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"Rockets" redirects here. For the NBA team, see Houston Rockets.
This article is about vehicles powered by rocket engines. For other uses, see Rocket (disambiguation).

A rocket (Italian rocchetta‚ "little fuse"[1][2]) is a missile, spacecraft, aircraft or other vehicle that obtains thrust from a rocket engine. Rocket engine exhaust is formed entirely from propellant carried within the rocket before use.[3] Rocket engines work by action and reaction and push rockets forward simply by expelling their exhaust in the opposite direction at high speed, and can therefore work in space.

Indeed, rockets work more efficiently in space than in an atmosphere. Multi-stage rockets are capable of attaining escape velocity from Earth and therefore can achieve unlimited maximum altitude. Compared with airbreathing engines, rockets are lightweight and powerful and capable of generating large accelerations. Rockets rely on momentum, airfoils, auxiliary reaction engines, gimballed thrust, momentum wheels, deflection of the exhaust stream, propellant flow, spin, and/or gravity to help control flight.

Rockets for military and recreational uses date back to at least 13th century China.[4] Significant scientific, interplanetary and industrial use did not occur until the 20th century, when rocketry was the enabling technology for the Space Age, including setting foot on the moon. Rockets are now used for fireworks, weaponry, ejection seats, launch vehicles for artificial satellites, human spaceflight, and space exploration.

Chemical rockets are the most common type of high power rocket, typically creating a high speed exhaust by the combustion of fuel with an oxidizer. The stored propellant can be a simple pressurized gas or a single liquid fuel that disassociates in the presence of a catalyst (monopropellants), two liquids that spontaneously react on contact (hypergolic propellants), two liquids that must be ignited to react, a solid combination of one or more fuels with one or more oxidizers (solid fuel), or solid fuel with liquid oxidant (hybrid propellant system). Chemical rockets store a large amount of energy in an easily released form, and can be very dangerous. However, careful design, testing, construction and use minimizes risks.

History of rockets

Main article: History of rockets
A depiction of the "long serpent" rocket launcher from the 11th century book Wujing Zongyao. The holes in the frame are designed to keep the fire arrows separate.

In antiquity

Main article: Fire arrow
Early Chinese rocket.

The availability of black powder (gunpowder) to propel projectiles was a precursor to experiments as weapons such as bombs, cannon, incendiary fire arrows and rocket-propelled fire arrows.[nb 1][nb 2] The discovery of gunpowder was probably the product of centuries of alchemical experimentation in which Taoist alchemists were trying to create an elixir of immortality that would allow the person ingesting it to become physically immortal.[7] However, anyone with a wood fire might have observed the acceleration of combustion that accidentally-chosen saltpetre-containing rocks would have produced.

Exactly when the first flights of rockets occurred is contested. Merely lighting a centimeter-sized solid lump of gunpowder on one side can cause it to move via reaction (even without a nozzle for efficiency), so confinement in a tube and other design refinements may easily have followed for the experimentally-minded with ready access to saltpetre.

A problem for dating the first rocket flight is that Chinese fire arrows can be either arrows with explosives attached, or arrows propelled by gunpowder. There were reports of fire arrows and 'iron pots' that could be heard for 5 leagues (25 km, or 15 miles) when they exploded, causing devastation for a radius of 600 meters (2,000 feet), apparently due to shrapnel.[8] A common claim is that the first recorded use of a rocket in battle was by the Chinese in 1232 against the Mongol hordes at Kai Feng Fu.[9] However, the lowering of iron pots there may have been a way for a besieged army to blow up invaders.[nb 3] A scholarly reference occurs in the Ko Chieh Ching Yuan (The Mirror of Research), states that in 998 AD a man named Tang Fu invented a fire arrow of a new kind having an iron head.[9]

Less controversially, one of the earliest devices recorded that used internal-combustion rocket propulsion, was the 'ground-rat,' a type of firework recorded in 1264 as having frightened the Empress-Mother Kung Sheng at a feast held in her honor by her son the Emperor Lizong.[11]

Subsequently, one of the earliest texts to mention the use of rockets was the Huolongjing, written by the Chinese artillery officer Jiao Yu in the mid-14th century. This text also mentioned the use of the first known multistage rocket, the 'fire-dragon issuing from the water' (huo long chu shui), used mostly by the Chinese navy.[12]

Spread of rocket technology

Rocket technology was first known to Europeans following its use by the Mongols Genghis Khan and Ögedei Khan when they conquered parts of Russia, Eastern, and Central Europe. The Mongolians had acquired the Chinese technology by conquest of the northern part of China and by the subsequent employment of Chinese rocketry experts as mercenaries for the Mongol military. Reports of the Battle of Mohi in the year 1241 describe the use of rocket-like weapons by the Mongols against the Magyars.[8] Rocket technology also spread to Korea, where the 15th century hwacha wheeled cart was used as a platform to launch singijeon fire arrows.[13] Additionally, the spread of rockets into Europe was also influenced by the Ottomans at the siege of Constantinople in 1453, although it is very likely that the Ottomans themselves were influenced by the Mongol invasions of the previous few centuries. In their history of rockets published on the Internet, NASA says "Rockets appear in Arab literature in 1258 A.D., describing Mongol invaders' use of them on February 15 to capture the city of Baghdad."[8]

Between 1270 and 1280, Hasan al-Rammah wrote al-furusiyyah wa al-manasib al-harbiyya (The Book of Military Horsemanship and Ingenious War Devices), which included 107 gunpowder recipes, 22 of which are for rockets.[14] According to Ahmad Y Hassan, al-Rammah's recipes were more explosive than rockets used in China at the time.[15][16][17] The terminology used by al-Rammah indicated a Chinese origin for the gunpowder weapons he wrote about, such as rockets and fire lances.[18] Ibn al-Baytar, an Arab from Spain who had immigrated to Egypt, gave the name "snow of China" (Arabic: ثلج الصينthalj al-ṣīn) to describe saltpetre. Al-Baytar died in 1248.[19][20] The earlier Arab historians call saltpeter "Chinese snow" and " Chinese salt;"[21][22] The Arabs also used the name "Chinese arrows" to refer to rockets.[23][24][25][26][27][28][29] The Arabs attached "Chinese" to various names for gunpowder related objects. "Chinese flowers" was the name for fireworks, while "Chinese Snow" was given to saltpeter and "Chinese arrows" to rockets.[18] While saltpeter was called "Chinese Snow" by Arabs, it was called "Chinese salt" (Persian: نمک چینی‎‎ namak-i čīnī) by the Iranians,[30][31][32][33][34] or "salt from the Chinese marshes" (namak shūra chīnī Persian: نمک شوره چيني‎‎).[35][36]

The name Rocket comes from the Italian Rocchetta (i.e. little fuse), a name of a small firecracker created by the Italian artificer Muratori in 1379.[1] Rockets for military use were first mentioned in the West (Europe) at around this time in connection with the Battle of Chioggia between the Genoese and Venetians in 1380.[37]

Kyeser was infatuated with the legend of Alexander the Great: here Alexander holds a rocket, the first depiction of one

Konrad Kyeser described rockets in his famous military treatise Bellifortis around 1405.[38]

Between 1529 and 1556 Conrad Haas wrote a book that described rocket technology that combined fireworks and weapons technologies. This manuscript was discovered in 1961, in the Sibiu public records (Sibiu public records Varia II 374). His work dealt with the theory of motion of multi-stage rockets, different fuel mixtures using liquid fuel, and introduced delta-shape fins and bell-shaped nozzles.[39]

Lagari Hasan Çelebi was a legendary Ottoman aviator who, according to an account written by Evliya Çelebi, made a successful manned rocket flight. Evliya Çelebi purported that in 1633 Lagari Hasan Çelebi launched in a 7-winged rocket using 50 okka (140 lbs) of gunpowder from Sarayburnu, the point below Topkapı Palace in Istanbul.

Lagâri Hasan Çelebi's rocket flight depicted in a 17th-century engraving

For over two centuries, the work of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth nobleman Kazimierz Siemienowicz "Artis Magnae Artilleriae pars prima" ("Great Art of Artillery, the First Part", also known as "The Complete Art of Artillery"), was used in Europe as a basic artillery manual.[40] First printed in Amsterdam in 1650 it was translated to French in 1651, German in 1676, English and Dutch in 1729 and Polish in 1963. The book provided the standard designs for creating rockets, fireballs, and other pyrotechnic devices. It contained a large chapter on caliber, construction, production and properties of rockets (for both military and civil purposes), including multi-stage rockets, batteries of rockets, and rockets with delta wing stabilizers (instead of the common guiding rods ("bottle rockets"), which are also aerodynamic stabilizers but less efficient than fins).

