Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[25] The rocket apparently made its debut on the pages of history as a fire arrow used by the Chin Tartars in 1232 for fighting off a Mongol assault on Kai-feng-fu. The lineage to the immensely larger rockets now used as space launch vehicles is unmistakable. 1 But for centuries rockets were in the main rather small, and their use was confined principally to weaponry, the projection of lifelines in sea rescue, signaling, and fireworks displays. Not until the 20th century did a clear understanding of the principles of rockets emerge, and only then did the technology of large rockets begin to evolve. Thus, as far as spaceflight and space science are concerned, the story of rockets up to the beginning of the 20th century was largely prologue.
Nevertheless, well before the 1900s numerous authors showed a keen appreciation of what satellites might mean if only a way could be found to launch them. Their fictional accounts of space travel are often cited as early harbingers of the modern space age,2 and in the light of recent achievements the long history of rockets makes exciting reading. Especially those engaged in space research and exploration find peculiar fascination in reading about Kepler's imaginary visit to the moon, described in the little book Somnium, sive Astronomia Lunaris published in 1634, several years after Kepler's death,3 or in following the flights of fantasy recounted in Jules Verne's De la Terre a la Lune (1865) and Autour de la Lune (1870). Even the artificial satellite turned up in The Brick Moon by Edward Everett Hale, serialized in the Atlantic Monthly in 1869 and 1870. Launched by huge rotating water wheels, the Brick Moon, a manned satellite, was intended to serve as a navigational aid. In the first years of the space program, John Nicolaides, one of the engineers professionally interested in geodesy and navigation, took great delight in giving his colleagues copies of Hale's little story.
These and numerous other writings of the kind legitimately belong to the lore of the space age. While they predate the emergence of the serious work on large rockets that made the space program and space science possible, they nevertheless have a special significance. Such imaginings reflect [26] the centuries-long interest of mankind in the heavens. Some men climbed mountains to set up astronomical observatories, others to measure how air pressure changes with height. No sooner had the Montgolfier brothers in 1783 demonstrated the feasibility of hot-air balloons than aeronauts began to fly in them. That same year J. A. C. Charles of France ascended in a hydrogen-filled balloon. This first grasp on the age-old dream of flight brought forth an amazing variety of ideas and experiments, and by the end of the 19th century powered balloon flight was a reality, the sausage-shaped dirigible being the most successful form. 4 In the 1920s and 1930s high-altitude ballooning was serious business, with men like Gray, Piccard, Anderson, and Stevens setting one altitude record after another. The record of 22 kilometers gained by the last two in the helium-inflated Explorer II, in 1935, persisted for two decades.
Where men could not go they sent their instruments, surrogates for the time being for those who would surely follow later. As long ago as 1749, three years before Benjamin Franklin's famous experiment with lightning, Alexander Wilson of Scotland sent thermometers aloft on kites to measure upper-air temperatures. By the late 19th century meteorologists were flying kites and balloons carrying thermometers and pressure gauges to investigate properties of the atmosphere. In 1898 the French meteorologist Leon Philippe Teisserenc de Bort started using such balloons to obtain reliable temperature measurements up to a height of 14 kilometers. By 1904 he had proved the existence of a stable, isothermal region above 11 kilometers, to which he gave the name stratosphere. 5
During the 20th century free-flying balloons became a much used means of making remote scientific observations in the high atmosphere. The airplane, of course, made flying at great heights routine. While aircraft could not beat the balloons in altitude, the ability of the airplane pilot to control accurately the time and location along the flight path added a new dimension not afforded by the free balloon.
As soon as men could get to some hitherto inaccessible spot, they went there for a variety of motivations-curiosity, perhaps to make scientific observations, simply to overcome a challenge, to lay claim to a new dominion, or in pursuit of an inherent drive that it was psychologically impossible to deny. The record indicated that when men could leave the earth they would do so. The early stories about space travel served notice that man was indeed taking aim at the stars.
