Dr. Theodor von Karman.
rocketry began with Robert Goddard, a physics professor at Clark
University in Worcester, Massachusetts, who flew the first such rocket in
1926, 12 years after receiving his first patent and seven years after
publishing “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes,” in which he argued
that rockets could be used to explore the upper atmosphere. He learned
quickly though, that flying rockets can have dangerous consequences, and
in 1931, he relocated to the wide-open spaces of Roswell, New Mexico,
after receiving a legal injunction to stop firing rockets near his home
because some of them had crashed into a neighbor's property. In New
Mexico, he expanded his activities.
Some American experimentation in
rocketry prior to World War II grew in technical societies.
This is an early rocket motor designed and developed by the American
Rocket Society in 1932.
extremely talented, Goddard, however, worked virtually alone, establishing
no company and attracting no protégés to continue his work. It fell to
others, particularly companies and professional societies, to carry forth
the practical development of rocketry.
work started with a group of writers in New York City who contributed to
Science Wonder Stories, one of the first sci-fi magazines. David Lasser,
who wrote for the New York Herald Tribune, in 1930 invited them to form a
group called the American Interplanetary Society. They met every two weeks
in Manhattan's Museum of Natural History, where their first public event
was a showing of a German sci-fi movie, “The Girl in the Moon,” with
English subtitles. Soon, though, they advanced to work with real rockets.
of Lasser, G. Edward Pendray, toured Europe in 1931, and met with rocket
researchers in Berlin. One of these inventors showed him a test firing of
a small liquid-fueled rocket. Entranced, Pendray returned to America with
the hope of building such rockets in New York. Working with another
Society member, Hugh Pierce, he built a rocket and tried to launch it from
Staten Island in May 1933. It flew well for about two seconds before its
tank of liquid oxygen exploded. Undismayed, the group renamed itself the
American Rocket Society and put their hope in a new liquid-fuelled engine
designed by a young engineer, John Shesta. It powered their next rocket,
which went out of control and splashed into the water with its engine
still firing loudly.
York area was not well suited for such flights. Pendray later wrote that
his friends found “frequent and unannounced moving of the testing ground
to be a wise and sometimes necessary precaution.” Their experiments
nevertheless continued, focusing then on the work of a brilliant Princeton
University student, James Wyld. His best rocket engine, tested in 1938,
weighed only two pounds (0.9 kilograms) but delivered 90 pounds (400
Newtons) of thrust. An improved version, tested during 1941, proved to be
reliable and fully satisfactory.
then another Society member, Lovell Lawrence, was working in Washington.
War was imminent, and Lawrence thought he might be able to win a
government contract. He attracted interest within the Navy, but learned
that he needed a corporation to do business legally. He promptly set one
up, called Reaction Motors, naming himself the president and Pierce, Wyld,
and Shesta as the new company's officers, directors, employees, and
stockholders. Early in 1942, with the Nation indeed at war, Lawrence
received his contract.
The nation's first U.S. Jet
Assisted Take Off (JATO) used solid propellant that
had been developed at Theodor von Karmanďs Guggenheim Aeronautics
This flight took place at March Field, California, on August 12, 1941.
Motors' start-up capital was $5,000. Its initial shop was in the garage of
Shesta's brother-in-law, but it soon moved to a former nightclub in
Pompton Plains, New Jersey. The club's bar stools were still in place when
they moved in. To test their engines, they found an isolated area in
nearby Franklin Lakes.
was activity as well on the West Coast, where noted aerodynamicist
Theodore von Kármán was a professor at the California Institute of
Technology (Caltech). In 1936, Frank Malina, one of his graduate students,
won permission to design and test rockets as a research project. Malina
couldn't fire them at Caltech itself, but found the open space he needed a
few miles away at a place called Arroyo Seco, which means “dry gulch.”
wanted to build solid-fuel rockets that would burn somewhat slowly, giving
a prolonged push to help an airplane get off the ground. In 1940 he and
Von Kármán devised a set of mathematical equations that showed them how to
proceed. Von Kármán by then had won funding from the Army Air Corps, and
Malina used some of the money to set up a rocket research centre in Arroyo
Seco. His first buildings were small, with corrugated-metal roofs and
unheated, drafty, and cramped interiors. Office space was so limited that
for a time, one man worked out of the back seat of his car. Still, these
arrangements served Malina's purposes.
early solid propellants developed cracks, which led to explosions.