Metal-cylinder rocket artillery

In 1792, the first iron-cased rockets were successfully developed and used by Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan, rulers of the Kingdom of Mysore in India against the larger British East India Company forces during the Anglo-Mysore Wars. The British then took an active interest in the technology and developed it further during the 19th century. The Mysore rockets of this period were much more advanced than the British had previously seen, chiefly because of the use of iron tubes for holding the propellant; this enabled higher thrust and longer range for the missile (up to 2 km range). After Tipu's eventual defeat in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War and the capture of the Mysore iron rockets, they were influential in British rocket development, inspiring the Congreve rocket, which was soon put into use in the Napoleonic Wars.[41]

Accuracy of early rockets

William Congreve, son of the Comptroller of the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, London, became a major figure in the field. From 1801, Congreve researched on the original design of Mysore rockets and set on a vigorous development program at the Arsenal's laboratory.[42] Congreve prepared a new propellant mixture, and developed a rocket motor with a strong iron tube with conical nose. This early Congreve rocket weighed about 32 pounds (14.5 kilograms). The Royal Arsenal's first demonstration of solid fuel rockets was in 1805. The rockets were effectively used during the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. Congreve published three books on rocketry.[43]

From there, the use of military rockets spread throughout the western world. At the Battle of Baltimore in 1814, the rockets fired on Fort McHenry by the rocket vessel HMS Erebus were the source of the rockets' red glare described by Francis Scott Key in The Star-Spangled Banner.[44] Rockets were also used in the Battle of Waterloo.[45]

Early rockets were very inaccurate. Without the use of spinning or any controlling feedback loop, rockets had a strong tendency to veer sharply off of their intended course. The early Mysorean rockets and their successor British Congreve rockets[42] reduced this somewhat by attaching a long stick to the end of a rocket (similar to modern bottle rockets) to make it harder for the rocket to change course. The largest of the Congreve rockets was the 32-pound (14.5 kg) Carcass, which had a 15-foot (4.6 m) stick. Originally, sticks were mounted on the side, but this was later changed to mounting in the center of the rocket, reducing drag and enabling the rocket to be more accurately fired from a segment of pipe.

The accuracy problem was greatly improved in 1844 when William Hale[46] modified the rocket design so that thrust was slightly vectored, causing the rocket to spin along its axis of travel like a bullet. The Hale rocket removed the need for a rocket stick, travelled further due to reduced air resistance, and was far more accurate.

In 1865 the British Colonel Edward Mounier Boxer built an improved versione of the Congreve rocket placing two rockets in one tube, one behind the other.[47]

Theories of interplanetary rocketry

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky published the first work on space travel, which was inspired by the writings of Jules Verne

At the beginning of the 20th Century, there was a burst of scientific investigation into interplanetary travel, largely driven by the inspiration of fiction by writers such as Jules Verne and H.G.Wells. Scientists seized on the rocket as a technology that was able to achieve this in real life, a possibility first recognized in 1861 by William Leitch.[citation needed]

In 1903, high school mathematics teacher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935), published Исследование мировых пространств реактивными приборами[48] (The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices), the first serious scientific work on space travel. The Tsiolkovsky rocket equation—the principle that governs rocket propulsion—is named in his honor (although it had been discovered previously).[49] He also advocated the use of liquid hydrogen and oxygen for propellant, calculating their maximum exhaust velocity. His work was essentially unknown outside the Soviet Union, but inside the country it inspired further research, experimentation and the formation of the Society for Studies of Interplanetary Travel in 1924.

In 1912, Robert Esnault-Pelterie published a lecture[50] on rocket theory and interplanetary travel. He independently derived Tsiolkovsky's rocket equation, did basic calculations about the energy required to make round trips to the Moon and planets, and he proposed the use of atomic power (i.e. radium) to power a jet drive.

In 1912 Robert Goddard, inspired from an early age by H.G. Wells, began a serious analysis of rockets, concluding that conventional solid-fuel rockets needed to be improved in three ways. First, fuel should be burned in a small combustion chamber, instead of building the entire propellant container to withstand the high pressures. Second, rockets could be arranged in stages. Finally, the exhaust speed (and thus the efficiency) could be greatly increased to beyond the speed of sound by using a De Laval nozzle. He patented these concepts in 1914.[51] He also independently developed the mathematics of rocket flight.

In 1920, Goddard published these ideas and experimental results in A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes.[52] The work included remarks about sending a solid-fuel rocket to the Moon, which attracted worldwide attention and was both praised and ridiculed. A New York Times editorial suggested:

"That Professor Goddard, with his 'chair' in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react -- to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools."   —New York Times, 13 January 1920[53]

In 1923, Hermann Oberth (1894–1989) published Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen ("The Rocket into Planetary Space"), a version of his doctoral thesis, after the University of Munich had rejected it.[54]

In 1924, Tsiolkovsky also wrote about multi-stage rockets, in 'Cosmic Rocket Trains'.[55]

Modern rocketry

Pre-World War II

Robert Goddard and the first liquid-fueled rocket.

Modern rockets originated when Goddard attached a supersonic (de Laval) nozzle to the combustion chamber of a liquid-fueled rocket engine. These nozzles turn the hot gas from the combustion chamber into a cooler, hypersonic, highly directed jet of gas, more than doubling the thrust and raising the engine efficiency from 2% to 64%.[56][57] On 16 March 1926 Robert Goddard launched the world's first liquid-fueled rocket in Auburn, Massachusetts.

During the 1920s, a number of rocket research organizations appeared worldwide. In 1927 the German car manufacturer Opel began to research rocket vehicles together with Mark Valier and the solid-fuel rocket builder Friedrich Wilhelm Sander.[58] In 1928, Fritz von Opel drove a rocket car, the Opel-RAK.1 on the Opel raceway in Rüsselsheim, Germany. In 1928 the Lippisch Ente flew: rocket power launched the manned glider, although it was destroyed on its second flight. In 1929 von Opel started at the Frankfurt-Rebstock airport with the Opel-Sander RAK 1-airplane, which was damaged beyond repair during a hard landing after its first flight.

In the mid-1920s, German scientists had begun experimenting with rockets that used liquid propellants capable of reaching relatively high altitudes and distances. In 1927 and also in Germany, a team of amateur rocket engineers had formed the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (German Rocket Society, or VfR), and in 1931 launched a liquid propellant rocket (using oxygen and gasoline).[59]

From 1931 to 1937 in the Soviet Union, extensive scientific work on rocket engine design occurred at the Gas Dynamics Laboratory in Leningrad. The well-funded and -staffed laboratory built over 100 experimental engines under the direction of Valentin Glushko. The work included regenerative cooling, hypergolic propellant ignition, and fuel injector designs that included swirling and bi-propellant mixing injectors. However, Glushko's arrest during Stalinist purges in 1938 curtailed the development.

Similar work was also done from 1932 onwards by the Austrian professor Eugen Sänger, who migrated from Austria to Germany in 1936. He worked there on rocket-powered spaceplanes such as Silbervogel (sometimes called the "antipodal" bomber.)[60]

On November 12, 1932 at a farm in Stockton NJ, the American Interplanetary Society's attempt to static-fire their first rocket (based on German Rocket Society designs) failed in a fire.[61]

In 1936, a British research programme based at Fort Halstead under the direction of Dr Alwyn Crow started work on a series of unguided solid-fuel rockets that could be used as anti-aircraft weapons. In 1939, a number of test firings were carried out in the British colony of Jamaica, on a purpose built range.[62]

In the 1930s, the German Reichswehr (which in 1935 became the Wehrmacht) began to take an interest in rocketry.[63] Artillery restrictions imposed by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles limited Germany's access to long-distance weaponry. Seeing the possibility of using rockets as long-range artillery fire, the Wehrmacht initially funded the VfR team, but because their focus was strictly scientific, created its own research team. At the behest of military leaders, Wernher von Braun, at the time a young aspiring rocket scientist, joined the military (followed by two former VfR members) and developed long-range weapons for use in World War II by Nazi Germany.[64]

World War II

A German V-2 rocket on a Meillerwagen
Layout of a V-2 rocket

In 1943, production of the V-2 rocket began in Germany. It had an operational range of 300 km (190 mi) and carried a 1,000 kg (2,200 lb) warhead, with an amatol explosive charge. It normally achieved an operational maximum altitude of around 90 km (56 mi), but could achieve 206 km (128 mi) if launched vertically. The vehicle was similar to most modern rockets, with turbopumps, inertial guidance and many other features. Thousands were fired at various Allied nations, mainly Belgium, as well as England and France. While they could not be intercepted, their guidance system design and single conventional warhead meant that it was insufficiently accurate against military targets. A total of 2,754 people in England were killed, and 6,523 were wounded before the launch campaign was ended. There were also 20,000 deaths of slave labour during the construction of V-2s. While it did not significantly affect the course of the war, the V-2 provided a lethal demonstration of the potential for guided rockets as weapons.[65][66]

In parallel with the guided missile programme in Nazi Germany, rockets were also used on aircraft, either for assisting horizontal take-off (RATO), vertical take-off (Bachem Ba 349 "Natter") or for powering them (Me 163,[67] etc.). During the war Germany also developed several guided and unguided air-to-air, ground-to-air and ground-to-ground missiles (see list of World War II guided missiles of Germany).

