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History of Rocketry Chapter 3
Early 20th Century
Written and Edited by

The Rocket Pioneers

It was, of course, the 20th century that witnessed an explosion in the field of rocketry. By the end of the 19th century, the three men considered to be the primary pioneers of modern rocketry had been born and begun their studies.

Do to the extreme significance in the work and legacy of Konstantin Eduardovitch Tsiolkovsky (Russian), Robert Hutchings Goddard (American) and Hermann Oberth (German), a biographical summary of each, along with their contributions to rocketry, is presented in the above links.

Rocketry Enters The 20th Century

Although the pioneering works of Tsiolkovsky, Goddard and Oberth represent the most significant strides in pre-World War II rocketry, other noteworthy developments did take place in the early 20th century.

Some of these, however, were of novelty interest only, such as the occasion in the very early 1900's when scientists tried launching rockets into the clouds then exploding them in an effort to prevent hailstorms. The rockets exploded, but so did the hailstorms.

In 1906, a German named Alfred Maul successfully took aerial photographs of the ground by attaching cameras to solid-fueled rockets. This method, while somewhat hopeful, was completely discontinued upon the advent of airplanes.

Rockets See Limited Use During World War I

Although rockets were used during World War I, they were of limited value. As was the case during the U.S. Civil War, rockets were simply not as effective as artillery weapons of the day. Rockets sometimes were employed both on land and at sea to lay smoke screens. Allied forces also used rockets as a method of illuminating battlefields.

Rockets were exploded in a brilliant flash that could illuminate a battlefield for several seconds. Some rockets carried a parachute with a flare attached. As the parachute and flare dropped toward the ground, a battlefield could be illuminated for about 30 seconds.

Offensive use of rockets did occur during World War I in France, where French forces introduced La Prieur rockets, named after their inventor Naval Lt. Y.P.G. La Prieur. These small solid-fueled rockets were designed to be fired from French or British bi-planes against German captive observation balloons.

The First Guided Missiles Are Introduced

Although they were never used offensively during the war, World War I spurred the demonstration of what are considered to be the first guided missiles, the British A.T. and the U.S. Kettering Bug.

British guided missile studies began in 1914 under the direction of professor A.M. Low. The British guided missile project was called A.T. for "Aerial Target" so that enemy spies would believe the vehicles were simply drones flown to test the effectiveness of anti-aircraft weapons.

However, A.T. concept vehicles were really intended to determine the feasibility of using radio signals to guide a flying bomb to its target. Radio guidance equipment was developed, tested and installed on small mono-planes which were powered by a 35-horsepower Granville Bradshaw engine.

Two A.T. test flights were conducted in March, 1917 at the Royal Flying Corps training school field at Upavon. Although both vehicles crashed due to engine failure, it was determined that radio guidance was feasible. Nevertheless, the A.T. program was scrapped due to its perceived limited wartime value.

Under the direction of Charles Kettering, development of the Kettering Bug began at the Delco and Sperry companies in 1917. The Kettering Bug was a pilotless bi-plane bomber made of wood and weighing just 600 pounds, including a 300-pound bomb as payload. It was powered by a 40-horsepower Ford engine.

Engineers employed an ingenious method of guiding the Kettering Bug to its target. Once wind speed, wind direction and target distance were determined, the number of revolutions of the engine needed to take the missile to its target were calculated.

A cam was then set to automatically drop into position when the proper number of engine revolutions had occurred. The Kettering Bug took off using a four-wheel carriage that ran along a portable track. Once in the air, the Kettering Bug was controlled by a small gyroscope. Altitude was measured by an aneroid barometer.

When the engine had completed the necessary number of revolutions, the cam dropped into position. As it did, the bolts that fastened the wings to the fuselage were pulled in. The wings then detached, and the bomb-carrying fuselage simply fell onto its target.

The Kettering Bug was successfully demonstrated in 1918 before Army Air Corps observers in Dayton, Ohio. However, World War I hostilities ended before the guided missile could be placed into production.