However, fuel could be made from any material that would burn, and his
chemist, John Parsons, decided to try other materials as rocket fuels,
such as paving tar and asphalt, which flexed and did not crack. Parsons
melted a batch in a kettle and stirred in a quantity of potassium
perchlorate, an oxygen-rich compound that would make this fuel burn. It
worked! The new propellant gave good thrust and did not crack. With this,
Malina had the important invention of a long-burning solid propellant that
did not readily explode.
colleague, Martin Summerfield, was interested in liquid-propellant
rockets. Other people were using liquid oxygen, but this supercold liquid
evaporated readily, and Summerfield wanted propellants that could be
stored at room temperature. Parsons, the chemist, invited him to try red
fuming nitric acid. Summerfield tried it with gasoline and kerosene as
fuels, but his rocket engines chugged violently and either blew up or shut
down. No one at Caltech knew what to do, so Summerfield consulted a Navy
rocket man, Robert Truax.
The XLR11 was the first
liquid-fuel rocket engine developed in the United States
for use on airplanes. Designed and built by Reaction Motors, the engine
ethyl alcohol and liquid oxygen (LOX) as propellants to generate a maximum
thrust of 6,000 lbs.
Thrust could be varied by operating the XLR11's four combustion chambers
individually or in combination.
The engine was first used in the Bell X-1 in 1947.
Truax's chemists suggested aniline as a fuel. “The results were
spectacular,” Von Kármán later wrote. “Nitric acid and aniline took to
each other beautifully. The flame in the engine was absolutely steady.”
With this, Malina's researchers had another important invention: a liquid
rocket that used storable propellants.
the Nation was at war, and Von Kármán saw that he could win military
contracts by drawing on his excellent Washington connections. Again
though, he needed a company, so, with help from his attorney, he
established a company called, at Malina's suggestion, Aerojet. It opened
for business in March 1942, with Von Kármán as president and the company
office in an auto showroom in downtown Pasadena. The Arroyo Seco
facilities continued to serve for rocket tests, though it was hard to get
there since its dirt access road washed out when it rained. But this test
area soon grew in importance. During 1944, it was reorganized as a center
for guided-missile research, and took the name of Jet Propulsion
colonel, Gervais Trichel, asked Von Kármán to take responsibility for a
complete guided-missile program. They started with the Private, a small
rocket that burned Parsons' mix of asphalt and perchlorate. Von Kármán
then proposed to build the liquid-fuelled Corporal, with a range of 60
miles (97 kilometres). But the Corporal project called for a big leap in
technology, and Malina argued that JPL should build a smaller liquid-fuelled
rocket as an intermediate step. It took shape as the WAC Corporal, named
after the wartime Women's Army Corps. Standing 16 feet tall, it reached an
altitude of 44 miles (71 kilometres) on its first try, in October 1945.
east, Reaction Motors was active as well. Under Navy contract, it spent
the war building larger versions of Wyld's engine, capable of producing
1000 pounds (4448 Newtons) and later 3000 pounds (13,345 newtons) of
thrust. Then in 1945, employing all of 35 people, the firm won an Army
assignment: to develop a rocket engine for the X-1, an experimental plane
built to break the sound barrier. This appeared dangerous and perhaps
impossible. In 1946 Geoffrey de Havilland Jr., a British test pilot, tried
to fly faster than the speed of sound in a jet plane. His aircraft shook
so violently that it broke up in midair and killed him.
The Bell Aircraft Corporation
X-1-1 in flight. The X-1 used a rocket engine built by Reaction Motors.
Reaction Motors engine gradually emerged as a simple design using four
Wyld-type units, each with 1500 pounds of thrust. The test pilot could
light them one by one, for 25, 50, 75, or 100 percent of the full thrust
of 6000 pounds (26,689 Newtons).
Yeager was that test pilot on October 14, 1947, sitting in the cockpit of
the X-1 with instructions to “go for it.” With full rocket power, he used
his controls to maintain smooth flight as he accelerated. Then, as he
later, wrote, “We were flying supersonic! And it was as smooth as a baby's
bottom. Grandma could be sitting up here drinking lemonade. I sat there
feeling kind of numb, but elated.” Alone in the sky, he celebrated by
rolling his plane to make the landscape spin, as he glided down to his
landing. This was one of the most significant flights in the history of
aviation. There is however much evidence that several German pilots
exceeded mach1 in Nazi jets.