June 9, 2022

FTV: A Brief History of Rocketry

 Perhaps there needs to be a qualifying statement tagged to the above title:  A Brief History ‘of Modern Rocketry’.  It is common knowledge that the Chinese were the first true rocketry pioneers (circa 13th Century).  The Chinese used their newest invention, gunpowder, to launch celebratory fireworks and so called ‘fire-arrows’ used in battle.  For our purposes, we will concentrate on the later developments of rocketry in the early to mid Twentieth Century.  In that era, an amazing amount of research and experimentation in the field was taking place independently on three different continents.  While these rocketry pioneers were separated by miles and oceans, there was a connecting thread between the young men who were involved.   This common thread was science fiction.  Before something can be invented, it must first be an idea.  Most people interested in the history of rocketry miss the fact that people were thinking and writing about traveling in space (and to the Moon) before the rocket technology to do so existed.  To give you an example of the power of words to make things happen, let us examine the case of one young English lad named Archie Clarke.

     Authors Robert Stone and Alan Andres published a book in 2019 entitled Chasing The Moon – The People, the Politics, and the Promise That Launched America into the Space Age (Ballantine Books).  The book was published as a companion piece to a PBS film they produced for The American Experience, also called Chasing The Moon.  They began their story in 1932 when a then 14 year-old Archie Clarke laid hands on a book he spied in a store window, The Conquest of Space by David Lasser.  Clarke’s aunt noticed his interest in the book and gave him the ‘six and seven’ (six shillings and seven pence) to buy it.  Archie was already deeply interested in science-fiction thanks to the publications he would browse on the back tables at the Woolworth’s store.  During the hard times of the Great Depression, it is a wonder that Archie would be able to find American science-fiction books in London to begin with.  Strangely enough, they arrived by the ton in ships;  unsold copies (mostly pulp magazines) returned to the publishers in America were used as ballast in the trans-Atlantic ships traveling back to Europe.  These magazines were then sold for a few pence each to stores like Woolworth’s where youngsters like Archie Clarke could lay hands on them.

     When he purchased The Conquest of Space, Archie thought he was getting another science-fiction adventure story.  What he got instead was a volume dedicated to the fundamentals of rocket science.  It even included the details of an imaginary trip to the Moon.  This accidental introduction to astronautics was Archie’s first glimpse at a future where space travel might actually be done for real, not just in science fiction stories.  When the Apollo 11 spacecraft began the journey to land the first humans on the Moon in July of 1969, Arthur C. Clarke would be sharing a broadcast desk with CBS news correspondent Walter Cronkite.  In the 37 years after he had bought The Conquest of Space, Archie had become one of the most respected science-fiction authors in the world.  His collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on the top grossing film of 1968, 2001:  A Space Odyssey, would further cement his esteemed place in the world of science-fiction.  

     Reading the book was, for the young Archie, both “Transformative and liberating [to Clarke’s mind].”  According to Stone and Andres,  Archie’s fascination with the promise of space travel would motivate him and determine the direction of his life following that chance encounter with The Conquest of Space.  He joined a small cadre of visionaries, theorists, and space-travel advocates whose youthful dreams, curiosity, and determination led directly to humanity’s first steps on an alien world only three decades later.”  As twe opined previously, “You have to dream it before you can do it.”

     Russia’s Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, American professor Robert Goddard, and German physicist Hermann Oberth had similar dreams about rockets and space flight.  Although they were working independently of each other, they would lay the groundwork others would build on in order for humans to fly in space.  Of the three, Tsiolkovsky was more of a lone wolf whose work would not be widely appreciated until much later.  Konstantin was a rather sickly child who read Jules Vern’s From the Earth to the Moon as a teen and it stuck with him.  In 1903, he published a paper that contained what is now known as the “rocketry equation – a mathematical formula comparing a rocket’s mass ratio to its velocity.”  Though it was only one of nearly four hundred scientific papers he published (and would not be widely circulated for another twenty years), it marked the first appearance of information critical to later successes achieved in the field of rocketry.  He was more a theorist than a hands on builder of rockets, but his work is now considered the foundational layer for the entire field of modern rocketry.