The Allies rocket programs were much less sophisticated, relying mostly on unguided missiles like the Soviet Katyusha rocket.

Post World War II

Main articles: NASA and Soviet space program
Dornberger and Von Braun after being captured by the Allies
R-7 8K72 "Vostok" permanently displayed at the Moscow Trade Fair at Ostankino; the rocket is held in place by its railway carrier, which is mounted on four diagonal beams that constitute the display pedestal. Here the railway carrier has tilted the rocket upright as it would do so into its launch pad structure -- which is missing for this display.

At the end of World War II, competing Russian, British, and US military and scientific crews raced to capture technology and trained personnel from the German rocket program at Peenemünde. Russia and Britain had some success, but the United States benefited the most. The US captured a large number of German rocket scientists, including von Braun, and brought them to the United States as part of Operation Paperclip.[68] In America, the same rockets that were designed to rain down on Britain were used instead by scientists as research vehicles for developing the new technology further. The V-2 evolved into the American Redstone rocket, used in the early space program.[69]

After the war, rockets were used to study high-altitude conditions, by radio telemetry of temperature and pressure of the atmosphere, detection of cosmic rays, and further research; notably the Bell X-1, the first manned vehicle to break the sound barrier. This continued in the US under von Braun and the others, who were destined to become part of the US scientific community.

Independently, in the Soviet Union's space program research continued under the leadership of the chief designer Sergei Korolev.[70] With the help of German technicians, the V-2 was duplicated and improved as the R-1, R-2 and R-5 missiles. German designs were abandoned in the late 1940s, and the foreign workers were sent home. A new series of engines built by Glushko and based on inventions of Aleksei Mihailovich Isaev formed the basis of the first ICBM, the R-7.[71] The R-7 launched the first satellite- Sputnik 1, and later Yuri Gagarin-the first man into space, and the first lunar and planetary probes. This rocket is still in use today. These prestigious events attracted the attention of top politicians, along with additional funds for further research.

One problem that had not been solved was atmospheric reentry. It had been shown that an orbital vehicle easily had enough kinetic energy to vaporize itself, and yet it was known that meteorites can make it down to the ground. The mystery was solved in the US in 1951 when H. Julian Allen and A. J. Eggers, Jr. of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) made the counterintuitive discovery that a blunt shape (high drag) permitted the most effective heat shield. With this type of shape, around 99% of the energy goes into the air rather than the vehicle, and this permitted safe recovery of orbital vehicles.[72]

The Allen and Eggers discovery, initially treated as a military secret, was eventually published in 1958.[73] Blunt body theory made possible the heat shield designs that were embodied in the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Soyuz space capsules, enabling astronauts and cosmonauts to survive the fiery re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. Some spaceplanes such as the Space Shuttle made use of the same theory. At the time the STS was being conceived, Maxime Faget, the Director of Engineering and Development at the Manned Spacecraft Center, was not satisfied with the purely lifting re-entry method (as proposed for the cancelled X-20 "Dyna-Soar").[74] He designed a space shuttle which operated as a blunt body by entering the atmosphere at an extremely high angle of attack of 40°[75] with the underside facing the direction of flight, creating a large shock wave that would deflect most of the heat around the vehicle instead of into it.[76] The Space Shuttle essentially uses a combination of a ballistic entry (Blunt body theory) and then at an altitude of about 122,000 m (400,000 ft), the re-entry interface takes place. Here the atmosphere is dense enough for the Space Shuttle to begin its lifting re-entry by reducing the angle-of-attack, pointing the nose down and using the lift its wings generate to "start flying" (gliding) towards the landing site.[77]

Prototype of the Mk-2 Reentry Vehicle (RV), based on blunt body theory

Cold War

Main article: Ballistic missile

Rockets became extremely important militarily as modern intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) when it was realized that nuclear weapons carried on a rocket vehicle were essentially impossible for existing defense systems to stop once launched, and ICBM/Launch vehicles such as the R-7, Atlas and Titan became the delivery platform of choice for these weapons.

Von Braun's rocket team in 1961

Fueled partly by the Cold War, the 1960s became the decade of rapid development of rocket technology particularly in the Soviet Union (Vostok, Soyuz, Proton) and in the United States (e.g. the X-15[78] and X-20 Dyna-Soar[79] aircraft). There was also significant research in other countries, such as Britain, Japan, Australia, etc., and a growing use of rockets for Space exploration, with pictures returned from the far side of the Moon and unmanned flights for Mars exploration.

In America the manned programmes, Project Mercury, Project Gemini and later the Apollo programme culminated in 1969 with the first manned landing on the moon via the Saturn V, causing the New York Times to retract their earlier editorial implying that spaceflight couldn't work:

Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.
— New York Times, 17 June 1969 - A Correction[80]

In the 1970s America made further lunar landings, before cancelling the Apollo program in 1975. The replacement vehicle, the partially reusable 'Space Shuttle' was intended to be cheaper,[81] but this large reduction in costs was largely not achieved. Meanwhile, in 1973, the expendable Ariane programme was begun, a launcher that by the year 2000 would capture much of the geosat market.

Current day

Rockets remain a popular military weapon. The use of large battlefield rockets of the V-2 type has given way to guided missiles. However rockets are often used by helicopters and light aircraft for ground attack, being more powerful than machine guns, but without the recoil of a heavy cannon and by the early 1960s air-to-air missiles became favored. Shoulder-launched rocket weapons are widespread in the anti-tank role due to their simplicity, low cost, light weight, accuracy and high level of damage. Current artillery systems such as the MLRS or BM-30 Smerch launch multiple rockets to saturate battlefield targets with munitions.[82][83][84]

Commercially, rocketry is the enabler of all space technologies particularly satellites, many of which impact people's everyday lives in almost countless ways.[85]

Scientifically, rocketry has opened a window on the universe, allowing the launch of space probes to explore the solar system and space-based telescopes to obtain a clearer view of the rest of the universe.[86]

However, it is probably manned spaceflight that has predominantly caught the imagination of the public. Vehicles such as the Space Shuttle for scientific research, the Soyuz increasingly for orbital tourism and SpaceShipOne for suborbital tourism may show a trend towards greater commercialisation of manned rocketry.[87]


Vehicle configurations
Saturn V is the biggest rocket to have successfully flown.
Launch of Apollo 15 Saturn V rocket: T − 30 s through T + 40 s

Rocket vehicles are often constructed in the archetypal tall thin "rocket" shape that takes off vertically, but there are actually many different types of rockets including:[88][89]


A rocket design can be as simple as a cardboard tube filled with black powder, but to make an efficient, accurate rocket or missile involves overcoming a number of difficult problems. The main difficulties include cooling the combustion chamber, pumping the fuel (in the case of a liquid fuel), and controlling and correcting the direction of motion.[94]


Rockets consist of a propellant, a place to put propellant (such as a propellant tank), and a nozzle. They may also have one or more rocket engines, directional stabilization device(s) (such as fins, vernier engines or engine gimbals for thrust vectoring, gyroscopes) and a structure (typically monocoque) to hold these components together. Rockets intended for high speed atmospheric use also have an aerodynamic fairing such as a nose cone, which usually holds the payload.[95]

As well as these components, rockets can have any number of other components, such as wings (rocketplanes), parachutes, wheels (rocket cars), even, in a sense, a person (rocket belt). Vehicles frequently possess navigation systems and guidance systems that typically use satellite navigation and inertial navigation systems.


Main article: Rocket engine
Viking 5C rocket engine

Rocket engines employ the principle of jet propulsion.[3] The rocket engines powering rockets come in a great variety of different types, a comprehensive list can be found in rocket engine. Most current rockets are chemically powered rockets (usually internal combustion engines,[96] but some employ a decomposing monopropellant) that emit a hot exhaust gas. A rocket engine can use gas propellants, solid propellant, liquid propellant, or a hybrid mixture of both solid and liquid.[3] Some rockets use heat or pressure that is supplied from a source other than the chemical reaction of propellant(s), such as steam rockets, solar thermal rockets, nuclear thermal rocket engines or simple pressurized rockets such as water rocket or cold gas thrusters.[3] With combustive propellants a chemical reaction is initiated between the fuel and the oxidizer in the combustion chamber, and the resultant hot gases accelerate out of a rocket engine nozzle (or nozzles) at the rearward-facing end of the rocket. The acceleration of these gases through the engine exerts force ("thrust") on the combustion chamber and nozzle, propelling the vehicle (according to Newton's Third Law).[3] This actually happens because the force (pressure times area) on the combustion chamber wall is unbalanced by the nozzle opening; this is not the case in any other direction. The shape of the nozzle also generates force by directing the exhaust gas along the axis of the rocket.


