Skip to main content

The History of Rocketry - Sutton Program Article 1


This article accompanies the first video in the Sutton Program- our educational series made possible by RS Components Grass Roots- aiming to explore key rocketry concepts and principles. Written by Sean Clark & Kieran Webb

What is a Rocket?

A rocket can be described as an object that produces a propulsive force by exhausting a combusted fuel. The most basic example of this would be a firework, combining a cardboard tube with gunpowder.

The fundamental components of a rocket are as follows. For the exterior of the rocket, from top to bottom: the nose cone on top of the outer rocket body (or rocket shell), which affect the rocket’s aerodynamics. At the bottom are the fins; these are responsible for maintaining stability in a high-velocity flight.

The rocket interior houses the rocket’s guidance, recovery, and propulsion systems, such as the avionics bay, recovery wadding and motor. The final part of the rocket at the bottom is the nozzle- this is where the combusted fuel is exhausted to direct the produced thrust. Thrust is produced within the rocket by mixing the rocket’s fuel with an oxidiser and igniting it. Check out our future article for more information on rocket propulsion.

Early Rockets

The first recorded examples of fireworks existed as long ago as the 13th century in China where they were attached to arrows and used as weapons. But after the world’s initial introduction to rockets, they saw limited use in warfare during the following centuries, with projectile weapons such as cannons, mortars and firearms dominating the battlefield.

In the 16th century, a firework maker named Johann Schmidlap combined a series of smaller rockets fitted into one larger rocket shell. Despite space travel not being possible for centuries to come, this was the first example of a multi-stage rocket.

Multi-stage rockets can reach much greater heights than a single-stage rocket as each section of the rocket is ejected from the main body once that section has exhausted its fuel quantity- this reduces the mass of the rocket as its altitude increases. Multi-stage rockets have become key components of all space missions since, propelling humanity further and further from Earth.

The Second World War

During the second world war, rocket technology advanced significantly, leading to the birth of the V2 Rocket from Verner Von Braun and his team of German engineers. This was possibly the first iteration of a conventional rocket that we are used to seeing today.

The V2 was designed as a weapon to use against the Allied forces where the rockets would contain an explosive payload. With this payload, the V2 could be fired from a great distance to bombard the Allies, mainly Britain and Belgium. The V2 did not have a significant impact on the outcome of the war, but it did spark interest around the world in adapting rockets to be used as weapons, due to their relative accuracy and long-range capabilities. This, in addition to the lack of a necessity for a human pilot, meant that rockets appeared to be a big part of the future of warfare.

Post WW2

After World War 2, the Cold War broke out between the United States and the Soviet Union, with both nations sharing the desire to establish themselves to the world as the technological superpower. Following the encouraging possibilities showcased by the V2 Rocket, the Soviet Union developed the ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) displaying their ability to launch rockets across continents. Both nations also saw the huge potential that rockets held with regards to scientific advancement across many fields.

Both the Soviets and Americans’ goal was to show which nation was superior. The technological advantage gained by spaceflight capability was seen as a necessity for national security; a necessity which neither nation could afford to give up.

The Soviets then developed a rocket to launch a small satellite into a low Earth orbit. This rocket was named ‘Sputnik’ and was designed directly from one of the first ICBMs, the R7 Semyorka. On 4th October 1957, the satellite ‘Sputnik-1’ successfully achieved orbit, launched on the Sputnik vehicle. This marked the first ever man-made satellite in orbit and thus, the beginning of the Space Race. Below is a timeline of some of the ‘firsts’ in the space race.

space travel timeline

The Space Race

The success of the Soviet Union’s satellite launch forced America to re-establish its dominance as the superior in rocket technology. Under pressure from the American people, the United States successfully launched their first orbit-reaching rocket Juno-1 into orbit only months later. Juno was derived from another missile, the United States’ medium-range ballistic missile, the PGM-19 Jupiter.

With both countries working tirelessly to develop more sophisticated rockets, the next challenge was to launch something with the capability to keep a human alive in space, a totally different challenge to launching an orbit-reaching missile. The American Mercury program and the Soviet Vostok program were in direct competition with each other to send a human into a low earth orbit.