Russia Creates Official Rocketry Organizations

Russian rocketry research intended to follow up on the work of Tsiolkovsky was formally continued in 1924, when the Russian government created the Central Bureau for the Study of the Problems of Rockets and the All-Union Society for the Study of Interplanetary Flight.

Wernher von Braun Joins The VfR

In 1927, an eager 17-year-old scientist named Wernher von Braun joined the VfR, or Verein fur Raumschiffahrt (Society for Space Travel), which had been formed in June, 1927. This group of mainly young scientists immediately began designing and building a variety of rockets.

Membership in the VfR quickly soared to about 500, a sufficient member base to allow the publication of a periodic journal, "Die Rakete" (The Rocket). A number of VfR members, including Walter Hohmann, Willy Ley and Max Valier, had written, and continued to write, popular works on the field of rocketry.

Hohmann's book "Die Erreichbarkeit der Himmelskorper" (The Attainability of Celestial Bodies) published in 1925 was so technically advanced that it was consulted years later by NASA. Valier would later seek to popularize rocketry by helping to organize tests of German rocket cars, gliders, train cars and snow sleds.

Other VfR members, including Hermann Oberth and von Braun, participated in the Ufa Film Company project in the late 1920's through 1930, which also sought to popularize the field of rocketry.

The British Introduce Another Guided Missile

Also in 1927, British engineers at the Royal Aircraft Establishment introduced a missile called the Larynx. Larynx was a radio guided mono-plane flight tested from the HMS Stronghold at sea and from a testing ground in Egypt. It could carry a 250-pound bomb to a target up to 100 miles away at a maximum speed of 200 m.p.h.

Rocket Automobiles Are Tested

German automobile manufacturer Fritz von Opel tested his Opel-Rak I, the first rocket-powered automobile, in 1928. Opel-Rak I was an experimental modified racing car powered by a battery of Sander solid-propellant rockets used for life-line rescues at sea.

The final version of the Opel-Rak I employed 12 Sander rockets, after initial test runs using clusters of six and eight Sander rockets were completed. Although only seven of the 12 Sander rockets actually fired when the car was tested on April 12, 1928, the Opel-Rak I reached a maximum speed of 70 m.p.h.

This was followed by the Opel-Rak II, which was powered by a battery of 24 Sander rockets. The Opel-Rak II reached a maximum speed of 125 m.p.h. when it was tested on May 23, 1928.

Rocket Railway Cars Are Tested

The versatile Sander rockets were also used to support experiments on rocket-powered railway cars. The first railway test was conducted in June, 1928 on a track between Celle and Burgwedel, Germany. In this test, a cluster of 24 Sander rockets propelled a railway car to a maximum speed of 100 m.p.h.

Two follow-up rocket-powered railway car tests were conducted on a track between Blankenburg and Halberstadt, Germany. Specific results of these tests are unknown, with the exception that in the final run, a cluster of Sander rockets failed to move a heavier railway car.

Rocket Aircraft Are Tested

Germans also developed the first rocket-powered aircraft, the Ente (Duck), a sailplane powered by two Sander rockets. An Ente flew a distance of three-quarters of a mile in just under one minute during a test flight on June 11, 1928. The test was conducted by the German glider group Rhon-Rossitten Gesellschaft.

Not to be out-done, the publicity-seeking Fritz von Opel piloted a glider powered by 16 Sander rockets on September 30, 1928. The glider reached a maximum speed of 95 m.p.h.

Austrian Scientist Proposes Rocket Engines

Also in 1928, Austrian Dr. Franz von Hoefft of Vienna's Gesellschaft fur Hohenforschung (Society for Altitude Research) proposed the development of a variety of rocket engines.

Rocket Sleds Are Tested

On January 22, 1929 Germans tested the first rocket-powered snow sled, called RS-1. Also powered by a cluster of Sander rockets, the sled glided along the snow on pontoons at a maximum speed of 65 m.p.h.

