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Stepping Stones to the Stars: The Story of Manned Spaceflight

Stepping Stones to the Stars: The Story of Manned Spaceflight

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by Terry C. Treadwell

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Stepping Stones to the Stars is the story of manned spaceflight from its inception to the era of the Space Shuttle. It begins with a short history of the evolution of the rocket, before describing the first manned rocket flights by both the Americans and the Russians. There is also the little-known story of what is thought to be the earliest manned rocket flight, said


Stepping Stones to the Stars is the story of manned spaceflight from its inception to the era of the Space Shuttle. It begins with a short history of the evolution of the rocket, before describing the first manned rocket flights by both the Americans and the Russians. There is also the little-known story of what is thought to be the earliest manned rocket flight, said to have taken place in 1933 on the island of Rgen in the Baltic under the control of the German War Ministry. The story continues through Yuri Gagarin becoming the first person in space and Neil Armstrong's giant leap for mankind; to the first space stations, Skylab, Salyut and Mir.With the development of the Shuttle, the USA moved ahead in the space race, but the Americans and Russians soon realised that it was easier to co-operate than compete, and the two nations began to work together for the first time. Terry C. Treadwell's book is a non-technical history of human spaceflight, that tells the exciting and dramatic story of how we took our early steps towards the stars.

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Stepping Stones to the Stars

The Story of Manned Spaceflight

By Terry C. Treadwell

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Terry C. Treadwell,
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9678-8



When man first gazed at the stars and dreamed of going to other worlds it all looked more than a million miles away, as indeed it was. The foundations of astronomy were laid by Greek scientists around 624 BC when the teachings of Thales of Miletus were recorded. They realised that the Earth was just a tiny speck in the universe and man was just an infinitesimal part of the whole thing. Then as the years progressed and man took to the air, first in balloons, then gliders and later engine-powered flying machines, the dreams started to take on a different light, becoming reality.

The first recorded use of a device that was used in propulsion was by way of a demonstration in ad 160, by a Greek mathematician and scientist called Hero of Alexandria. The device, called an Aeolipile (Greek for 'ball' and after Aeolus, the god of winds), consisted of a rotating hollow sphere with two right-angle pipes located 180° apart, which were mounted between two supports that carried steam from a closed container suspended over a fire. The jet of steam escaping through the pipes caused the sphere to revolve and is the first known demonstration of a crude jet propulsion system.

Then in AD 1232, during the Mongol siege of the city Kai-fung-fu, the first recorded use of a rocket was identified in the Chinese chronicle T-hung-liankang-mu. The 'Arrow of Flying Fire', as it was called, was most likely to have been a hollow arrow that was stuffed full of some kind of incendiary material, or an arrow that had been attached to a similar substance. According to one report the rockets were very large and, when lit, made a noise that resembled thunder and could be heard over a distance of 5 leagues (15 miles). When falling to Earth, it was said to have caused devastation for 2,000ft in all directions. Reports also stated that the rockets carried iron shrapnel and incendiary material.

The first recorded use of rockets in warfare in Europe was in ad 1241, when the Mongols used them with devastating effect against the Magyar forces in the Battle of Sejo, which resulted in the capture of Buda – now known as Budapest.

In Europe around 1249, an English monk by the name of Roger Bacon (1214–94) is credited with developing the first rockets in the Western world. Bacon was a philosopher and scientist and foresaw the use of gunpowder, together with mechanical cars, boats and planes. In his book De Mirabili Potestate Artis et Naturae (The Miracles of Art, Nature and Magic) he gave the formula for gunpowder as follows:

Take 7 parts of saltpeter, 5 of young hazel twigs and 5 of sulphur, and thou wilt call up thunder and destruction, if thou know the art.

The Mongols used the rocket again in 1258 when they launched them against Arabs during their capture of Baghdad (750 years later rockets were once again used by the British and Americans in the battle for Baghdad). Ten years later, in 1268, the Arabs, quick to learn, used the rocket against Louis IX during the Seventh Crusade.

By the year 1300 a number of European armies had acquired rockets and formed rocket corps. In 1429 the French used rockets at the Siege of Orleans during the Hundred Years War.