But, while the writings on space up through the 19th century pointed a prophetic finger toward the future, they could contribute little more. Mostly fiction, much of the writing was remarkably foresighted, but also much was incorrect. Jules Verne's enormous cannon used to launch his mooncraft from an underground pit in Florida would have subjected the passengers to bone-crushing accelerations and the spacecraft to searing temperatures from atmospheric friction. But his use of small reaction rockets [27] to control the attitude of the spacecraft in flight was quite correct in concept. So, too, was Achille Eyraud's concept of a reaction motor to launch a spacecraft on his Voyage a Venus (published in 1875), but Eyraud was not aware that water, which he used as the propellant, was utterly inadequate for the job. Likewise, Hale's water wheels could never have imparted the necessary impulse to launch the Brick Moon into orbit.
The writers of the 19th century showed awareness of the science of their day, but not enough was known about the basic physics of rockets for them to understand clearly what was required to launch spacecraft. Not until a genuine understanding of the principles of reaction motors was attained could the large rocket needed for spaceflight be created. This understanding had to await the 20th century. Those who wrote before that time were accordingly cast in the role of prophets. After them came the pioneers.
Not that prophecy ceased. Far from it. Imaginative writing continued unabated, even accelerated, as later authors found themselves able to draw upon an expanding knowledge of rockets and principles of spaceflight to give their narratives plausibility and persuasiveness. Movies, comic strips, radio programs-and later television-picked up the theme. Perhaps the culmination of these prophetic writings was to be found in Arthur C. Clarke's delightful The Exploration of Space -honored as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection-in which the author was able, in layman's terms yet without sacrificing technical validity, to lay before the reader a veritable blueprint of the space program to Come.6
Much of what Clarke wrote in 1951 drew upon the pioneering work of the previous 50 years when the large rocket had been brought into being.7 During that period mathematicians and physicists developed a sound theory of rocket propulsion. In the United States, Germany, and Russia both amateurs and professionals experimented with the design, construction, and launching of both liquid- and solid-propellant rockets. The importance of their pioneering work went largely unrecognized; the general public was mostly unaware of what the rocketeers were up to except when spectacular tests of the new fangled devices, which often ended in mishaps, caught the attention of the newsreels and newspapers. But for the seriously interested there was a growing literature to seize upon and devour.
Three persons were particularly significant in the transition from the small rockets of the 19th century to the colossi of the space age: Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky in Russia, Robert H. Goddard in the United States, and Hermann Oberth in Germany. It is generally agreed that priority goes to Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), who apparently in his teens became interested in the possibility of spaceflight. He wrote of spaceflight in science fiction, but went further. Self-taught in mathematics, astronomy, and physics, he proceeded to develop the basic theory of rocket propulsion, and in 1898 submitted his now famous article "The Investigation of Outer Space by Means [28] of Reaction Apparatus," to the editors of Science Survey. The article, however, was not published until 1903. For the next years Tsiolkovsky continued to write both technical papers and science fiction, much of what he had to say being devoted to a favorite theme of flight into deep space about which he wrote in 1911:
To place one's feet on the soil of asteroids, to lift a stone from the moon with your hand, to construct moving stations in ether space, to organize inhabited rings around Earth, moon and sun, to observe Mars at the distance of several tens of miles, to descend to its satellites or even to its own surface-what could be more insane! However, only at such a time when reactive devices are applied, will a great new era begin in astronomy: the era of more intensive study of the of heavens.8
In 1926 Tsiolkovsky suggested the use of artificial earth satellites, including manned platforms, as way stations for interplanetary flight, and in 1929 he put forth an idea for a multistage rocket which he described as a rocket train.9
Like the appearance of his first article on rocket principles, Tsiolkovsky's influence in Russia was delayed. As G. A. Tokaty, aerodynamicist and chief rocket scientist of the Soviet Government in Germany ( 1946-1947), commented:
Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), the man of "great efforts and little rewards,"....considered to be the "father" of present Soviet achievements in rocket technology. He gave Russia a spaceship project which was, for 1903, absolutely unique. But being what he was-a mere teacher in a remote provincial school, a technologist rather than a theoretician-his project did not attract the attention in deserved.10
Apparently it took the publication in Germany, in 1923 of Die Rakete zu den Planetenrdumen 11 by the Hungarian-born Hermann Oberth to goad the Russians into action. Following the appearance of Oberth's work, in which the author elaborated in great detail the application of rocket propulsion to spaceflight, Tsiolkovsky's earlier works were sought out and avidly studied. Interest in rocket propulsion increased noticeably in the Soviet Union, which took special pains to assert Russian claims to priority by issuing in 1924 German translations of Tsiolkovsky's writings. That same year Friedrikh A. Tsander, Tsiolkovsky, and Felix E. Dzherzhinsky started the Society for Studying Interplanetary Communications, a major aspect of which concerned interplanetary travel.