Main article: Rocket propellant
Gas Core light bulb

Rocket propellant is mass that is stored, usually in some form of propellant tank or casing, prior to being used as the propulsive mass that is ejected from a rocket engine in the form of a fluid jet to produce thrust.[3] For chemical rockets often the propellants are a fuel such as liquid hydrogen or kerosene burned with an oxidizer such as liquid oxygen or nitric acid to produce large volumes of very hot gas. The oxidiser is either kept separate and mixed in the combustion chamber, or comes premixed, as with solid rockets.

Sometimes the propellant is not burned but still undergoes a chemical reaction, and can be a 'monopropellant' such as hydrazine, nitrous oxide or hydrogen peroxide that can be catalytically decomposed to hot gas.

Alternatively, an inert propellant can be used that can be externally heated, such as in steam rocket, solar thermal rocket or nuclear thermal rockets.[3]

For smaller, low performance rockets such as attitude control thrusters where high performance is less necessary, a pressurised fluid is used as propellant that simply escapes the spacecraft through a propelling nozzle.[3]


Rockets or other similar reaction devices carrying their own propellant must be used when there is no other substance (land, water, or air) or force (gravity, magnetism, light) that a vehicle may usefully employ for propulsion, such as in space. In these circumstances, it is necessary to carry all the propellant to be used.

However, they are also useful in other situations:


Main article: Missile

Some military weapons use rockets to propel warheads to their targets. A rocket and its payload together are generally referred to as a missile when the weapon has a guidance system (not all missiles use rocket engines, some use other engines such as jets) or as a rocket if it is unguided. Anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles use rocket engines to engage targets at high speed at a range of several miles, while intercontinental ballistic missiles can be used to deliver multiple nuclear warheads from thousands of miles, and anti-ballistic missiles try to stop them. Rockets have also been tested for reconnaissance, such as the Ping-Pong rocket, which was launched to surveil enemy targets, however, recon rockets have never come into wide use in the military.

Science and research

A Bumper sounding rocket
See also: Space probe

Sounding rockets are commonly used to carry instruments that take readings from 50 kilometers (31 mi) to 1,500 kilometers (930 mi) above the surface of the Earth, the altitudes between those reachable by weather balloons and satellites.[97]

Rocket engines are also used to propel rocket sleds along a rail at extremely high speed. The world record for this is Mach 8.5.[98]


Space Shuttle Atlantis during launch phase
Main article: Spaceflight

Larger rockets are normally launched from a launch pad that provides stable support until a few seconds after ignition. Due to their high exhaust velocity—2,500 to 4,500 m/s (9,000 to 16,200 km/h; 5,600 to 10,100 mph) (Mach ~10+)—rockets are particularly useful when very high speeds are required, such as orbital speed (Mach 24+[99]). Spacecraft delivered into orbital trajectories become artificial satellites, which are used for many commercial purposes. Indeed, rockets remain the only way to launch spacecraft into orbit and beyond.[100] They are also used to rapidly accelerate spacecraft when they change orbits or de-orbit for landing. Also, a rocket may be used to soften a hard parachute landing immediately before touchdown (see retrorocket).


Apollo LES pad abort test with boilerplate crew module.

Rockets were used to propel a line to a stricken ship so that a Breeches buoy can be used to rescue those on board. Rockets are also used to launch emergency flares.

Some crewed rockets, notably the Saturn V[101] and Soyuz[102] have launch escape systems. This is a small, usually solid rocket that is capable of pulling the crewed capsule away from the main vehicle towards safety at a moments notice. These types of systems have been operated several times, both in testing and in flight, and operated correctly each time.

This was the case when the Safety Assurance System (Soviet nomenclature) successfully pulled away the L3 capsule during three of the four failed launches of the Soviet moon rocket, N1 vehicles 3L, 5L and 7L. In all three cases the capsule, albeit unmanned, was saved from destruction. It should be noted that only the three aforementioned N1 rockets had functional Safety Assurance Systems. The outstanding vehicle, 6L, had dummy upper stages and therefore no escape system giving the N1 booster a 100% success rate for egress from a failed launch.[103][104][105][106]

A successful escape of a manned capsule occurred when Soyuz T-10, on a mission to the Salyut 7 space station, exploded on the pad.[107]

Solid rocket propelled ejection seats are used in many military aircraft to propel crew away to safety from a vehicle when flight control is lost.[108]

Hobby, sport, and entertainment

Hobbyists build and fly a wide variety of model rockets. Many companies produce model rocket kits and parts but due to their inherent simplicity some hobbyists have been known to make rockets out of almost anything. Rockets are also used in some types of consumer and professional fireworks. A Water Powered Rocket is a type of model rocket using water as its reaction mass. The pressure vessel (the engine of the rocket) is usually a used plastic soft drink bottle. The water is forced out by a pressurized gas, typically compressed air. It is an example of Newton's third law of motion.

Hydrogen peroxide rockets are used to power jet packs,[109] and have been used to power cars and a rocket car holds the all time (albeit unofficial) drag racing record.[110]


For all but the very smallest sizes, rocket exhaust compared to other engines is generally very noisy. As the hypersonic exhaust mixes with the ambient air, shock waves are formed. The sound intensity from these shock waves depends on the size of the rocket as well as the exhaust speed. The sound intensity of large, high performance rockets could potentially kill at close range.[111]

The Space Shuttle generates over 200 dB(A) of noise around its base. A Saturn V launch was detectable on seismometers a considerable distance from the launch site.

Noise is generally most intense when a rocket is close to the ground, since the noise from the engines radiates up away from the plume, as well as reflecting off the ground. This noise can be reduced somewhat by flame trenches with roofs, by water injection around the plume and by deflecting the plume at an angle.[111]

For crewed rockets various methods are used to reduce the sound intensity for the passengers, and typically the placement of the astronauts far away from the rocket engines helps significantly. For the passengers and crew, when a vehicle goes supersonic the sound cuts off as the sound waves are no longer able to keep up with the vehicle.[111]



A balloon with a tapering nozzle. In this case, the nozzle itself does not push the balloon but is pulled by it. A convergent/divergent nozzle would be better.
Main article: Rocket engine

The action of the rocket engine's combustion chambers and expansion nozzles on a high pressure fluid is able to accelerate the fluid to extremely high speed, and conversely this exerts a large reactive thrust on the rocket (an equal and opposite reaction according to Newton's third law), which propels the rocket forwards. Care is needed in determining where exactly the reactive thrust acts and it is often mislocated.[112][113]

Rocket thrust is caused by pressures acting on both the combustion chamber and nozzle

In a closed chamber, the pressures are equal in each direction and no acceleration occurs. If an opening is provided in the bottom of the chamber then the pressure is no longer acting on the missing section. This opening permits the exhaust to escape. The remaining pressures give a resultant thrust on the side opposite the opening, and these pressures are what push the rocket along.

The shape of the nozzle is important. Consider a balloon propelled by air coming out of a tapering nozzle. In such a case the combination of air pressure and viscous friction is such that the nozzle does not push the balloon but is pulled by it.[114] Using a convergent/divergent nozzle gives more force since the exhaust also presses on it as it expands outwards, roughly doubling the total force. If propellant gas is continuously added to the chamber then these pressures can be maintained for as long as propellant remains.[3] Note that the pumps moving the propellant into the combustion chamber must maintain a pressure larger than the combustion chamber -typically on the order of 100 atmospheres.

As a side effect, these pressures on the rocket also act on the exhaust in the opposite direction and accelerate this exhaust to very high speeds (according to Newton's Third Law).[3] From the principle of conservation of momentum the speed of the exhaust of a rocket determines how much momentum increase is created for a given amount of propellant. This is called the rocket's specific impulse.[3] Because a rocket, propellant and exhaust in flight, without any external perturbations, may be considered as a closed system, the total momentum is always constant. Therefore, the faster the net speed of the exhaust in one direction, the greater the speed of the rocket can achieve in the opposite direction. This is especially true since the rocket body's mass is typically far lower than the final total exhaust mass.

Forces on a rocket in flight

Forces on a rocket in flight, rockets that must travel through the air are usually tall and thin as this shape gives a high ballistic coefficient and minimizes drag losses

The general study of the forces on a rocket is part of the field of ballistics. Spacecraft are further studied in the subfield of astrodynamics.

Flying rockets are primarily affected by the following:[115]

In addition, the inertia and centrifugal pseudo-force can be significant due to the path of the rocket around the center of a celestial body; when high enough speeds in the right direction and altitude are achieved a stable orbit or escape velocity is obtained.