     The author of The Conquest of Space, David Lasser, was a technical writer hired to be the editor of a new publication called Science Wonder Stories.  Lasser went into combat in WWI at age sixteen and ended up being hospitalized for months after being injured in a poison-gas attack.  He used his disabled-veterin’s scholarship to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  His new boss at Science Wonder Stories, Hugo Gernsback, had coined the term ‘scientifiction’ for the stories he was publishing in his Amazing Stories magazine.  Adding the MIT trained Lasser improved the literary quality of Gernsback’s magazines almost immediately.  Lasser followed the press accounts about the work of Robert Goddard and Hermann Oberth which inspired David and a group of New York science-fiction writers and editors to form the American Interplanetary Society in 1930.  Through his work as the president of the AIS, Lasser concluded curious readers would benefit from a book that explained the fundamentals of rocket science.  The Conquest of Space was the result and a copy would eventually land in a London bookstore where young Archie Clarke would purchase it.

     Lasser’s aim was not just to sell more books.  He felt that, “Space travel will result in a new planetary outlook, the realization that ‘the whole Earth is our home’.  With his natural talent for organizing people, Lasser decided that in the depths of the Great Depression, his interest in space would have to take a back seat to finding ways to reduce unemployment.  Gernsback, his boss, tired of his political activism, finally telling him, “If you like working with the unemployed so much, I suggest you go and join them.”  Lasser went on to run the Workers Alliance of America, a group representing those employed by the Works Progress Administration.  He eventually resigned his post with the WAA when factions of the group began pushing it toward Communist ideals that he did not share.

     President Roosevelt later asked him to form an organization to train the unemployed so they could transition back into the workplace.  His nomination was torpedoed in the House of Representatives when a grandstanding representative from Texas described Lasser as, “A crackpot with mental delusions that we can travel to the Moon!”  Lasser was dumbfounded that he could be smeared in such a way by his own government.  He was anti-communist but he did have some socialist leanings and these also showed up on the negative side of Lasser’s resume.  He was effectively blacklisted from any government jobs as a result of the ‘Red Scare’ thus making one of America’s first space advocates a sad historical footnote.  The rocketry jobs that Lasser coveted would soon be given to German engineers who were imported to the United States at the end of World War II.  

     What Lasser did manage to do, however, was light the fire of space in young Archie Clarke’s mind.  In his own way, Gernsback also influenced Archie’s future when he introduced the Science Fiction League Reader’s Club in his publications.  When a competing magazine, Astounding Stories, began publishing letters from its readers (including the correspondent’s addresses), Archie was able to make contact with other members of the newly joined British Interplanetary Society in Liverpool.  He joined and was quickly elevated to a leadership post and when they moved the homebase from Liverpool to London, their address would become the small flat Clarke would share with another science-fiction writer, William Temple.  

     When one of their demonstration rocket launches exploded, injuring three bystanders, the BIS had its wings clipped.  The government declared all experimental rocket launches in England could be prosecuted under an explosives act dating from the last century.  Undaunted, the BIS turned their attention to a theoretical exercise and planned a mission to the Moon.  They also spent significant time deflecting very public criticism from the scientific community.  The criticism led to the formation of the first of what are known as ‘Clarke’s Three Laws:  “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right.  When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”  

     Serving in the RAF during the war, Corporal Clarke was charged with teaching night classes about the workings of radar at a training center in Wiltshire, not far from Stonehenge.  His lectures often drifted into aeronautics earning him the nickname ‘Spaceship Clarke’, he spent his spare time writing technical pieces for publications like Electronic Engineering.  His science-fiction career was still some years ahead of him.  In late 1944, members of the BIS were gathered in a restaurant in London discussing Germany’s V-1 rocket bomb when they were rudely introduced to it’s successor, the V-2 when one landed nearby.  Society officer Val Cleaver had just been telling the group that he had met with Willy Ley in New York.  When he suggested to Ley that rumors of the V-2 were ‘just Nazi propaganda,’ Ley had cautioned, “If I were you, I wouldn’t be quite so sure.”  The group were having quite a chuckle over Ley’s caution to Cleaver until the building shook and swayed from the nearby impact.