After a period of grouping and regrouping, Soviet workers in the early 1930s settled down to serious experimenting with large rockets, with which the now familiar names of F. A. Tsander, Yu. V. Kondratyuk, and M. K. Tikhonravov were associated. As early as 1928 Kondratyuk had put forth the [29] idea of using aerodynamic forces to slow down a rocket returning from a trip in space. Tsander designed and built a rocket motor using kerosene and liquid oxygen as propellants, which he successfully tested in 1932. In August of the following year the first successful flight of a Soviet liquid-propellant rocket took place. It was during this period that S. P. Korolev, who was to become the giant of Soviet modern rocketry in the 1940s and 1950s, began his work on rockets. His book Rocket Flight in the Stratosphere was published in 1934 by the USSR Ministry of Defense. But not long thereafter a curtain fell over Russian rocket activities, not to rise again until the launching of Sputnik I revealed how much the Soviet Union had accomplished in the intervening 20 years.12
Of special interest to space scientists, during 1935 a Soviet liquid-propellant meteorological rocket designed by Tikhonravov was flown. Apparently, however, as in the United States, rocket research in the very high atmosphere had to await the availability of the more capable rockets that appeared in World War II. According to Tokaty, the exploration of the upper atmosphere with rockets of the V-2 class began in the autumn of 1947, and from 1949 on was continued with Pobeda rockets, described as greatly improved versions of the V-2.13
Second in priority among the rocket pioneers was the American physicist Robert H. Goddard (1882-1945), whose esteem in the United States today matches that of Tsiolkovsky in Russia. Goddard himself points to 19 October 1899 as the date when he, still in high school, determined to devote his career to the attainment of space exploration.14 Like Tsiolkovsky and Oberth, Goddard clearly perceived the importance of rockets for high-altitude flight and astronautics. Almost immediately he began writing on the subject. Many of his papers were devoted to rocket theory, which he correctly expounded. Perhaps his most famous was the paper "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes," the title reflecting his enduring interest in high-altitude and space research. The paper was originally written in the summer of 1914 and revised in late 1916 in the light of experimental results. With a few editorial changes and the addition of some notes, Goddard submitted the paper in 1919 to the Smithsonian Institution, and it was published in the Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections of December 1919.15
Robert Goddard was set off from his contemporaries, Tsiolkovsky and Oberth, in that he by no means stuck to theory and writing as did the other two. From the start Goddard was busy with his hands, conducting experiments to check theory and devising hardware to put the theory into practice. The very year, 1914, in which he composed the first draft of the Smithsonian paper, he was awarded patents for a rocket using solid and liquid propellants, and for a multistage or step rocket. Goddard built and flew the first successful liquid-propellant rocket. Of primitive design and construction, the rocket flew 56 meters in 2 1/2; seconds at Auburn, Massachusetts, [30] on 16 March 1926.16 In the course of his career he accumulated many ideas that came to be familiar features of successful large rockets such as liquid-propellant motors, self-cooled motors, the use of gyroscopes for guidance and control, reflector vanes in the rocket jet for stabilizing and steering the rocket, fuel pumps, and parachutes for recovering a spent rocket. So prolific was his output that those who followed could hardly take a step without in some way infringing on one or more of his patents a fact recognized by the United States government when in 1960 the military services and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration awarded $1,000,000 to the Goddard estate.
