How missiles launch into space

Probes and missiles

The pioneers

This is how a rocket works: fuel burns, the hot combustion gases flow through a nozzle at high speed and propel the rocket forward according to the recoil principle. What sounds simple, posed major technical challenges for the early rocket pioneers.

In 1903 the Russian Konstantin Ziolkowski (1857–1935) was the first to publish an essay on the subject of "Exploring space with recoil devices". He already recognized that the use of multi-stage rockets and liquid propellants would be necessary for space flights.

Robert Goddard (1882–1945) lived near Boston in the USA. After many unsuccessful attempts, in 1929 he succeeded in launching a liquid rocket that rose more than two kilometers and almost reached the speed of sound. But he was only honored for it after his death. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington was named after him in 1959.

In Germany, Hermann Julius Oberth (1894–1989) was one of the pioneers of rocket technology. In 1941 Oberth came to Peenemünde on the Baltic Sea, where the Wehrmacht had the V2 developed for use in World War II. Oberth became an employee of Wernher von Braun and went to the USA with him after the war.

Wernher von Braun: From the V2 to the American nuclear missile

The first large rocket that went into series production was the "Aggregat 4" of the German Wehrmacht, later also called "V2". On October 3, 1942, a "V2" took off from Peenemünde for its first test flight. The 14-meter-long and 13-tonne apparatus reached a height of 90 kilometers and flew over 300 kilometers.

After the war, von Braun and most of the other engineers were brought to the USA to work first on improvements to the "V2" missiles for the US military and later on completely new missile concepts.

As early as 1948, Wernher von Braun put ideas of a Mars spaceship and a near-Earth space station on paper. First, however, he worked on military applications of the technology. The American military used it to plan ICBMs that were equipped with atomic bombs to hit targets in major Soviet cities.

In the 1960s, von Braun led the development work on the "Saturn V" rocket, at the tip of which the Apollo spaceships were shot to the moon.

The moon rocket - Saturn V

It is the most powerful rocket ever built. After all, it should bring people to the moon in a space capsule and a lander. That required enormous thrust. The Saturn V was 111 meters tall and weighed a good 3,000 tons.

A giant whose shock wave shattered heaps of window panes every time it took off in Titusville, 18 kilometers away. After only two test flights, it was classified as safe and then took people to the moon and the American space station Skylab into space. All 26 starts were successful.

Soyuz - a successful model in space travel

But at the end of the war, the Soviet Union also had plans for the "V2". The "R-7" nuclear missile, which was first tested in 1956, was created on this basis. This started the race of superpowers, which devoured billions of dollars and rubles, but also produced top-class missiles without which manned space travel would not have been possible.

The best-known example are the rockets of the "Soyuz" rocket family. Both the launch vehicle of the first "Sputnik" and the legendary "Vostok" rockets of the first Soviet cosmonauts belong to the "Soyuz" family. These missiles are considered technically sophisticated and very reliable.

Today astronauts and cosmonauts from different countries take off for the International Space Station with "Soyuz" rockets. The European Mars probe "Mars Express" was also brought from the Russian spaceport Baikonur in the summer of 2003 with a "Soyuz Fregat" rocket.

Europe's "Ariane" missiles

The concept for the European rocket model "Ariane" comes from France. The "Ariane" is the first rocket that was developed and built for civil, commercial launches. The heart of the "Ariane 5", which has been in use since 1996, is the "Vulkan" engine, a computer-controlled rocket motor powered by liquid hydrogen and oxygen.

The "Ariane 5" receives additional thrust from two laterally mounted reusable solid fuel rockets. "Ariane 5" took off on its maiden flight in 1996. But after only 39 seconds of flight time, a software error caused the missile to deviate from course.

It had to be blown up together with its payload by four research satellites. The first successful start came in 1997.

"Ariane 5" then demonstrated its efficiency in 2002 when the 20-tonne European environmental satellite "Envisat" was launched. It was dropped into an orbit exactly 715 kilometers high.

2003 - The first Chinese in space

So far, only three countries have carried out manned space flights with missiles developed in-house: The Soviet Union started this era in 1961 with Yuri Gagarin, the USA in 1962 with John Glenn. On October 15, 2003, shortly before midnight European time, a Chinese "Taikonaut" returned from orbit for the first time.

Yang Liwei landed successfully on Chinese soil with his spaceship "Shenzhou 5" after 14 orbits around the earth and 21 hours of flight. He was the 431st person to fly through the gateway to space with a rocket. China is pursuing an ambitious program in manned spaceflight that will one day bring taikonauts to the surface of the moon.