Italy Conducts Rocketry Tests

Limited rocketry research began in 1929 in Italy when scientists General G.A. Crocco and Riccardo M. Corelli determined that solid fuels were not effective for long-range rockets. Engines were designed that burned combinations of gasoline/nitrogen dioxide, trinitroglycerine/methyl alcohol and trinitroglycerine/nitromethane.

While the Italian rocketry tests had some promise, they centered around combustion chamber tests only and did not produce any rockets. The Italian tests were abandoned by 1935 due to a lack of funding.

Russian Rocketry Research Continues

In 1930, Russian government rocket design teams led by Fridrikh Arturovitch Tsander and Valentin Petrovitch Glushko began testing a number of liquid-fueled rocket engines. Tsander published "Problems of Flight by Means of Reactive Devices" in 1932 while Glushko published "Rockets, Their Construction and Utilization" in 1935.

These Russian rocket tests continued through 1937, and tested liquid-fueled rocket engine concepts burning such combinations as gasoline/gaseous air, toluene/nitrogen tetroxide, gasoline/liquid oxygen, kerosene/nitric acid and kerosene/tetranitromethane.

One of the Russian rocket designs emerging from these tests was called GIRD-X, which weighed 65 pounds, was 8.5 feet long and 6 inches wide. A GIRD-X rocket reached a maximum altitude of three miles during a test on November 25, 1933.

Another of the Russian rockets, called Aviavnito, weighed 213 pounds, was 10 feet long and 1 foot wide. An Aviavnito rocket reached an altitude of 3.5 miles in 1936.

The VfR Begins Rocket Tests

Also in 1930, the VfR set up permanent offices in Berlin and began testing rockets which would ultimately change the nature of warfare and propel the world into the space age.

These at first humble tests began at an abandoned German ammunition dump at Reinickendorf nicknamed Raketenflugplatz (Rocket Airfield). The true genius of the VfR team at this time was reportedly Klaus Riedel, although he had no formal training. Riedel was killed in an automobile accident prior to the close of World War II.

By August, 1930 tests began on the first of the VfR rockets, called Mirak-1 (Minimum Rocket-1). Powered by a combination of liquid oxygen and gasoline, Mirak-1 employed a 12-inch long liquid oxygen tank that shrouded a combustion chamber, thus cooling it. Gasoline was carried in a three-foot long tail stick.

Mirak-1 was successfully static test fired in August, 1930 at Bernstadt, Saxony. During a second static test firing in September, 1930 Mirak-1 exploded when its liquid oxygen tank burst.

The British Introduce More Guided Missiles

The British introduced the Queen Bee in 1930, which was followed by the Queen Wasp. Both were radio-guided bi-planes launched by catapult from naval vessels or ground installations. Considered an advanced concept in their day, these missiles were able to drop an explosive weapons payload then return to the launch site for a pontoon landing.

Rocket Mail Service Begins

Beginning in February, 1931 Austrian Friedrich Schmiedl launched solid-fueled rockets carrying mail payloads, primarily intended to be launched between the cities of Schockel and Radegund or Schockel and Kumberg.

Schmiedl's innovative method of launching rocket mail was successful for several years, so an Austrian inventor named Gerhard Zucker proposed a service that would carry rocket mail across the English Channel. Unfortunately for Zucker, all of his long-range solid-fueled rocket mail prototypes exploded at launch.

German Rocket Testing Continues

On March 13, 1931 Karl Poggensee launched an experimental solid-fueled rocket near Berlin. The rocket carried an altimeter, cameras and a velocity indicator. It reached an altitude of 1,500 feet and was successfully recovered by parachute.

The first European liquid-fueled rocket was launched on March 14, 1931 not by the VfR but rather by German scientist Johannes Winkler, supported in his research by Hugo A. Huckel. The pair launched a 2-foot long by 1-foot wide rocket called the Huckel-Winkler 1, powered by a combination of liquid oxygen and liquid methane.

The Huckel-Winkler 1 was launched near the city of Dessau and reached an altitude of 1,000 feet. This was followed by the launch of Huckel-Winkler 2 near Pillau in East Prussia on October 6, 1932. This rocket caught on fire and crashed after reaching an altitude of just ten feet.