One might accordingly suppose that Goddard's influence on the space program and space science would be great, even to the extent of eclipsing that of other contributors. Unfortunately that does not appear to have been true. A suspicious nature-first aroused by adverse publicity connected with his Smithsonian paper and later reinforced by the conviction that his work was being plagiarized-led Goddard to work in isolation and for the most part to avoid open publication of his ideas and accomplishments. This secretiveness stood in the way of his contributing the leadership that he could so easily have given to the field and to the enthusiasts of the young American Rocket Society, which was founded in 1930 as the American Interplanetary Society. Years later G. Edward Pendray, one of the founders of the society, wrote plaintively: "When Goddard in his desert fastness in New Mexico proved uncommunicative, those of us who wanted to do our part in launching the space age turned to what appeared the next best source of light: the Verein fur Raumschiffahrt -the German Interplanetary Society-in Berlin."17
The amateurs were not alone in their failure to join hands with the great pioneer. Members of the California Institute of Technology Rocket Research Project, established in 1936 by Theodore von Karman, director o the institute's Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, tried to persuade Goddard to join forces with them. When it was stipulated that a partnership would require mutual disclosure of ideas and projects, Goddard shied away. His reluctance to work openly with others deprived Goddard not only of the opportunity to provide leadership in the field, but also cut him off from the kind of professional assistance that he might have received from experienced engineers who could have helped put his many ideas into practice. In turning away from the Rocket Research Project, Goddard was also turning down the kind of funding support from the military that could have capped his long years of work with their hoped for fruition. Working alone with extremely limited funds, Goddard could not match the progress being made in German rocketry, which was supported amply by the military during those years.
Goddard furnishes a tragic illustration of the importance of open publication and free exchange of ideas to the scientific process. Unpublished, [31] the import of Goddard's ideas went unrecognized for the most part, and by the time they were widely known much of what he had done had been redone, as with the V-2. The opportunity to be the leader of the field during the course of his development work soon passed. Still, he was a man of genius and originality and the many honors later accorded him were well deserved. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, appropriately bears his name. Medals are awarded and symposia held in his honor. In 1958 the National Rocket Club began sponsoring the Robert H. Goddard Annual Memorial Dinner in Washington, faithfully attended by engineers, scientists, administrators, legislators, military men, industrialists-the Who's Who of rocket and space research-to pay tribute to Goddard's pioneering role. Space scientists also recognize in Goddard the first to work seriously on the problem of developing an effective means of sending scientific instruments beyond balloon altitudes into the upper atmosphere and outer space.
But Goddard never did personally achieve his dream of using rockets for upper-atmosphere research. While he continued to work in obscurity, spending his final years during World War II working in secrecy for the U.S. Navy, the CalTech Rocket Research Projectre-organized in 1944 as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory-went on to become the first group in the United States to build and launch a rocket specifically designed for upper-air research. Named the WAC-Corporal, the JPL rocket on 26 September 1945 rose to a height of about 70 kilometers, a U.S. record at the time. It is the JPL research, rather than Goddard's, from which a line can be traced directly to the space program. Writers associated with CalTech and the von Kirmin group communicated the latest in rocketry to the public through scientific papers.18 Although restricted in its circulation at the time, because of its bearing on military applications, a handbook of jet propulsion put out by JPL nevertheless reached large numbers of persons in rocket research and development.19 More significantly for space science, the WAC-Corporal was the progenitor of a larger, improved sounding rocket, called Aerobee-in later versions capable of carrying a substantial instrument load above 200 kilometers-which became one of the mainstays of the American high-altitude research prograrn.20
Neither Goddard's work nor the JPL rockets provided the initial impetus to the space science program in America. Circumstances made rocket sounding in the United States the beneficiary of the two decades of vigorous rocket development work by German experimenters that ensued following the publication of Oberth's Rocket into Planetary Space. Nourished by German military support, the German experimenters rediscovered and reinvented for themselves much of what Goddard was learning in the United States. Going well beyond what Goddard could accomplish in his self-imposed isolation, Walter Dornberger, Wernher von Braun, and their colleagues produced the V-2 Vergeltungswaffe-Zwei or "Vengeance Weapon [32] Two"- the first large rocket to see substantial service.21 At the close of World War II, U.S. Army forces captured large numbers of these monsters at underground factories in the Harz Mountains in central Germany. Along with von Braun and key members of his team-who took the initiative to ensure that they became prisoners of American, not Russian, forces 22 - the Army took the captured V-2s to the United States. There the missiles were assembled, tested, and launched at the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico to provide experience in the handling and operation of large rockets.
Rather than fire the missiles empty, the Army offered to allow interested groups to instrument them for high-altitude scientific research. A number of military and university groups accepted, forming the V-2 Upper Atmosphere Research Panel, which became the aegis for the country's first sounding rocket program.23