The U.S had been taking steps in developing such a vehicle, successfully launching ‘Ham’ the chimpanzee into orbit. This marked a huge achievement but was soon overshadowed when the Soviets managed the safe launch of Yuri Gagarin into orbit with the Vostok 1 rocket, making him the first human to reach space. The Vostok-1 was again developed from the R7 Semyorka, with the capsule which housed Gagarin being derived from a Russian spy satellite.

So as not to lose the support of the American public, the U.S had to do the same and 10 months later, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in the Mercury-Atlas Rocket. In the period following, both nations saw continued success in achieving orbit. But even putting humans into space would not see the end of the space race. It was on 12th September 1962 that President John F. Kennedy delivered a speech wherein he announced that before the decade was done, America would see a human reach the moon.

The Moon Landings

To achieve a lunar landing required an entirely new class of rocket, far beyond what had been created thus far. This saw the birth of the Apollo programme with the eventual creation of the Saturn V rocket. The Saturn series of launchers were developed mainly by German scientists, led once again by Wernher von Braun, also heavily relying on technology taken from the V2. On the other side, the Soviet Union had a similar programme with the Soyuz-7 capsule launched on the N1 rocket. The N1 rocket was the Soviet counterpart to the Saturn V, designed in secret specifically to reach the moon before the Americans could.</spanMoon landing commemorative stamp

America provided the successful launch of Apollo 11. The Saturn V sent the Lunar Module ‘Eagle’ to the moon’s surface, making Neil Armstrong the first human to set foot on the moon on the 20th of July 1969, before the end of the decade as promised by JFK. The Soviet’s N1 rocket attempted to replicate America’s achievements but suffered catastrophic failures after four failed launches and the Soviets were never able to achieve their goal.</span

Following the moon landings and with tensions easing between the two nations, an era of fragile collaboration began, with both placing less priority on proving they were superior.</span

The Space Shuttles and Global Cooperation

The next major technological shift in rocketry was the development of the Space Shuttle, seeing a much greater shift towards reusability. This meant launching with a booster and then landing on a runway following safe re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere to be used again in future launches. This was the first attempt any nation had made to reuse part of a rocket, and it came with new challenges and setbacks. </spanspace shuttle take off

The shuttle allowed for the creation of the International Space Station, arguably one of the greatest engineering achievements of the 21st century. The shuttles were critical in construction by assisting in transport and assembly of the I.S.S in space, using the shuttle’s telescopic arm to move the modules into position. </span

Despite all the success seen by the space programme throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, the U.S found that their shuttle programme was proving more expensive than originally planned, leading to its reassessment and eventual termination in 2011.</span

This was in no small part also due to the disasters of the Challenger and Columbia disasters in 1986 and 2003, resulting in the deaths of 14 astronauts. With the interest and need for manned space exploration declining towards the end of the U.S Shuttle program, rocketry technology entered a period of somewhat stagnant development.

Privatisation and the Modern Age of Launchers

SpaceX was the first private company in the world to successfully launch rockets with the aim to decrease launch cost, leading to Falcon 9, the world's first reusable rocket. Falcon 9 holds rocket boosters that detach from the rocket body and return to Earth using controlled fuel burns, landing vertically on a pad. This was a massive step forward in reducing the cost of launching materials into space. SpaceX is arguably the global leader in rocket advancement, with Falcon Heavy currently holding the highest thrust capability among modern launchers.</span

SpaceX indicated the beginning of private businesses involvement in space, with more companies such as Blue Origin, RocketLab and Skyrora aiming to promote rocketry development across the globe. Recently, we have seen an increase in civilian spaceflight, with programs such as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin making successful space tourist flights in July of 2021. Along with this, launch companies across the globe have turned their sights to Mars, hoping to reach the red planet by the end of the decade.

We are privileged to live in a time of such progression in the field of rocketry, with more exciting developments to come in the very near future.</span

Parts in this series:


GU Rocketry design, build and fly high-powered rockets at the University of Glasgow with the aim of equipping our members with the skills needed to succeed in a career in the space industry.