When Francis Scott Key wrote our National Anthem during a battle between the U.S. and Great Britain in 1814, he was close enough to hear and see the rockets landing. Congreve rockets were fired against Ft. McHenry in 1814 and motivated the famous “rocket’s red glare” line in our National Anthem. The Congreve rocket used gun powder and an iron case – today it would be called a solid-fuel rocket. Solid-fuel rockets are now commonly used as booster rockets. Today, they are used in the space shuttle and are called solid rocket boosters (SRBs). But the solid rocket had humble beginnings.
Americans celebrate Independence Day with fireworks in part, because Gen. George Washington decreed fireworks should be a part of each community’s celebration on July 4th annually. The first recorded mention of black powder – also called gunpowder – used to create fireworks, was made about 2,400 years ago in China. Gunpowder is still made of saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal.
Jay Jordan, the interim provost at New Mexico State University, presented some of the information on gunpowder and rocketry during the first Leonard R. Sugerman Public Forum in 2006.
In 1232, gunpowder rockets were used by the Chinese to defend the city of Kai-fung-fu from the invading Monguls. In 1379, an Italian named Muratori used the word “rochetta” to describe his fire arrows. This is believed to be the first use of the word, later translated in English as “rocket.” In 1429, French troops led by Joan of Arc reportedly used rockets in their successful defense of the city of Orleans. Sometime around 1500, China’s Wan-Hoo attempted the first manned rocket flight. It did not go so well. Essentially, he lit himself on fire. Safety was not job one in the beginning of rocketry, apparently. (Indeed, astronauts know when you are getting ready for launch at the “Cape,” it means you deal with the fact you are sitting on top of a huge controlled explosion.)
Tipu Sultan and his Indian soldiers launched a large barrage of solid rockets against British troops.
Tipu rockets weighed between five and 12 pounds and had iron cylinder casing with ranges up to three miles. Tipu made the first attempt at guided missiles or rockets when he strapped swords and bamboo spears to help guide the rockets. Later, when artillery designers figured out spinning a bullet in the gun barrel made it easier to guide the bullet to the target, artillery replaced the rocket on the battlefield. Military rockets had all but disappeared by the start of the U.S. Civil War because field artillery was more accurate. Unguided rockets could not compete. Eighty years later, Werner von Braun’s V2 rockets were still largely unguided. Dr. Robert Goddard worked out many of the guidance and navigation problems for guidance and control of rockets, but that’s another article.
It’s pretty amazing a form of entertainment has such practical applications. Fireworks led to rockets. All rockets used some form of solid or powdered propellant up until the 20th century when liquid rockets and hybrid rockets offered more efficient and controllable alternatives. Solid rockets are still used today in model rockets and on larger applications for their simplicity and reliability. Since solid-fuel rockets can remain in storage for long periods – and then reliably launch on short notice – they have been frequently used in military applications such as the missile. As with firecrackers, once you light a solid rocket it burns until the fuel is spent. Liquid rockets can be turned off and the rate of fuel that is burned can be controlled.
In previous articles, I have mentioned Goddard, credited with the invention of the liquid fueled rocket. Yet Pedro A. Paulet, a Peruvian engineer, is believed to have conducted experiments in Paris using a rocket motor made of vanadium steel sometime in 1895 and another that burned a combination of nitrogen peroxide and gasoline. The work of Paulet was never authenticated. Had his work been confirmed by witnesses, Pedro A. Paulet would today be considered the father of liquid fuel rocketry.
When Goddard and his wife moved to Roswell in order to continue development of his rockets “without the hindrance of nosey neighbors, annoying press and bad weather,” the seeds were sown for the start of the space industry. By the way, it is estimated, we will spend $960 million in fireworks in 2010, up from $940 million in 2009.