These forces, with a stabilizing tail (the empennage) present will, unless deliberate control efforts are made, naturally cause the vehicle to follow a roughly parabolic trajectory termed a gravity turn, and this trajectory is often used at least during the initial part of a launch. (This is true even if the rocket engine is mounted at the nose.) Vehicles can thus maintain low or even zero angle of attack, which minimizes transverse stress on the launch vehicle, permitting a weaker, and hence lighter, launch vehicle.[116][117]

Net thrust

Due to the supersonic nature of the exhaust jet the exit pressure can be different from the ambient atmospheric pressure. Nozzles are said to be (top to bottom):
Underexpanded (above ambient).
Overexpanded (below ambient).
Grossly overexpanded.
If under or overexpanded then loss of efficiency occurs, grossly overexpanded nozzles lose less efficiency, but the exhaust jet is usually unstable. Rockets become progressively more underexpanded as they gain altitude. Note that almost all rocket engines are momentarily grossly overexpanded during startup in an atmosphere.[118]
For a more detailed model of the net thrust of a rocket engine that includes the effect of atmospheric pressure, see Rocket_engine#Net_thrust.

A typical rocket engine can handle a significant fraction of its own mass in propellant each second, with the propellant leaving the nozzle at several kilometres per second. This means that the thrust-to-weight ratio of a rocket engine, and often the entire vehicle can be very high, in extreme cases over 100. This compares with other jet propulsion engines that can exceed 5 for some of the better[119] engines.[120]

It can be shown that the net thrust of a rocket is:

F_n = \dot{m}\;v_{e}[121]


 \dot{m} =\,propellant flow (kg/s or lb/s)
v_{e} =\,the effective exhaust velocity (m/s or ft/s)

The effective exhaust velocity v_{e} is more or less the speed the exhaust leaves the vehicle, and in the vacuum of space, the effective exhaust velocity is often equal to the actual average exhaust speed along the thrust axis. However, the effective exhaust velocity allows for various losses, and notably, is reduced when operated within an atmosphere.

The rate of propellant flow through a rocket engine is often deliberately varied over a flight, to provide a way to control the thrust and thus the airspeed of the vehicle. This, for example, allows minimization of aerodynamic losses[122] and can limit the increase of g-forces due to the reduction in propellant load.

Total impulse

Main article: Impulse (physics)

Impulse is defined as a force acting on an object over time, which in the absence of opposing forces (gravity and aerodynamic drag), changes the momentum (integral of mass and velocity) of the object. As such, it is the best performance class (payload mass and terminal velocity capability) indicator of a rocket, rather than takeoff thrust, mass, or "power". The total impulse of a rocket (stage) burning its propellant is:[123]

I = \int F dt

When there is fixed thrust, this is simply:

I = F t\;

The total impulse of a multi-stage rocket is the sum of the impulses of the individual stages.

Specific impulse

Main article: specific impulse
Typical performances of common propellants
Propellant mix Vacuum Isp
Effective exhaust
velocity (m/s)
liquid oxygen/
liquid hydrogen
455 4462
liquid oxygen/
kerosene (RP-1)
358[citation needed] 3510
nitrogen tetroxide/
344[citation needed] 3369
n.b. All performances at a nozzle expansion ratio of 40

As can be seen from the thrust equation, the effective speed of the exhaust controls the amount of thrust produced from a particular quantity of fuel burnt per second.

An equivalent measure, the net impulse per weight unit of propellant expelled, is called specific Impulse, I_{sp}, and this is one of the most important figures that describes a rocket's performance. It is defined such that it is related to the effective exhaust velocity by:

v_e = I_{sp} \cdot g_0[124]


I_{sp} has units of seconds
g_0 is the acceleration at the surface of the Earth

Thus, the greater the specific impulse, the greater the net thrust and performance of the engine. I_{sp} is determined by measurement while testing the engine. In practice the effective exhaust velocities of rockets varies but can be extremely high, ~4500 m/s, about 15 times the sea level speed of sound in air.

Delta-v (rocket equation)

A map of approximate Delta-v's around the solar system between Earth and Mars[125][126]

The delta-v capacity of a rocket is the theoretical total change in velocity that a rocket can achieve without any external interference (without air drag or gravity or other forces).

When v_e is constant, the delta-v that a rocket vehicle can provide can be calculated from the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation:[127]

\Delta v\ = v_e \ln \frac {m_0} {m_1}


m_0 is the initial total mass, including propellant, in kg (or lb)
m_1 is the final total mass in kg (or lb)
v_e is the effective exhaust velocity in m/s (or ft/s)
\Delta v\ is the delta-v in m/s (or ft/s)

When launched from the Earth practical delta-v's for a single rockets carrying payloads can be a few km/s. Some theoretical designs have rockets with delta-v's over 9 km/s.

The required delta-v can also be calculated for a particular manoeuvre; for example the delta-v to launch from the surface of the Earth to Low earth orbit is about 9.7 km/s, which leaves the vehicle with a sideways speed of about 7.8 km/s at an altitude of around 200 km. In this manoeuvre about 1.9 km/s is lost in air drag, gravity drag and gaining altitude.

The ratio \frac {m_0} {m_1} is sometimes called the mass ratio.

Mass ratios

The Tsiolkovsky rocket equation gives a relationship between the mass ratio and the final velocity in multiples of the exhaust speed
Main article: mass ratio

Almost all of a launch vehicle's mass consists of propellant.[128] Mass ratio is, for any 'burn', the ratio between the rocket's initial mass and the mass after.[129] Everything else being equal, a high mass ratio is desirable for good performance, since it indicates that the rocket is lightweight and hence performs better, for essentially the same reasons that low weight is desirable in sports cars.

Rockets as a group have the highest thrust-to-weight ratio of any type of engine; and this helps vehicles achieve high mass ratios, which improves the performance of flights. The higher the ratio, the less engine mass is needed to be carried. This permits the carrying of even more propellant, enormously improving the delta-v. Alternatively, some rockets such as for rescue scenarios or racing carry relatively little propellant and payload and thus need only a lightweight structure and instead achieve high accelerations. For example, the Soyuz escape system can produce 20g.[102]

Achievable mass ratios are highly dependent on many factors such as propellant type, the design of engine the vehicle uses, structural safety margins and construction techniques.

The highest mass ratios are generally achieved with liquid rockets, and these types are usually used for orbital launch vehicles, a situation which calls for a high delta-v. Liquid propellants generally have densities similar to water (with the notable exceptions of liquid hydrogen and liquid methane), and these types are able to use lightweight, low pressure tanks and typically run high-performance turbopumps to force the propellant into the combustion chamber.

Some notable mass fractions are found in the following table (some aircraft are included for comparison purposes):

Vehicle Takeoff Mass Final Mass Mass ratio Mass fraction
Ariane 5 (vehicle + payload) 746,000 kg [130] (~1,645,000 lb) 2,700 kg + 16,000 kg[130] (~6,000 lb + ~35,300 lb) 39.9 0.975
Titan 23G first stage 117,020 kg (258,000 lb) 4,760 kg (10,500 lb) 24.6 0.959
Saturn V 3,038,500 kg[131] (~6,700,000 lb) 13,300 kg + 118,000 kg[131] (~29,320 lb + ~260,150 lb) 23.1 0.957
Space Shuttle (vehicle + payload) 2,040,000 kg (~4,500,000 lb) 104,000 kg + 28,800 kg (~230,000 lb + ~63,500 lb) 15.4 0.935
Saturn 1B (stage only) 448,648 kg[132] (989,100 lb) 41,594 kg[132] (91,700 lb) 10.7 0.907
Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer 10,024.39 kg (22,100 lb) 1,678.3 kg (3,700 lb) 6.0 0.83
V-2 13,000 kg (~28,660 lb) (12.8 ton) 3.85 0.74 [133]
X-15 15,420 kg (34,000 lb) 6,620 kg (14,600 lb) 2.3 0.57[134]
Concorde ~181,000 kg (400,000 lb [134]) 2 0.5[134]
Boeing 747 ~363,000 kg (800,000 lb[134]) 2 0.5[134]


Staging involves dropping off unnecessary parts of the rocket to reduce mass
Apollo 6 while dropping the interstage ring
Main article: Multistage rocket

Often, the required velocity (delta-v) for a mission is unattainable by any single rocket because the propellant, tankage, structure, guidance, valves and engines and so on, take a particular minimum percentage of take-off mass that is too great for the propellant it carries to achieve that delta-v.

For example, the first stage of the Saturn V, carrying the weight of the upper stages, was able to achieve a mass ratio of about 10, and achieved a specific impulse of 263 seconds. This gives a delta-v of around 5.9 km/s whereas around 9.4 km/s delta-v is needed to achieve orbit with all losses allowed for.

