From Fireworks to Space Exploration
Rockets were invented by the Chinese, modified by the Europeans, and finally in this century
became our means of reaching the moon and the planets. A rocket is a device which burns
liquid or solid chemicals to create a gaseous reaction or controlled explosion for high speed
propulsion. This burning reaction causes the expansion of gases which propel the rocket
opposite to the direction of the expansion of the gas.
The most important physical principle in rocketry is Newton's Third Law of Motion--for every
action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Rockets were invented, however, several
hundred years before Newton's works were ever published. The first mention of rockets in
written material comes from the Chinese, in 1232. The earliest rockets used gunpowder as
their fuel, and were used to frighten enemy troops and to present fireworks displays.
The European nations perfected gunpowder rocketry for use in military conflicts. From the
design of the gunpowder rocket came the cannon, which uses the same principles of a
'controlled explosion' to launch projectiles. The cannon would later be used to invent the gun.
A British Army Captain in the 1770's, William Congreve, built successful solid fuel rockets
which were used for bombardment and to light up the sky during military assaults. These
same rockets were used in the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain.
The U. S. National Anthem by Francis Scott Key, describes ".
..the rockets red glare.
were Congreve rockets. Rockets were also used during the U. S. Civil War and many
European conflicts, but advancements in cannon technology made their use rare until after
World War I.
Extra-credit Activity: search on the Internet or at your local
library to find out how the large fireworks (mortar or artillery
shells) obtain their chemical propulsion. Describe which
chemicals are used to ignite the propulsive material, and how
the propulsive material is lifted into the air. Write a short
paragraph about your findings, citing the sources from which
you obtained the information, and e-mail it to the instructor.
Great scientists paved the way for modern rocketry, just as Cayley and Lilienthal paved the
way for the first airplane flights. These scientists discovered how to make rockets travel
faster, higher, and become useful for not only military but civilian uses.
The Russians produced one of the most important scientists, Konstantin Tsiolovsky.
Tsiolovsky wrote important papers and concepts about the design of liquid fueled rockets,
including the use of liquid oxygen and hydrogen to power rockets, in the early 1900's. He
also developed mathematical formulas for staged rockets which could eventually escape the
gravity of the Earth and go into space. Tsiolovsky never built a rocket, but his writing inspired
others to do so.
Perhaps as important as Tsiolvsky's writings, were the novels of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne,