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Booster Rocket Pioneers

By Tom Logsdon

The rockets that hurl the Navstar satellites into orbit are direct descendents of the highly destructive Chinese "fire arrows" built and launched by Chinese military engineers 750 years ago. The earliest Chinese rockets were slender tubes stuffed with gunpowder and fastened to long flat sticks that jutted out behind the rocket to promote stable flight. In 1232 they were launched in large quantities on the outskirts of Peking, when special Chinese rocket brigades successfully pushed back Mongol cavalrymen. And, in 1249, they were used with great effect by the Moors in their military campaign along the Iberian Peninsula.

Near the beginning of the nineteenth century, Englishman William Congreve concocted superior powder blends and moved the stabilizing stick to the center of the rocket for improved accuracy. In 1807 the British blasted Copenhagen with 25,000 Congreve rockets. nine years later, when they bombarded Fort McHenry , they inadvertently provided "the rocket's red glare," which helped inspire America's National Anthem.

In 1903 a lonely Russian schoolteacher, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky , correctly concluded that rockets fueled with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen would be considerably more efficient than the simpler solid-fueled rockets then in use. He also devised a concept for stacking rockets one atop the other to yield the enormous speeds necessary for successful interplanetary travel.

Twenty-three years later Dr. Robert Goddard knelt on the frozen ground in his Aunt Effie's cabbage patch at Auburn, Massachusetts, and casually used a blowtorch to ignite the world's first liquid-fueled rocket. Goddard is today revered for his expansive expertise, but during his lifetime his contemporaries criticized him unmercifully because he had once dared to mention the possibility of sending a small flash powder to impact the moon. Years later, when one of his liquid-fueled rockets reached its design altitude of 2,000 feet, a banner headline wryly commented: "Moon Rocket Misses Target by 237,799 Miles!"

The rockets built by the Goddard team were all handcrafted machines, but Germany's rocketeers , working under the direction of Werner von Braun, constructed liquid-fueled rockets in mass-╝production quantities. When World War II fizzled to a halt, many of the German scientists came to Los Alamos to help American's military and space-age rocketeers .

In 1961, when President Kennedy courageously announced that the United States would conquer the moon, America's rocketeers had not yet orbited a single astronaut. The Saturn V moon rocket they later developed for the mission, was the pinnacle of the rocket maker's art. But it was expendable; NASA's space shuttle is a "reusable" booster. It delivers payloads weighing as much as 50,000 pounds and brings others back to earth for refurbishment and repair, gently landing -- as TV Newsman Edwin Newman once observed: "like a butterfly with sore feet."

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