This problem is frequently solved by staging — the rocket sheds excess weight (usually empty tankage and associated engines) during launch. Staging is either serial where the rockets light after the previous stage has fallen away, or parallel, where rockets are burning together and then detach when they burn out.[135]

The maximum speeds that can be achieved with staging is theoretically limited only by the speed of light. However the payload that can be carried goes down geometrically with each extra stage needed, while the additional delta-v for each stage is simply additive.

Acceleration and thrust-to-weight ratio

From Newton's second law, the acceleration, a, of a vehicle is simply:

a = \frac {F_n} {m}

Where m is the instantaneous mass of the vehicle and F_n is the net force acting on the rocket (mostly thrust but air drag and other forces can play a part.)

As the remaining propellant decreases, rocket vehicles become lighter and their acceleration tends to increase until the propellant is exhausted. This means that much of the speed change occurs towards the end of the burn when the vehicle is much lighter.[3] However, the thrust can be throttled to offset or vary this if needed. Discontinuities in acceleration also occur when stages burn out, often starting at a lower acceleration with each new stage firing.

Peak accelerations can be increased by designing the vehicle with a reduced mass, usually achieved by a reduction in the fuel load and tankage and associated structures, but obviously this reduces range, delta-v and burn time. Still, for some applications that rockets are used for, a high peak acceleration applied for just a short time is highly desirable.

The minimal mass of vehicle consists of a rocket engine with minimal fuel and structure to carry it. In that case the thrust-to-weight ratio[nb 4] of the rocket engine limits the maximum acceleration that can be designed. It turns out that rocket engines generally have truly excellent thrust to weight ratios (137 for the NK-33 engine,[137] some solid rockets are over 1000[136]), and nearly all really high-g vehicles employ or have employed rockets.

The high accelerations that rockets naturally possess means that rocket vehicles are often capable of vertical takeoff; this can be done provided a vehicle's engines provide more than the local gravitational acceleration.


Drag is a force opposite to the direction of the rocket's motion. This decreases acceleration of the vehicle and produces structural loads. Deceleration force for fast-moving rockets are calculated using the drag equation.

Drag can be minimised by an aerodynamic nose cone and by using a shape with a high ballistic coefficient (the "classic" rocket shape—long and thin), and by keeping the rocket's angle of attack as low as possible.

During a rocket launch, as the vehicle speed increases, and the atmosphere thins, there is a point of maximum aerodynamic drag called Max Q. This determines the minimum aerodynamic strength of the vehicle, as the rocket must avoid buckling under these forces.[122]


Energy efficiency

Main article: propulsive efficiency

Rocket launch vehicles take-off with a great deal of flames, noise and drama, and it might seem obvious that they are grievously inefficient. However, while they are far from perfect, their energy efficiency is not as bad as might be supposed.

The energy density of a typical rocket propellant is often around one-third that of conventional hydrocarbon fuels; the bulk of the mass is (often relatively inexpensive) oxidizer. Nevertheless, at take-off the rocket has a great deal of energy in the fuel and oxidizer stored within the vehicle. It is of course desirable that as much of the energy of the propellant end up as kinetic or potential energy of the body of the rocket as possible.

Energy from the fuel is lost in air drag and gravity drag and is used for the rocket to gain altitude and speed. However, much of the lost energy ends up in the exhaust.[138]

In a chemical propulsion device, the engine efficiency is simply the ratio of the kinetic power of the exhaust gases and the power available from the chemical reaction:[138]

\eta_c= \frac {\frac {1} {2}\dot{m}v_e^2} {\eta_{combustion} P_{chem} }

100% efficiency within the engine (engine efficiency \eta_c = 100\%) would mean that all the heat energy of the combustion products is converted into kinetic energy of the jet. This is not possible, but the near-adiabatic high expansion ratio nozzles that can be used with rockets come surprisingly close: when the nozzle expands the gas, the gas is cooled and accelerated, and an energy efficiency of up to 70% can be achieved. Most of the rest is heat energy in the exhaust that is not recovered.[138] The high efficiency is a consequence of the fact that rocket combustion can be performed at very high temperatures and the gas is finally released at much lower temperatures, and so giving good Carnot efficiency.

However, engine efficiency is not the whole story. In common with the other jet-based engines, but particularly in rockets due to their high and typically fixed exhaust speeds, rocket vehicles are extremely inefficient at low speeds irrespective of the engine efficiency. The problem is that at low speeds, the exhaust carries away a huge amount of kinetic energy rearward. This phenomenon is termed propulsive efficiency (\eta_p).[138]

However, as speeds rise, the resultant exhaust speed goes down, and the overall vehicle energetic efficiency rises, reaching a peak of around 100% of the engine efficiency when the vehicle is travelling exactly at the same speed that the exhaust is emitted. In this case the exhaust would ideally stop dead in space behind the moving vehicle, taking away zero energy, and from conservation of energy, all the energy would end up in the vehicle. The efficiency then drops off again at even higher speeds as the exhaust ends up travelling forwards- trailing behind the vehicle.

Plot of instantaneous propulsive efficiency (blue) and overall efficiency for a rocket accelerating from rest (red) as percentages of the engine efficiency

From these principles it can be shown that the propulsive efficiency \eta_p for a rocket moving at speed u with an exhaust velocity c is:

\eta_p= \frac {2 \frac {u} {c}} {1 + ( \frac {u} {c} )^2 }[138]

And the overall (instantaneous) energy efficiency \eta is:

\eta= \eta_p \eta_c

For example, from the equation, with an \eta_c of 0.7, a rocket flying at Mach 0.85 (which most aircraft cruise at) with an exhaust velocity of Mach 10, would have a predicted overall energy efficiency of 5.9%, whereas a conventional, modern, air-breathing jet engine achieves closer to 35% efficiency. Thus a rocket would need about 6x more energy; and allowing for the specific energy of rocket propellant being around one third that of conventional air fuel, roughly 18x more mass of propellant would need to be carried for the same journey. This is why rockets are rarely if ever used for general aviation.

Since the energy ultimately comes from fuel, these considerations mean that rockets are mainly useful when a very high speed is required, such as ICBMs or orbital launch. For example, NASA's space shuttle fires its engines for around 8.5 minutes, consuming 1,000 tonnes of solid propellant (containing 16% aluminium) and an additional 2,000,000 litres of liquid propellant (106,261 kg of liquid hydrogen fuel) to lift the 100,000 kg vehicle (including the 25,000 kg payload) to an altitude of 111 km and an orbital velocity of 30,000 km/h. At this altitude and velocity, the vehicle has a kinetic energy of about 3 TJ and a potential energy of roughly 200 GJ. Given the initial energy of 20 TJ,[nb 5] the Space Shuttle is about 16% energy efficient at launching the orbiter.

Thus jet engines, with a better match between speed and jet exhaust speed (such as turbofans—in spite of their worse \eta_c)—dominate for subsonic and supersonic atmospheric use, while rockets work best at hypersonic speeds. On the other hand, rockets serve in many short-range relatively low speed military applications where their low-speed inefficiency is outweighed by their extremely high thrust and hence high accelerations.

Oberth effect

Main article: Oberth effect

One subtle feature of rockets relates to energy. A rocket stage, while carrying a given load, is capable of giving a particular delta-v. This delta-v means that the speed increases (or decreases) by a particular amount, independent of the initial speed. However, because kinetic energy is a square law on speed, this means that the faster the rocket is travelling before the burn the more orbital energy it gains or loses.

This fact is used in interplanetary travel. It means that the amount of delta-v to reach other planets, over and above that to reach escape velocity can be much less if the delta-v is applied when the rocket is travelling at high speeds, close to the Earth or other planetary surface; whereas waiting until the rocket has slowed at altitude multiplies up the effort required to achieve the desired trajectory.

Safety, reliability and accidents

Space Shuttle Challenger was torn apart 73 seconds after launch after hot gases escaped the SRBs, causing the breakup of the Shuttle stack

The reliability of rockets, as for all physical systems, is dependent on the quality of engineering design and construction.

Because of the enormous chemical energy in rocket propellants (greater energy by weight than explosives, but lower than gasoline), consequences of accidents can be severe. Most space missions have some issues.[139] In 1986, following the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster, American Physicist Richard Feynman, having served on the Rogers Commission estimated that the chance of an unsafe condition for a launch of the Shuttle was very roughly 1%;[140] more recently the historical per person-flight risk in orbital spaceflight has been calculated to be around 2%[141] or 4%.[142]

Costs and economics

The costs of rockets can be roughly divided into propellant costs, the costs of obtaining and/or producing the 'dry mass' of the rocket, and the costs of any required support equipment and facilities.[143]

Most of the takeoff mass of a rocket is normally propellant. However propellant is seldom more than a few times more expensive than gasoline per kilogram (as of 2009 gasoline was about $1/kg [$0.45/lb] or less), and although substantial amounts are needed, for all but the very cheapest rockets, it turns out that the propellant costs are usually comparatively small, although not completely negligible.[143] With liquid oxygen costing $0.15 per kilogram ($0.068/lb) and liquid hydrogen $2.20/kg ($1.00/lb), the Space Shuttle in 2009 had a liquid propellant expense of approximately $1.4 million for each launch that cost $450 million from other expenses (with 40% of the mass of propellants used by it being liquids in the external fuel tank, 60% solids in the SRBs).[144][145][146]

Even though a rocket's non-propellant, dry mass is often only between 5-20% of total mass,[147] nevertheless this cost dominates. For hardware with the performance used in orbital launch vehicles, expenses of $2000–$10,000+ per kilogram of dry weight are common, primarily from engineering, fabrication, and testing; raw materials amount to typically around 2% of total expense.[148][149] For most rockets except reusable ones (shuttle engines) the engines need not function more than a few minutes, which simplifies design.

