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Space exploration
The dawn of the space age


The first space rockets

As people began to dream of flying above Earth's surface, they realized that objects in the sky could become destinations for human travelers. In the early 1600's, the German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler became the first scientist to describe travel to other worlds. He also developed the laws of planetary motion that explain the orbits of bodies in space.

The English scientist Sir Isaac Newton first described the laws of motion in a work published in 1687. These laws enabled scientists to predict the kinds of flight paths needed to orbit Earth and to reach other worlds. Newton also described how an artificial satellite could remain in orbit. His third law, which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, explains why a rocket works.

Early dreams of space flight. During the 1700's, scientists realized that air got thinner at higher altitudes. This meant that air probably was entirely absent between Earth and other worlds, so wings would be useless. Many imaginative writers proposed fanciful techniques for travel to these worlds.

In 1903, Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky, a Russian high-school teacher, completed the first scientific paper on the use of rockets for space travel. Several years later, Robert H. Goddard of the United States and Hermann Oberth of Germany awakened wider scientific interest in space travel. Working independently, these three men addressed many of the technical problems of rocketry and space travel. Together, they are known as the fathers of space flight.

In 1919, Goddard explained how rockets could be used to explore the upper atmosphere in his paper "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes." The paper also described a way of firing a rocket to the moon. In a book called The Rocket into Interplanetary Space (1923), Oberth discussed many technical problems of space flight. He even described what a spaceship would be like. Tsiolkovsky wrote a series of new studies in the 1920's. These works included detailed descriptions of multistage rockets.

The first space rockets. During the 1930's, rocket research went forward in the United States, Germany, and the Soviet Union. Goddard's team had built the world's first liquid-propellant rocket in 1926, despite a lack of support from the U.S. government. German and Soviet rocket scientists received funding from their governments to develop military missiles.

In 1942, during World War II, German rocket experts under the direction of Wernher von Braun developed the V-2 guided missile. Thousands of V-2's were fired against European cities, especially London, causing widespread destruction and loss of life.

After World War II ended in 1945, many German rocket engineers went to work for the U.S. government to help develop military missiles. The U.S. Navy worked on larger rockets, such as the Aerobee and the Viking. In 1949, the rocket team built and tested the world's first two-stage rocket, with a V-2 missile as a first stage and a small WAC Corporal rocket as a second stage. This rocket reached an altitude of 250 miles (400 kilometers).

By 1947, the Soviet Union had secretly begun a massive program to develop long-range military missiles. In the 1940's, the small but influential British Interplanetary Society published accurate plans for piloted lunar landing vehicles, space suits, and orbital rendezvous. A U.S. group, the American Rocket Society, concentrated on missile engineering. In 1950, a new International Astronautical Federation began to hold annual conferences.

The first artificial satellites. In 1955, both the United States and the Soviet Union announced plans to launch artificial satellites with scientific instruments on board. The satellites were to be sent into orbit as part of the International Geophysical Year, a period of international cooperation in scientific research beginning in July 1957. The Soviets provided detailed descriptions of the radio equipment to be included on their satellite. But the Soviet rocket program had been kept secret until that time. As a result, many people in other countries did not believe that the Soviets had the advanced technology required for space exploration.

Then, on Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviets stunned the world by succeeding in their promise-and by doing so ahead of the United States. Only six weeks earlier, the Soviet two-stage R-7 missile had made its first 5,000-mile (8,000-kilometer) flight. This time, it carried Sputnik (later referred to as Sputnik 1), the first artificial satellite. Sputnik means traveling companion in Russian. The R-7 booster hurled the 184-pound (83-kilogram) satellite and its main rocket stage into orbit around Earth. Radio listeners worldwide picked up Sputnik's characteristic "beep-beep" signal.

The space race begins. The Western world reacted to the launch of Sputnik with surprise, fear, and respect. Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev ordered massive funding of follow-up projects that would continue to amaze and dazzle the world. In the United States, leaders vowed to do whatever was needed to catch up. Thus the "space race" began.

More Soviet successes followed. A month after Sputnik, another satellite, Sputnik 2, carried a dog named Laika into space. The flight proved that animals could survive the unknown effects of microgravity. In 1959, Luna 2 became the first probe to hit the moon. Later that year, Luna 3 photographed the far side of the moon, which cannot be seen from Earth.

The first United States satellite was Explorer 1, launched on Jan. 31, 1958. This satellite was followed by Vanguard 1, which was launched on March 17, 1958. These and later U.S. satellites were much smaller than their Soviet counterparts because the rockets the United States used to carry satellites were smaller and less powerful than those used by the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union's rockets gave it an early lead in the space race. Because bigger rockets would be needed for piloted lunar flight, both the United States and the Soviet Union began major programs of rocket design, construction, and testing.

Organizing and managing space activities. A key to the ultimate success of U.S. space programs was centralized planning. In 1958, a civilian space agency called the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established. NASA absorbed various aviation researchers and military space laboratories. The formation of NASA helped forge agreement among competing interests, including military branches, universities, the aerospace industry, and politicians.

Soviet space activities, on the other hand, were coordinated by special executive commissions. These commissions tried to tie together various space units from military and industrial groups, as well as competing experts and scientists. But the commissions did not coordinate Soviet activities effectively enough to meet the complex challenges of the space race.

Contributor: James Oberg, M.S., Spaceflight Engineer; author, UFOs and Outer Space Mysteries.
Source : World Book 2005

Space exploration
What is space?
Getting into space and back
Living in space
Meeting basic needs in space
Communicating with Earth
The dawn of the space age
Space probes
Probes to Venus
Probes to Jupiter and beyond
Probes to comets
Human beings enter space
Apollo: Mission to the moon
Exploring the moon
Returning to Earth
The International Space Station
Space shuttles
Types of shuttle missions