Chariots of Fire


The national anthem of the United States includes the line "and the rockets´ red glare, the bombs bursting in air". The words were initially a poem inspired by the bombardment of Fort McHenry by British ships during the 1812 War of Independence. The missiles were Congreve rockets, named after the British inventor William Congreve and were fired from special rocket vessels such as the HMS Erebus.

The use of rockets, as peaceful firework celebrations or as a weapon delivery system, is thought to have begun in China over 2,000 years ago and Andrew Lound from The Planetary Society took us through their early development with his talk entitled "Chariots of Fire".

It was the development of gunpowder by Taoist alchemists which allowed for the development of the early rockets. They were used both for religious ceremonies as well as in warfare. The technology was brought to Europe with the Mongols who had `borrowed´ the science from the Chinese and from then on they were eagerly seized upon as artillery weapons.

By the end of the 18th century the British were using iron-cased rockets in India but, like the early rockets, they were very inaccurate. This problem was eventually solved by another British inventor, William Hale, who diverted some of the rocket´s thrust so that it span on its axis along the direction of travel keeping it on course.

Then, in 1903, a Russian maths teacher, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, published "The Exploration of Cosmic Space by means of Reaction Devices". He proposed the controlled combination of liquid oxygen and hydrogen to power a rocket as well as the idea of rocket stages and using a cluster of rocket engines.

However, although his work inspired the formation of the Cosmonautics Society in Russia his work did not reach the rest of the world until 1920. It was an American, Robert Goddard, who launched the world´s first liquid-fuelled rocket named "Nell" from his Aunt Effie´s farm in 1926.

Surprisingly, the US Army showed little interest in his work and he eventually ended up in Roswell, New Mexico, with his research financed by the wealthy Guggenheim family. In contrast the Nazi Party in Germany understood the significance of his research and the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun used Goddard´s plans extensively when building V2 rockets during World War II.

These V2 rockets would soon evolve into intercontinental ballistic missiles, reflecting the rocket´s early military history. Another developmental path would see them used to send equipment and eventually humans into space. In fact the latest rocket technology, a hybrid rocket motor aboard SpaceShipOne, allowed the first privately- funded sub-orbital spaceflight in 2004 to win the 10 million-dollar Ansari X-Prize. By the end of the decade Virgin Galactic hope to have taken many space tourists on a rocket trip of a lifetime in SpaceShipTwo.