In April, 1931 a German scientist named Reinhold Tiling launched four solid-fueled rockets at Osnabruck. One exploded at an altitude of 500 feet, two reached altitudes of between 1,500 and 2,000 feet and one reached an altitude of 6,600 feet at a maximum speed of 700 m.p.h.

Tiling later launched two more solid-fueled rockets, each more advanced than the first four. These rockets were launched from Wangerooge, one of the East Frisian Islands. Details of these tests are not certain, but one of the rockets is believed to have reached an altitude of 32,000 feet.

The VfR Makes Advances In Rocket Testing

Also in the spring of 1931, VfR tested the Mirak-2, which was similar in design to the Mirak-1, but incorporated an improved propulsion system. Like the Mirak-1, the Mirak-2 rocket was destroyed during a static test firing when its liquid oxygen tank burst.

VfR then moved on to tests of a new series of rockets called Repulsor, so named by VfR member Willy Ley. Repulsor rockets, like their Mirak ancestors, also burned a combination of liquid oxygen and gasoline. But the Repulsor combustion chamber was cooled by water stored inside a double-walled aluminum skin.

Repulsor-1 was successfully launched by VfR to an altitude of 200 feet on May 14, 1931 in the second European launch of a liquid-fueled rocket. Repulsor-2 reached an altitude of 200 feet and range of 2,000 feet on May 23, 1931.

VfR then introduced a series of rockets under the designation Repulsor-3, which were intended to be launched then recovered intact via parachute. The first Repulsor-3 reached an altitude of 2,000 feet and range of 2,000 feet, although its parachute was torn off and the rocket crashed. Several Repulsor-3 tests followed with mixed results.

These tests were followed by the Repulsor-4 series, which introduced a rocket incorporating a single tail stick for stability. In August, 1931 the first Repulsor-4 reached an altitude of 3,300 feet and was recovered by parachute. Subsequently tested Repulsor-4 rockets typically reached altitudes of about one mile.

Rocket Tests Commence In The U.S.

The American Interplanetary Society (AIS) completed the design of a liquid-fueled rocket in January, 1932. It was patterned after the VfR Repulsor series of rockets, and burned a combination of liquid oxygen and gasoline encased in an aluminum alloy frame.

Fabrication of AIS Rocket #1 began on a farm in Stockton, New Jersey in August, 1932. The first static test firing of the rocket occurred on November 12, 1932 at which time the 15-pound rocket produced a thrust of 60 pounds. A planned test launch of Rocket #1 was canceled on November 13, 1932 due to bad weather.

Rocket #1 was never launched, but was overhauled and renamed Rocket #2. Rocket #2 was launched from Great Kills, Staten Island, New York on May 14, 1933. Its oxygen tank burst at an altitude of 250 feet. AIS then planned tests using Rockets #3, #4 and #5, which ranged in length from 5.5 to 7.5 feet and in diameter from 3 to 8 inches.

Rocket #4 was launched from Great Kills, Staten Island, New York on September 9, 1934 and reached an altitude of 382 feet and range of 1,338 feet. Rocket #3 was never flown due to a faulty design, and Rocket #5 was never built. AIS performed liquid-fueled engine tests, but conducted no rocket launches, through 1939.

AIS was able to support the test launches of a number of solid-fueled rockets between 1937 and 1939. These rockets varied in size and employed dry-fuel cartridges. All AIS rocket testing ceased in 1939 upon the advent of World War II.

In the same general time frame as the AIS activities, the Cleveland Rocket Society tested a number of liquid-fueled rockets that burned a combination of liquid oxygen and gasoline. These tests were conducted at a test site outside the city of Cleveland.

In 1932, the U.S. Army Ordnance Department began a six-year program which involved the sporadic testing of powder rockets at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. These tests were directed by Captain Leslie A. Skinner, and were intended to develop an effective air-to-air missile.

These U.S. Army tests employed modified 81 millimeter trench mortars reloaded with powder and fired from a pipe launcher. While the tests did not yield a weapon accurate enough to be fired from the air, the research was later successfully applied to both U.S. Navy rocket accelerated bombs and the U.S. Army bazooka.