In Russia, however, virtually no records exist of the use of rockets until the 1600s, when accounts accumulated by the Russian gunsmith Onisin Mikhailov were turned into a compiled document entitled Code of Military, Artillery and Other Matters Pertaining to the Science of Warfare. In this document detailed descriptions of rockets referred to as 'Cannon balls which run and burn' are contained, although now even the existence of this early document has been disputed, mainly because the information which compiled the main manuscript was not entirely Mikhailov's. It was, in fact, a collection of some 663 snatches of information and articles from a variety of foreign military books and sources. But that doesn't really matter; the fact that Mikhailov collected and published these articles is of more importance than the debate to try and decide whether or not he was justified in calling them his own.

In 1650 the Dutch were using military rockets during their wars, followed closely by the Germans, who in 1730, under the control of Colonel Friedrich von Geissler, started manufacturing rockets that weighed 120lb.

Peter the Great of Russia devoted a lifetime to creating his country's military might. In 1680 he founded the first Rocket Works in Moscow. There they made illuminating and signal rockets for the army, all of which were under the guidance of English, Scottish, Dutch, German and French officers, who instructed them in their use. Then in the early 1700s Peter the Great made St Petersburg the new capital of Russia and moved the entire Rocket Works to this new location, expanding it at the same time.

The use of the rocket continued to be developed by various nations, but it really made its mark in warfare during the Indian campaign at the end of the eighteenth century. In 1789 an Indian force of 1,200 men under the ruler Hyder Ali, Prince of Mysore, devastated the British army at the Battle of Panipat using iron rockets. They inflicted horrendous casualties, despite the fact that the British far outnumbered and outgunned them. The rocket was 8in long, 1.5in in diameter and was fixed to a stabilising 8ft rod.

Three years later, in 1792, the son of Hyder Ali, Tippu Sultan, enlarged the rocket corps created by his father to 5,000 men and supplied them with larger rockets. During the Third Mysore War he inflicted several defeats upon the British, before being killed at the Battle of Seringapatam.

Because of the devastation caused by these rockets, Sir William Congreve carried out secret experiments at the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich, England, in developing substantially more powerful ones. After two successive campaigns, (Boulogne in 1806 and Copenhagen in 1813) where the Danes were subjected to a barrage of some 25,000 rockets, the British army formed the Field Rocket Brigade. Also about that time, Lieutenant-General Henry Shrapnel invented the explosive shell, which caused serious casualties to Napoleon's cavalry and close-quarter infantry. During the battles against Napoleon, the rocket brigade was involved in every campaign, distinguishing itself particularly well in the final battle at Waterloo when Napoleon was trounced.

The development of the Russian rockets continued, and in the late 1700s an officer in the tsar's artillery, Alexander D. Zasyadko, who had been studying Congreve's progress and exploits, together with the files from the Rocket Works, decided to design some rockets of his own. So successful were the tests of his rockets that in 1817 Zasyadko was assigned to western Russia to train the tsar's soldiers in the use of military rockets. The following year a school of artillery was opened and Zasyadko was appointed its head with a promotion to major general. In the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–29, solid fuel rockets were used during the sieges of Varna, Braila, Silistra and Schmia, and on the Black Sea Russian ships used the rockets with great success. During the Crimean War thousands of rockets were employed, with increasing reliability.

During the American War of Independence, the British army created a rocket brigade after the Battle of Bladensburg on 24 August 1814 when the British 85th Light Infantry used rockets against an American rifle battalion. According to a report by Lieutenant George Gleig of the 85th:

Never did men with arms in their hands make better use of their legs.

The development of the rocket in warfare moved on in the 1840s, when an Englishman, William Hale, developed a rocket with three curved metal vanes in the exhaust creating the first stabilised rocket. The United States employed it to great effect in the Mexican War of 1846–48. A battalion of rocketeers, consisting of about 150 men armed with around fifty rockets, and under the command of 1st Lieutenant George H. Talcott, accompanied Major-General Winfield Scott's army. During the battle for Veracruz on 24 March 1847, they were used for the first time and with great success. With Veracruz taken, the rocketeers were moved to the battle for Telegraph Hill, where Captain Robert E. Lee was in command. Lee was later to command the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War. Mexico City surrendered some months later when the fortress of Chapultepec fell after heavy bombardment from rockets and a massive assault.