Extreme performance requirements for rockets reaching orbit correlate with high cost, including intensive quality control to ensure reliability despite the limited safety factors allowable for weight reasons.[149] Components produced in small numbers if not individually machined can prevent amortization of R&D and facility costs over mass production to the degree seen in more pedestrian manufacturing.[149] Amongst liquid-fueled rockets, complexity can be influenced by how much hardware must be lightweight, like pressure-fed engines can have two orders of magnitude lesser part count than pump-fed engines but lead to more weight by needing greater tank pressure, most often used in just small maneuvering thrusters as a consequence.[149]

To change the preceding factors for orbital launch vehicles, proposed methods have included mass-producing simple rockets in large quantities or on large scale,[143] or developing reusable rockets meant to fly very frequently to amortize their up-front expense over many payloads, or reducing rocket performance requirements by constructing a hypothetical non-rocket spacelaunch system for part of the velocity to orbit (or all of it but with most methods involving some rocket use).

The costs of support equipment, range costs and launch pads generally scale up with the size of the rocket, but vary less with launch rate, and so may be considered to be approximately a fixed cost.[143]

Rockets in applications other than launch to orbit (such as military rockets and rocket-assisted take off), commonly not needing comparable performance and sometimes mass-produced, are often relatively inexpensive.

See also


General rocketry

Recreational rocketry

Recreational pyrotechnic rocketry

  • Bottle rocket—small firework type rocket often launched from bottles
  • Skyrocket—fireworks that typically explode at apogee


Rockets for Research


  • Equivalence principle—Einstein was able to show that the effects of gravity were completely equivalent to a rocket's acceleration in any small region of space
  • Rocket Festival—Tradition bamboo rockets of Laos and Northeastern Thailand
  • Rocket mail—the delivery of mail by rocket or missile.



  1. ^ "With its ninth century AD origins in China, the knowledge of gunpowder emerged from the search by alchemists for the secrets of life, to filter through the channels of Middle Eastern culture, and take root in Europe with consequences that form the context of the studies in this volume."[5]
  2. ^ "Without doubt it was in the previous century, around +850, that the early alchemical experiments on the constituents of gunpowder, with its self-contained oxygen, reached their climax in the appearance of the mixture itself."[6]
  3. ^ (云。(Rough translation: Year 1232: Among the weaponry at the defense city Kaifeng are the "thundercrash", which are made of iron pot, filled with drugs black powder, that exploded after being lighted with fire, and made a noise like thunder. They could be heard from over 100 li, and could spread on more than a third of an acre, moreover they could penetrate the armours and the iron. The Mongol soldiers employed a siege carriage cloaked with cowskin, advanced to the city below, then grubbed a niche on the city-wall, which could spare a man between. The Jin defenders atop did not know what to do, but they got an advice later. Thus, they dropped the pot with an iron string from the fortress, and the pot reached to the niche area and exploded, blowing men and carriage to pieces without trace. The defenders also have the "flying fire-lance", which they infused with black powder and ignited it. This lance flamed within a range of over ten paces on the front, and no one dared to approach it. It was said that the Mongol soldiers could only be deterred by these two devices.)[10]
  4. ^ “thrust-to-weight ratio F/Wg is a dimensionless parameter that is identical to the acceleration of the rocket propulsion system (expressed in multiples of g0) ... in a gravity-free vacuum”[136]
  5. ^ The energy density is 31MJ per kg for aluminum and 143 MJ/kg for liquid hydrogen, this means that the vehicle consumes around 5 TJ of solid propellant and 15 TJ of hydrogen fuel.