German Army Considers Support Of VfR Rocket Tests

Membership within the VfR dropped dramatically in 1932 as German police began objecting to rocket tests within the Berlin city limits. This was coupled with a fear of Adolph Hitler, who began restricting the activities of organizations, like VfR, that had significant ties to the international community.

Facing total elimination, VfR made pleas to the German Army to aid in the continuation of rocket testing. In the summer of 1932, the German Army allowed VfR to launch a Repulsor-type rocket at an army proving ground at Kummersdorf.

The German Army then allowed Wernher von Braun to continue experiments while working on his doctoral thesis in rocket combustion phenomena using the facilities at Kummersdorf.

First Modern Manned Rocket Is Proposed

The first definite plans to construct a manned rocket emerged in 1933 as a part of the Magdeburg Project, headed by German scientists Rudolf Nebel and Herbert Schaefer. A test rocket was launched on June 9, 1933 at Wolmirstedt near Magdeburg. The rocket never left its 30-foot launching tower.

Several tests followed with mixed results. On June 29, 1933 a rocket left the launch tower, but flew horizontally at a low altitude for a distance of about 1,000 feet. This rocket was recovered undamaged and refashioned into a design more closely resembling the VfR Repulsors.

This rocket was eventually launched from Lindwerder Island in Tegeler Lake near Berlin and reached an altitude of 3,000 feet before crashing about 300 feet from the launching tower. Additional test launches were conducted from a boat on Schwielow Lake through August, 1933 at which time the Magdeburg Project was completely abandoned.

British Interplanetary Society Is Founded

The British Interplanetary Society was founded in 1933. Its member publications sought to greatly broaden an awareness of the need for experiments in rocketry. But as the history of the British Interplanetary Society was just beginning, the history of VfR was reaching an untimely end.

German Army Absorbs VfR Rocket Testing

The VfR was forced to disband in the winter of 1933/1934 because the organization could not meet its financial obligations. Rocketry experiments ceased at the Raketenflugplatz facility in January, 1934 and the area resumed operation as an ammunition dump. Upon the disbanding of VfR, all private rocket testing in Germany ceased.

Wernher von Braun, however, went to work officially for the German Army at Kummersdorf. There, the Heereswaffenamt-Prufwesen (Army Ordnance Research and Development Department) established the Versuchsstelle Kummersdorf-West as a static testing site for ballistic missile weapons.

Kummersdorf also became a site for the development and testing of a number of prototype jet-assisted take-off (JATO) units for aircraft. These tests were conducted by Wernher von Braun in association with Major von Richthofen and Ernst Heinkel.

Under the direction of Captain Walter Dornberger, the Kummersdorf team was quickly able to design and build the A-1 (Aggregate-1) rocket. The A-1 was powered by a combination of liquid oxygen and alcohol, and could develop a thrust of about 660 pounds.

A 70-pound flywheel gyroscope was carried in the nose of the rocket to provide stability during flight. The A-1 was ultimately unsuccessful because its small fiberglass liquid oxygen tank housed inside its alcohol tank was fire prone. In addition, the gyroscope was located too far from the center of the rocket to be effective.

The A-1 was soon followed by the A-2, which employed separate alcohol and liquid oxygen tanks. The A-2 gyroscope was located near the center of the rocket between the two fuel tanks. In December, 1934 two A-2 rockets, nicknamed Max and Moritz, were launched from the North Sea island of Borkum. Each reached an altitude of about 6,500 feet.

But the feasibility of effective military rockets remained speculative at best, exemplified by the fact that in 1935, Adolph Hitler rejected a proposal from Artillery General Karl Becker for a long-range bombardment rocket.

The British Engage In Limited Rocket Development

Although the Explosives Act of 1875 had severely restricted rocketry research in Great Britain, certain government rocketry tests were allowed. These included rocket tests begun in 1935 by the Research Department at Woolwich Arsenal.