On the other side of the world in Russia, the death of Zasyadko in 1837 caused his position at the school to be taken by another artillery officer by the name of Konstantin I. Konstantinov. The 30-year-old officer was the first to work on the practical problems of rocket production and became the founder of experimental rocket dynamics. Up to this time, the production of rockets was left to the individual skill of the makers and, as can be imagined, there were a number of accidents. Among Konstantinov's achievements were the development of large-scale rocket production and a rocket that could fire lifelines to wrecked vessels.

A number of other Russian inventors produced ideas over the next few years, and then came the innovations of Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky, considered by the Russians to be the 'Father of Soviet Spaceflight'. Born in 1857, the son of a forestry expert and inventor, Tsiolkovsky enjoyed a normal childhood. Then, when he was 8 years old, he contracted scarlet fever and became almost totally deaf. Unable to go to school, he taught himself from his father's books, mastering first mathematics then physics. After three years at a technical school he returned to his hometown to become a teacher. It was whilst he was a teacher that he started to carry out serious research in the areas of an airplane, an all-metal dirigible and a rocket for interplanetary travel.

This was endorsed in 1881, when Nikolai I. Kibalchich proposed the idea of heavier-than-air machines being propelled by rocket propulsion and carrying human passengers. Unfortunately Kibalchich also used his expertise in another direction. He was the bomb expert for a revolutionary organisation, and a bomb thrown at the Tsar Alexander II, which mortally wounded him, had been prepared by Kibalchich. He was arrested by the tsar's secret police and executed soon afterwards.

Tsiolkovsky was a man of vision and was years ahead of his time in his concepts and designs. Between 1885 and 1895, Tsiolkovsky carried out a great deal of work on the design of metal airships although at first he was considered to be an eccentric living in a world of fantasy. In 1894 he proposed a design for an all-metal airplane in an article entitled, 'The Airplane, a Birdlike Flying Machine'. Seven years later he put forward a paper 'Investigating Space with Reaction Devices'. His work was slowly becoming accepted and he was no longer regarded as an eccentric, but it wasn't until 1918 that he was properly recognised for what he had achieved. In 1919 he was elected to the Russian Socialist Academy and granted a personal pension by the Commission for Improvement of the Lot of Scientists (TsEKUBU). This later became the Academy of Sciences USSR. Tsiolkovsky died in 1935 a national hero, bequeathing all his papers and models to the Soviet government. In 1952, the Aero Club of France had a large gold medal struck in his honour and in 1954 the Soviet government established the Tsiolkovsky Gold Medal, which has been awarded every three years since its installation to the most outstanding contributor to spaceflight.

On the other side of the Atlantic, a Massachusetts physics teacher by the name of Robert Hutchings Goddard had never heard of Tsiolkovsky when he started taking an interest in rocketry at the beginning of the 1900s. In 1920, Goddard submitted a sixty-nine-page paper called 'A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes' to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. The Smithsonian, recognising that there was a great deal of merit in the paper, gave Goddard a $5,000 grant towards further research. Unfortunately the story was leaked to the newspapers and some of the more sensation seeking tabloids of the time, always on the lookout to ridicule anything that they didn't understand, had a field day. This caused Goddard to continue his research in complete seclusion.

On 16 March 1926, Goddard launched the first liquid-fuelled rocket in history, although it only travelled to a height of 184ft. Even then the newspapers mocked him by bannering the headline 'Moon Rocket Misses Target by 238, 799.5 miles'. Later Goddard was supported by Charles Lindbergh and financed by the Guggenheim Foundation. By the end of 1935, Goddard's rockets had gyroscopic control, and were followed two years later by a rocket that reached a height of 1.9 miles.

Then, in 1933, an article appeared in a London newspaper, said to have been written by the special correspondent of a newspaper called the Sunday Referee, about a 'Sensational secret demonstration that was carried out on the island of Rugen in the Baltic Sea'. It was said that a German scientist by the name of Dr Bruno Fischer placed his brother Otto into a 24ft steel rocket and shot him 6 miles into the air. The whole experiment was conducted under the control of the German War Ministry (Reichswehr) and under great secrecy. Otto Fischer, it was said, crawled through a small steel door in the side of the rocket and strapped himself in. Minutes later there was a blinding flash followed almost immediately by a deafening roar and the steel rocket was blasted into the sky. Some minutes after that it came back into sight, floating down on a large parachute and came to rest on the sands. The occupant (one hesitates to call him a pilot) crawled out to the relief of the assembled government witnesses. The flight had lasted just 10 minutes and 26 seconds and had reached a height of 6 miles – the first recorded manned rocket flight is said to have taken place. There has always been some dispute over whether the story was a hoax or a propaganda exercise by the German authorities, or in fact actually did happen.

