following decade, Goddard and his two assistants experimented with a wide range of rockets, the largest of which was 22 feet long, 18 inches in diameter, and weighed almost 500 pounds. In the most successful test, one of his rockets soared to a record altitude of 9,000 feet.

Continue reading with Rocketry during World War II