The Origins of the Space Age

For this new article on Space Legal Issues, let’s have a look at the Origins of the Space Age. Let’s have a look at the history of spaceflight from the origins of rocketry to the beginning of the Space Age. Cultures around the world have contributed both to the visions and to the technological developments necessary to make spaceflight a reality. In the 20th century CE, geopolitical agendas – with both “hot” and “cold” wars – sparked a rapid development in rocket technology, which could be seen as a “technological mutation”. This explosive technological development made spaceflight a reality, perhaps before the world was properly ready to fully exploit it.

The Origins of Rocketry

The first practical application of the reaction principle for propulsion was the development of firework rockets in China around the 10th or 11th century CE. Knowledge of rocketry spread quickly throughout Asia and into Europe, and war rockets were widely used during the medieval period. Developments in rocketry were slow and gradual until the introduction of the Congreve rocket in 1804, which sparked a new period of experimentation. The Congreve rocket was a British military weapon designed and developed by Sir William Congreve in 1804, based directly on Mysorean rockets (an Indian military weapon which were the first iron-cased rockets successfully deployed for military use).

The Kingdom of Mysore in India used Mysorean rockets as a weapon against the British in the wars that they fought against the British East India Company. Lieutenant General Thomas Desaguliers, Colonel Commandant of the Royal Artillery in Woolwich, was influenced by the reports about their effectiveness, and he undertook several unsuccessful experiments. Several Mysore rockets were sent to Woolwich for studying and reverse-engineering following the Second, Third, and Fourth Mysore wars.

The scientific-industrial revolution (17th to 19th century CE) established understanding of the physical principles necessary for spaceflight and introduced the idea of progress. The future was, for the first time, seen as different from (and potentially better than) the past. This led to stories about the future, now called “science fiction” which inspired all the early Space Pioneers.

The Pioneers of Rocketry and Astronautics

The scientific/industrial revolution eventually led to developments in flying machines and rockets that made it technically possible to fly and go into outer space. The two major pioneers of spaceflight were Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857 – 1935) and Robert H. Goddard (1882 – 1945). Tsiolkovsky was a Russian theoretician who established many of the basic mathematical laws of space flight. In 1903 he published The Exploration of Space with Reactive Devices, the first major work on astronautics. Goddard, an American physicist, published A Method of reaching Extreme Altitudes, in 1919, in which he described the first sounding rocket and predicted the possibility of sending a rocket to the Moon. He designed and flew the world’s first successful liquid fuel rocket in March, 1926 (Massachusetts).

Goddard, being part of the Origins of the Space Age, began experimenting with liquid oxidiser, liquid fuel rockets in September 1921, and successfully tested the first liquid propellant engine in November 1923. It had a cylindrical combustion chamber, using impinging jets to mix and atomise liquid oxygen and gasoline. Goddard had problems developing a high-pressure piston pump to send fuel to the combustion chamber. He wanted to scale up the experiments, but his funding would not allow such growth. He decided to forego the pumps and use a pressurised fuel feed system applying pressure to the fuel tank from a tank of inert gas, a technique used today. The liquid oxygen, some of which evaporated, provided its own pressure.

The Spaceflight Movement

Inspired by the work of Tsiolkovsky and Goddard, an international Spaceflight Movement began to form in the 1920s and 1930s. Space travel and rocket societies in many countries undertook theoretical and practical research in rocketry and spaceflight. Hermann Oberth (1894 – 1989) was a leading figure in this movement. In 1923, he published The Rocket into Planetary Space, an extremely influential book in Europe.

The two most important rocketry groups were formed in Germany and Russia. The Verein für Raumschiffart (the Society for Space Ship Travel), or VfR, was founded in Germany in 1927 by Hermann Oberth. This group included Wernher von Braun and many other young engineers who would become leaders in the development of rocket technology during and after World War II.

In 1931, the Moscow-based Group for the Study of Reactive Motion (GIRD) was formed in Russia. It worked with government support and, in 1933, designed and launched the USSR’s first liquid-fuel rocket, the GIRD-X. The GIRD group laid the foundations for the development of Soviet rocket technology after World War II. Among its members was Sergei Korolev, the Chief Designer of the Soviet space program.

Hot and Cold Wars Accelerate Rocketry

Arthur C. Clark described spaceflight as a “technological mutation that should not have occurred until the 21st century CE”. World War II and the Cold War accelerated the pace of rocket development at an unprecedented rate, spurring the Space Race of the 1960s and 1970s.

Continuing on the Origins of the Space Age, in the 1930s, Germany sought to circumvent arms control treaties by developing rockets for use as weapons. During World War II, this resulted in the Aggregat 4 (A4) rocket, known as the Vergeltungswaffen 2 (Vengeance Weapon 2, or V-2), a tremendous leap forward in rocket technology. Its basic design concepts for rocket motor, fuel system, guidance, and steering remain at the heart of even today’s most advanced launchers. Following the war, the V-2 became the prototype for the first long-range missiles and the space launch vehicles into which they evolved.

With the onset of the Cold War between the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. following World War II, there was a rush to develop long-range missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads over intercontinental distances. Achievement in missile technology came to be seen as a status symbol, proclaiming the power and influence of the nations that possessed it. Military missiles were developed into the first space launch vehicles. Thus, spaceflight was a revolutionary leap driven by political and military requirements, which provided the massive amounts of money and resources needed to make spaceflight a reality.

Space Age/Space Race

The launch of Sputnik 1, in October 1957, ushered in the Space Age. Initial Soviet space achievements, coupled with early American failures, increased the Cold War rivalry between the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union. Propaganda quickly associated space achievements with ideological superiority, so both sides vied with each other to achieve status-conferring space “firsts”. This competition resulted in the Space Race, with the U.S.S.R. winning most of the first contests. This rivalry further forced the pace of technological development and led to the Apollo Moon landings, less than twelve years later, by the Americans.

Concluding remarks on the Origins of the Space Age

The space race spurred the development of space programs in Europe, China, India, Japan and eventually elsewhere. The race to the Moon, however, did not generate the space infrastructure necessary to support a permanent human presence in outer space (space stations and cheap access to space); thus, after Apollo, the pace of space technology development slowed markedly. That is what can be said on the Origins of the Space Age.