Germany's interest in rockets and space travel had started seriously in 1923, when a German-speaking Transylvanian schoolteacher by the name of Hermann Oberth had his book, Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen ('The Rocket into Interplanetary Space'), published. The book attracted a number of similar minded enthusiasts, and they arranged to meet in the backroom of a restaurant in Breslau called the Golden Sceptre. From this meeting came the society Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR – Society for Space Travel), whose aims were to promote the theory of space travel and carry out serious experiments in rocket propulsion. Within two years the society's membership had grown from a mere handful of enthusiasts to 870 dedicated members. Among these was a young 19-year old by the name of Werner von Braun.

Across the Atlantic, Goddard had continued his experiments in New Mexico, well away from the prying eyes of the press. His work was slow and ponderous at this stage, mainly because of the lack of interest in rocketry within the United States and, indeed, in the United Kingdom. This was highlighted in an article in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society in 1937, which said:

Astronautical activities seem to have ceased around the world lately, nothing having been done in the USA, Germany or Austria.

The outbreak of the Second World War seemed to put the experiments with rockets on hold, but four years after the article had appeared in the British Interplanetary Journal, a speech by Adolf Hitler in Danzig on 19 September 1941 included the following statement:

If the war continues four or five years, Germany will have access to a weapon now under development that will not be available to other nations.

The was a worrying factor for the Allies, because up to then it had been thought that Germany, one of the leaders in the development of rockets, had shelved any interest in the subject. They were obviously mistaken as Britain found out to her cost. Hitler had kept all development secret, even though he had publicly denied any interest in the use of rockets. It is accepted that at the time there was a distinct disinterest among the military hierarchy, who regarded it as a complete waste of money and resources. Among these was Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.

Just prior to the Second World War, the Luftwaffe had made progress in leaps and bounds in the field of rocket science, developing first the A-1 and then the A-2, followed by the A-3 and A-4. It has always been thought that the development of these early rockets was primarily for use on a war footing, but this is not true. Financial backing for these experiments disappeared after the failure of the A-4, and Captain (later General) Walter Dornberger, who was in charge at the time, was desperate. Then, during the Second World War, funding suddenly became available when it was realised that the rockets had a military purpose. The research acquired from these early rocket trials resulted in the development of the V-1 (Vergeltungswaffe 2 -Retaliation Weapon 2), then the V-2, formerly the A-4. The V-1 was much like a rocket-powered aircraft, and in fact a number of test flights were carried out with pilots aboard. Among these pilots was Hannah Reitsch, Germany's premier female test pilot and one of the very few to survive a test flight in the V-1. The V-2, on the other hand, looked like a rocket should and was the forerunner of the American space programme.

The most significant breakthrough for the Germans came on 3 October 1942, when Major-General Walter Dornberger, commanding officer of the Peenemünde Army Experimental Station, gave the order to launch another V-2 rocket. The two previous attempts had resulted in disaster as neither had lifted off the pad before exploding. The countdown started as film cameras whirled. The tall slender body of the rocket, lacquered black and white, gleamed in the sunlight as it slowly lifted off the pad followed by an immense roar as the 650,000hp rocket motor burst into life. As the rocket sped faster and faster into the clear blue sky, on the ground, scientists and engineers watched with growing confidence. The countdown came relentlessly over the loudspeakers '291-292-293'. The rocket was now over 6 miles high and travelling at over 3,000mph. It was now estimated that it would soon re-enter the Earth's atmosphere and the speed of the rocket would decrease to 2,000mph. Then came the announcement over the loudspeakers: 'Impact'. The rocket had come to Earth and had landed with an impact of 1.400 million ft-lb.


Excerpted from Stepping Stones to the Stars by Terry C. Treadwell. Copyright © 2013 Terry C. Treadwell,. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Terry C. Treadwell is the author of German Fighter Aces of World War Oneand Ironworks: The Story of Grumman and Its Aircraft, as well as articles in magazines such as Foundation, the magazine of the Smithsonian Institution. Henry Hartsfield is a retired United States Air Force officer and a former NASA astronaut who logged more than 480 hours in space.

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