  1. ^ a b von Braun & Ordway 1966[page needed]
  2. ^ Gruntman, Mike (2004). Blazing the Trail: The Early History of Spacecraft and Rocketry (illustrated ed.). Reston, VA: The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). p. 11. ISBN 978-1563477058. Retrieved 14 April 2015. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Sutton 2001 chapter 1
  4. ^ MSFC History Office "Rockets in Ancient Times (100 B.C. to 17th Century)"
  5. ^ Buchanan 2006, p. 2
  6. ^ Needham 1986, p. 7
  7. ^ Chase 2003, pp. 31–32
  8. ^ a b c "A brief history of rocketry". NASA Spacelink. Retrieved 2006-08-19. 
  9. ^ a b This is based on an old Mandarin civil service examination question that reads "Is the defense of Kai Feng Fu against the Mongols (1232) the first recorded use of cannon?".Another question from the examinations read "Fire-arms began with the use of rockets in the dynasty of Chou (B. C. 1122-255)--in what book do we first meet with the word p'ao, now used for cannon?". W. A. P. Martin (1901), The Lore of Cathay or The Intellect of China, New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, p. 25 
  10. ^ History of Jin ch. 113
  11. ^ Crosby 2002, pp. 100–103
  12. ^ Needham 1986, p. 510
  13. ^ edited; Project, published by Korean Spirit & Culture Promotion (2007). Fifty wonders of Korea Volume 2. Science and Technology. (PDF). Seoul: Korean Spirit & Culture Promotion Project. p. 62. ISBN 978-0-9797263-4-7. Retrieved 3 July 2014. 
  14. ^ Hassan a
  15. ^ Hassan b
  16. ^ Mansour, Professor Dr. Mohamed. "Muslim Rocket Technology". Muslim Heritage Awareness Group. Retrieved 3 July 2014. 
  17. ^ Williamson, Mitch. "Hassan Al Rammah". Weapons and Warfare. Retrieved 3 July 2014. 
  18. ^ a b Jack Kelly (2005). Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World (illustrated ed.). Basic Books. p. 22. ISBN 0-465-03722-4. Retrieved 2011-11-28. Around 1240 the Arabs acquired knowledge of saltpeter (“Chinese snow”) from the East, perhaps through India. They knew of gunpowder soon afterward. They also learned about fireworks (“Chinese flowers”) and rockets (“Chinese arrows”). Arab warriors had acquired fire lances by 1280. Around that same year, a Syrian named Hasan al-Rammah wrote a book that, as he put it, "treat of machines of fire to be used for amusement of for useful purposes." He talked of rockets, fireworks, fire lances, and other incendiaries, using terms that suggested he derived his knowledge from Chinese sources. He gave instructions for the purification of saltpeter and the recipes for making different types of gunpowder. 
  19. ^ James Riddick Partington (1960). A history of Greek fire and gunpowder (reprint, illustrated ed.). JHU Press. p. 22. ISBN 0-8018-5954-9. Retrieved 2011-11-28. The first definite mention of saltpetre in an Arabic work is that in al-Baytar (d. 1248), written towards the end of his life, where it is called "snow of China." Al-Baytar was a Spanish Arab, although he travelled a good deal and lived for a time in Egypt. 
  20. ^ Arnold Pacey (1991). Technology in world civilization: a thousand-year history (reprint, illustrated ed.). MIT Press. p. 45. ISBN 0-262-66072-5. Retrieved 2011-11-28. Europeans were prompted by all this to take a closer interest in happenings far to the east. Four years after the invasion of 1241, the pope sent an ambassador to the Great Khan's capital in Mongolia. Other travellers followed later, of whom the most interesting was William of Rubruck (or Ruysbroek). He returned in 1257, and in the following year there are reports of experiments with gunpowder and rockets at Cologne. Then a friend of William of Rubruck, Roger Bacon, gave the first account of gunpowder and its use in fireworks to be written in Europe. A form of gunpowder had been known in China since before AD 900, and as mentioned earlier...Much of this knowledge had reached the Islamic countries by then, and the saltpetre used in making gunpowder there was sometimes referred to, significantly, as 'Chinese snow'. 
  21. ^ Original from the University of MichiganThe people's cyclopedia of universal knowledge with numerous appendixes invaluable for reference in all departments of industrial life... Volume 2 of The People's Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge with Numerous Appendixes Invaluable for Reference in All Departments of Industrial Life. NEW YORK: Eaton & Mains. 1897. p. 1033. Retrieved 2011-11-28. Fire-arms may be defined as vessels—of whatever form— used in the propulsion of shot, shell, or bullets, to a greater or less distance, by the action of gunpowder exploded within them. The prevalent notion that gunpowder was the invention of Friar Bacon, and that cannon were first used by Edward III. of England, must be at once discarded. It is certain that gunpowder differed in no conspicuous degree from the Chreekfire of the Byzantine emperors, nor from the terrestrial thunder of China and India, where it had been known for many centuries before the chivalry of Europe began to fall beneath its leveling power. Niter is the natural and daily product of China and India; and there, accordingly, the knowledge of gunpowder seems to be coeval with that of the most distant historic events. The earlier Arab historians call saltpeter "Chinese snow" and " Chinese salt;" and the most ancient records of China itself show that fireworks were well known several hundred yrs. before the Christian era. From these and other circumstances it is indubitable that gunpowder was used by the Chinese as an explosive compound in prehistoric times; when they first discovered or applied its power as a propellant is less easily determined. Stone mortars, throwing missiles of 12 lbs. to a distance of 800 paces, are mentioned as having been employed in 767 A.D. by Thang's army; and in 1282 A.D. it is incontestable that the Chinese besieged in Cai'fong-fou used cannon against their Mongol enemies. Thus the Chinese must be allowed to have established their claim to an early practical knowledge of gunpowder and its effects. 
  22. ^ Original from Harvard University John Clark Ridpath, ed. (1897). The standard American encyclopedia of arts, sciences, history, biography, geography, statistics, and general knowledge, Volume 3. 156 FIFTH AVENUE, NEW YORK: Encyclopedia publishing co. p. 1033. Retrieved 2011-11-28. Fire-arms may be defined as vessels—of whatever form— used in the propulsion of shot, shell, or bullets, to a greater or less distance, by the action of gunpowder exploded within them. The prevalent notion that gunpowder was the invention of Friar Bacon, and that cannon were first used by Edward III. of England, must be at once discarded. It is certain that gunpowder differed in no conspicuous degree from the Greek fire of the Byzantine emperors, nor from the terrestrial thwuler of the Asian Countries , where it had been known for many centuries before the chivalry of Europe began to fall beneath its leveling power. Niter is the natural and daily product of China and India; and there, accordingly, the know ledge of gunpowder seems to be coeval with that of the most distant historic events. The earlier Arab historians call saltpeter "Chinese snow" and " Chinese salt j" and the most ancient records of China itself show that fireworks were well known several hundred yrs. before the Christian era. From these and other circumstances it is indubitable that gunpowder was used by the Chinese as an explosive compound in prehistoric times; when they first discovered or applied its power as a propellant is less easily determined. Stone mortars, throning missiles of 12 lbs. to a distance of 300 paces, are mentioned as having been employed in 757 A.D. by Thaug's army; and in 1232 A.D. it is incontestable that the Chinese besieged in Cai'fong-fou used cannon against their Mongol enemies. Thus the Chinese must be allowed to have established their claim to an early practical knowledge of gunpowder and its effects. 
  23. ^ Original from the University of MichiganLillian Craig Harris (1993). China considers the Middle East (illustrated ed.). Tauris. p. 25. ISBN 1-85043-598-7. Retrieved 2011-11-28. now known precisely but, as with many other commodities, the Mongol campaigns served as one conduit. The Arabs learned of saltpetre around the end of the thirteenth century when they were introduced to it as 'Chinese snow' and began to use rockets they called 'Chinese arrows'. 
  24. ^ Original from the University of Michigan Thomas Francis Carter (1955). The invention of printing in China and its spread westward (2 ed.). Ronald Press Co. p. 126. Retrieved 2011-11-28. the Khitan, and again in the wars against the invading Jurchen in 1125-27 and 1161-62. Following the Mongol conquest of much of Asia the Arabs became acquainted with saltpeter sometime before the end of the thirteenth century. They called it Chinese snow, as they called the rocket the Chinese arrow. Roger Bacon (ca. 1214 to ca. 1294) is the first European writer to mention gunpowder, though whether he learned of it through his study of 
  25. ^ Original from the University of Michigan Frank Hamilton Hankins, American Sociological Association, American Sociological Society, JSTOR (Organization) (1963). American sociological review, Volume 10. American Sociological Association. p. 598. Retrieved 2011-11-28. Gunpowder appeared in Europe in the thirteenth century. The Arabs learned of gunpowder during this century and they called saltpeter "Chinese snow" and the rocket "Chinese arrow." Roger Bacon was the first European to mention gunpowder and he may have learend it from the Arabs or from his fellow Franciscan, Friar William of Rubruck. Friar William was in Mongolia in 
  26. ^ Hugh Laurence Ross, ed. (1963). Perspectives on the social order: readings in sociology. McGraw-Hill. p. 129. Retrieved 2011-11-28. Gunpowder appeared in Europe in the thirteenth century. The Arabs learned of gunpowder during this century and they called saltpeter "Chinese snow" and the rocket "Chinese arrow." Roger Bacon was the first European to mention gunpowder and he may have learend it from the Arabs or from his fellow Franciscan, Friar William of Rubruck. Friar William was in Mongolia in 1254 and Roger Bacon was personally acquainted with him after his return 
  27. ^ Original from the University of California Thomas Francis Carter (1925). The invention of printing in China and its spread westward. Columbia university press. p. 92. Retrieved 2011-11-28. When the use of these grenades first began is still obscure. They were apparently used in the battles of 1161 and 1162 , and again by the northern Chinese against the Mongols in 1232. The Arabs became acquainted with saltpeter some time before the end of the thirteenth century and calledin Chinese snow, as the called the rocket the Chinese arrow. Roger Bacon (c. 1214 to c. 1294) is the first European writer to mention gunpowder, though whether he learned of it. 
  28. ^ Original from the University of Michigan Michael Edwardes (1971). East-West passage: the travel of ideas, arts, and inventions between Asia and the Western world, Volume 1971, Part 2 (illustrated ed.). Taplinger. p. 82. Retrieved 2011-11-28. However, the first Arab mention of saltpetre occurs towards the end of the thirteenth century, when it is called 'Chinese snow'. In any case, gunpowder became known in Europe a short time after it was used in warfare in China 
  29. ^ Original from the University of California Thomas Francis Carter (1955). The invention of printing in China and its spread westward (2 ed.). Ronald Press Co. p. 126. Retrieved 2011-11-28. Following the Mongol conquest of much of Asia the Arabs became acquainted with saltpeter sometime before the end of the thirteenth century. They called it Chinese snow, as they called the rocket the Chinese arrow. 
  30. ^ Peter Watson (2006). Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud (illustrated, annotated ed.). HarperCollins. p. 304. ISBN 0-06-093564-2. Retrieved 2011-11-28. The first use of a metal tube in this context was made around 1280 in the wars between the Song and the Mongols, where a new term, chong, was invented to describe the new horror...Like paper, it reached the West via the Muslims, in this case the writings of the Andalusian botanist Ibn al-Baytar, who died in Damascus in 1248. The Arabic term for saltpetre is 'Chinese snow' while the Persian usage is 'Chinese salt'.28 
  31. ^ Cathal J. Nolan (2006). The age of wars of religion, 1000-1650: an encyclopedia of global warfare and civilization. Volume 1 of Greenwood encyclopedias of modern world wars (illustrated ed.). Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 365. ISBN 0-313-33733-0. Retrieved 2011-11-28. In either case, there is linguistic evidence of Chinese origins of the technology: in Damascus, Arabs called the saltpeter used in making gunpowder " Chinese snow," while in Iran it was called "Chinese salt." Whatever the migratory route 
  32. ^ Original from the University of Michigan Oliver Frederick Gillilan Hogg (1970). Artillery: its origin, heyday, and decline (illustrated ed.). Archon Books. p. 123. Retrieved 2011-11-28. The Chinese were certainly acquainted with saltpetre, the essential ingredient of gunpowder. They called it Chinese Snow and employed it early in the Christian era in the manufacture of fireworks and rockets. 
  33. ^ Original from the University of Michigan Oliver Frederick Gillilan Hogg (1963). English artillery, 1326-1716: being the history of artillery in this country prior to the formation of the Royal Regiment of Artillery. Royal Artillery Institution. p. 42. Retrieved 2011-11-28. The Chinese were certainly acquainted with saltpetre, the essential ingredient of gunpowder. They called it Chinese Snow and employed it early in the Christian era in the manufacture of fireworks and rockets. 
  34. ^ Oliver Frederick Gillilan Hogg (1993). Clubs to cannon: warfare and weapons before the introduction of gunpowder (reprint ed.). Barnes & Noble Books. p. 216. ISBN 1-56619-364-8. Retrieved 2011-11-28. The Chinese were certainly acquainted with saltpetre, the essential ingredient of gunpowder. They called it Chinese snow and used it early in the Christian era in the manufacture of fireworks and rockets. 
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