A History of Rocket Ships

Rocket ships went through a number of different designs in the years before the first ballistic missile, the German V-2, flew in 1942. Science fiction authors usually depicted rocket ships that were quite different from the ones that eventually launched satellites and humans into space.

In 1865, Jules Verne published "From the Earth to the Moon," a science fantasy novel about a voyage to Earth's closest neighbor. Verne wrote at a time when the only rockets were small, solid-fuel devices that couldn't launch much of anything. So, he decided that he would send men to the Moon using a cannon.

In the novel, engineers construct an enormous cannon made of cast iron six feet (1.8 meters) thick and 900 feet (274 meters) long in Tampa, Fla.  The cannon was then loaded with 400,000 pounds (180,000 kg) of pyroxyle (gun cotton) so it could fire off. The cannon sends three men in a projectile that resembles a giant bullet off to the Moon.

Verne's method was as inventive as it was impractical. Even at 900 feet, the cannon was not long enough to send the rocket ship to the moon. More seriously, the cannon would subject the rocket ship and its crew to 22,000 times the force of normal gravity, which no one could survive.

A very different type of rocket ship dominated the adventures of Buck Rogers,  a popular fictional character who first appeared in a story published in the pulp fiction magazine "Amazing Stories" in 1928. The character would later be used in a 12-part serial film as well as a TV series airing in 1950-51 and 1979-81.

Buck Rogers gets frozen in the 20th century and is revived 500 years later. In the future, there are tapered rocket ships that have fins and wings so they can land and fly horizontally like aircraft. The idea of a spacecraft being able to take off, fly into space, and land has long been a dream of rocket ship designers.

The dream was achieved during the 1960s by the X-15 rocket plane and in 2004 by the privately built SpaceShipOne. However, both of these vehicles flew on suborbital missions. They also looked nothing like the rocket ships that Buck Rogers flew in the 25th century. Rocket ships that can take off, fly into orbit, and land like conventional aircraft are still on the drawing boards.

"Rocketship X-M," a movie released in 1950, shows another rocket ship design that was popular prior to the Space Age: the rocket ship that could take off from Earth vertically and land intact on another world in the same way. In this case, the crew was heading for the Moon; however, they ended up on Mars instead.

When the Space Age began seven years later, it became clear these designs were impractical. Rockets sending satellites and humans into space and to the Moon used stages that dropped off once their fuel was expended. The Apollo program showed that it was just too expensive and complicated to carry the full weight of a rocket ship from the Earth to the Moon.

From the Earth to the Moon


Return from Rocket Ships to Rocket Power

Return Home