     Willy Ley had been a disciple of Hermann Oberth, the German rocket scientist who had published a book entitled The Rocket into Interplanetary Space in 1923.  Four years later, Oberth founded the Society for Space Travel, a group which Ley was also a founding member.  Filmmaker Fritz Lang approached Oberth soon after to give technical assistance for his science-fiction film Woman in the Moon.  The movie was not a hit, but it did introduce the ‘countdown to launch’ still in use today.  Lang used it as a dramatic device to add suspense in the final moments before blastoff.  Robert Goddard was sure Oberth was stealing his ideas, but there is no evidence of such a claim.  It is true that Goddard became more and more reclusive in his work when he moved his testing to Roswell, New Mexico.  It was not a bad idea because it was also no secret the Germans and the Russians were no doubt ‘interested in’ Goddard’s activities.

     Willy Ley’s work with the Society for Space Travel put him in contact with researchers all over the world up to 1933.  When the Nazis began prohibiting any exchange of technical and scientific information dealing with rocketry with foreign countries, Ley became troubled by the direction Germany was headed.  Those who ignored the bans were purged from academic institutions, many for racial reasons.  Books and publications were removed from libraries and many were burned in college courtyards during highly public events.  The more these radical policies were accepted as part of everyday life, the more alarmed Ley became.   Politics, a cult of loyalty, blind patriotism, militarism, anti-globalism, superstition, and pseudoscience spurred by the Nazis regime began driving noted Germans like Fritz Lang and Albert Einstein from the country.  

     Ley felt he had no other choice and went on a pretend vacation to England knowing he would not be going back anytime soon.  Ley had told Cleaver that the V-2 was not a very effective weapon.  When he saw a cutaway diagram of a V-2 in a copy of Life magazine, he knew he was right.  The engineering was impressive, but the small payload it could deliver made it a, “spectacular weapon, but a military flop…an ineffective boondoggle,” according to the Life article.

When the German high command diverted funds from development of jet powered fighter craft to the V-2 program, the left the Allied bombers clear skies and hastened Germany’s defeat.

     With the support of both the BIS and the American Rocket Society, Ley made his way to the United States.  To his amazement, he found much resistance to the idea that rockets would be able to operate in the vacuum of space.  Out of necessity, he supported himself writing science-fiction while searching for an opportunity to employ his skills in the field of rocketry.  By the time he arrived on these shores, Goddard had already moved all of his research facilities to Roswell.  Goddard’s move was funded by a grant from philanthropist Harry Guggenheim after Charles Lindbergh and Edwin Aldrin put in a good word for him.  Aldrin was a former student of Goddard’s at Clark University and the father of the future second man on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin. 

     When Ley published his own article about the V-2 in an American magazine, he wrongly assumed the rocket had been the work of Hermann Oberth.  He also was mistaken when he pronounced that those involved in the German rocket program probably did not survive the war.  Ley and most Americans were not aware that a large contingent of engineers from the German Peenemunde rocket facility had orchestrated their own surrender after calculating their best chances for survival lay with the Allied forces.  Led by the charismatic Werner von Braun, they were secreted to America during Operation Paperclip (so named because the dosiers about them were paperclipped together).  Their counterparts who were captured by the Russian forces were not trusted enough to work on any classified projects and after a period of captivity, many were allowed to return to post-war Germany.

     Von Braun’s team eventually settled in Huntsville, Alabama where they were instrumental in designing the rockets that would take Americans into space.  There was an awkward period where the whole question of ‘who will be in charge of the United State’s future in rocketry’ with the Army, Navy, and Air Force all trying to take the lead.  When the inter-branch rivalries began disrupting the armed forces and burning through cash as fast as a rocket consumes fuel, President Eisenhower stepped in and created a civilian agency to run space operations.  The National Aeronautic and Space Administration would put America’s space fortunes in the hands of von Braun and company.  The rest, as they say, is history.


Top Piece Video:  As long as Archie Clarke was British, we will let Def Leppard represent with Rocket.