The Woolwich Arsenal tests employed smokeless cordite as fuel, the use of which was not restricted by the government. The research work was permitted to expand with the goal of producing anti-aircraft rockets, long-range attack rockets, air-to-air rockets and assisted take-off rockets.

Small 2-inch or 3-inch charges of smokeless cordite became the basis for a number of solid rocket motor designs, some of which were used in clustered applications. The smokeless cordite rockets were tested through 1939 in England and Jamaica, and eventually made their way into British Army and Navy arsenals.

Rocket Aircraft Are Tested In The U.S.

In the United States, a limited test of rocket-assisted aircraft was conducted on February 23, 1936 when two 15-foot wingspan airplanes were launched from a frozen lake at Greenwood Lake, New York. Each airplane was powered by a single rocket engine that burned a combination of liquid oxygen and alcohol.

Each airplane carried a number of commemorative cachet envelope covers and postcards. One airplane crashed after a 15-second flight when its wings tore off. The other reached an altitude of 1,000 feet before its combustion chamber ran out of fuel. Flight operations were supervised by noted author and former VfR member Willy Ley.

U.S. Navy Supports Liquid-Fueled Rocket Tests

Navy Midshipman Robert C. Truax began experimenting with liquid-fueled rocket engines in 1936. With his work supported by the Navy at Annapolis, Truax was able to develop several small experimental rocket engines that burned a combination of compressed air and gasoline.

Lesser Known Rocket Tests Commence In Germany

Sanctioned German rocketry research was also conducted by engineer Eugen Sanger, whose work began in 1936 and eventually yielded experimental rocket engines which burned a combination of liquid oxygen and diesel fuel. These engines could produce a sustained thrust of 50 pounds for up to 30 minutes, but had no military value.

Rockets Carry Propaganda Leaflets In Spain

Solid-fueled sea-rescue rockets were used in a particularly interesting manner during the Spanish Civil War, which lasted from 1936 to 1939. These rockets were converted for the purpose of carrying propaganda leaflets behind enemy lines.

The sea-rescue rocket nose cones were modified to burst open at a predetermined time and altitude to release a payload of leaflets, which were printed on an especially thin paper to conserve weight.

German Rocket Tests Commence At Peenemunde

In April, 1937 all of the German rocket testing was relocated to a top-secret base at Peenemunde on the Baltic Coast. The first task of engineers at what was established as the Heeresversuchsstelle Peenemunde (Army Experimental Station Peenemunde) was to develop and test a new rocket called the A-3.

By the end of 1937, the Peenemunde team had developed and tested the 1,650-pound, 21-foot long A-3 rocket, which burned a combination of liquid oxygen and alcohol. Although the propulsion system of the A-3 functioned well, its experimental inertial guidance system did not. The guidance problems were solved, and larger rockets were planned.

By 1938, Germany had begun invading huge portions of Eastern Europe, and Adolph Hitler began recognizing the need for an effective ballistic missile weapon. The German Ordnance Department requested that the Peenemunde team develop a ballistic weapon that had a range of 150 to 200 miles and could carry a one-ton explosive warhead.

The size of the weapon would need to be compatible with existing railways in terms of tunnels and bends and would need to be transportable in the field by truck. These criteria led directly to the development of the A-4 rocket.

An interim test vehicle to bridge the gap between the A-3 and the A-4 was named the A-5. The A-5 was similar in design to the A-3, but employed a simpler, more reliable guidance system and stronger structure. The A-5 was fashioned with the exterior appearance of the proposed A-4 weapon.

A-5 tests were conducted from the fall of 1938 through 1939. The rockets were launched both horizontally and vertically, and were often recovered by parachute and launched again. The first A-5 launched vertically reached an altitude of 7.5 miles.


History of Rocketry Chapter 1
Ancient Times Through the 17th Century

History of Rocketry Chapter 2
18th and 19th Centuries

History of Rocketry Index

History of Rocketry Chapter 4
World War II (Germany)

History of Rocketry Chapter 5
World War II (Other Nations)

History of Rocketry Chapter 6
1945 to the Creation of NASA

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